By Zia Ur Rehman

August 23, 2021

Islamabad’s recent outreach to Baloch separatist groups is part of its policy to subdue the national security threat emanating from another side–the Afghan border.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is likely to cause a significant shift in geopolitics and security situation in Pakistan, where the law enforcement have been confronting two internal security threats — the Pakistani Taliban in its tribal areas and Baloch separatist groups in its Balochistan province. 

Security experts and Baloch political activists believe that the Taliban, as the new ruling group in Afghanistan, will clamp down on the Baloch insurgent groups by shutting down sanctuaries in Kandahar province, forcing them to find new hideouts, most likely, in Iran’s neighbouring province of Sistan and Baluchistan. 

Islamabad and Beijing had already pressured Taliban leaders to not allow the Pakistani militant outfits to use Afghanistan’s soil against them.  

Resource-rich Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by area but the least populated, has been under the grip of a bloody insurgency for more than 15 years. Islamabad has had a tense relationship with Baloch ethnic groups which complain that locals have not benefited from the resources of the province.

Various separatists groups, mainly Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Baloch Liberation Front, primarily, seek independence from Pakistan and target Pakistani’s security forces.  

After the arrival of Chinese investments, several Baloch insurgent groups last year formed an alliance called Baloch Raji Ajohi Sangar (BRAS), mainly to target Chinese interests, warning Beijing that it must abandon plans to “occupy the Baloch territory and its natural resources.” 

The BLA has also formed a special unit ‘Majed Brigade’ mainly for carrying out suicide attacks on China’s development projects. 

On August 20, a suicide bombing targeting a vehicle carrying Chinese nationals in Gwadar, a site of a deepwater port development project that is part of Beijing’s highly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  Police claimed that two children were killed and three others wounded, while Chinese nationals sustained minor injuries. The BLA claimed that a militant associated with the Majeed Brigade militant carried out the ‘life sacrificing’ attack on Chinese nationals.

Condemning the attack and demanding Islamabad to “conduct a thorough investigation on the attack, and severely punish the perpetrators,” the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan said that the security situation in the country has become severe of late as “there have been several terrorist attacks in succession, resulting in the casualties of several Chinese citizens.”

Beijing is worried about the future of its investments, especially the ones directly linked to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a BRI’s flagship project of over $60 billion. Therefore, China is exerting pressure on Islamabad to either launch a strict crackdown or negotiate with Baloch insurgent groups to improve the security scenario in the province.

Baloch insurgents’ killings in Afghanistan

Since Pakistan intensified its military operation against the Baloch separatist groups in 2006, a large number of Baloch leaders and militants, some with their families, have been moved to Afghanistan’s neighbouring provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand. 

In recent years, however, they have increasingly been under attack in their sanctuaries in Afghanistan, particularly after the killing of BLA’s key commander Aslam Baloch alias Achu in a suicide bombing in an upscale area of Aino Mina in Kandahar in December 2018, 

Ever since, a significant number of Baloch militants living in Afghanistan, mainly in Kandahar, have been killed in mysterious shootouts, according to sources close to Baloch militants and tribal elders in Kandahar.  

BLA’s Majeed Brigade masterminded the attacks in 2018 on the Chinese consulate in Karachi and a bus carrying Chinese Engineers in Balochistan’s Dalbandin area. 

When four BLA militants in June last year carried out an attack on the building of the Pakistan Stock Exchange, a bourse whose 40 percent of shares are with three Chinese firms, in Karachi, Pakistani law enforcement officers claimed that the attackers were in contact on phone with their handlers who were based in Kandahar. On the next day of the attack, unknown militants had blown up a house allegedly used as a BLA’s local headquarters in Kandahar.

Most recently, Abdul Nabi Bangalzai, a key BLA commander, was killed in Kandahar in late May this year. 

Interestingly, no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks on Baloch militants in Afghanistan. 

“Baloch insurgents believe that Pakistan’s security forces are behind the attacks on them and their families,” said a Gwadar-based Baloch political activist, who requested anonymity because of security reasons. “It is easy for anyone to pay drug dealers, a Taliban commander, a security officer, or a tribal warlord to kill someone in Kandahar.”

Most recently, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in a press conference on August 13 claimed to have evidence of India aiding Pakistani militants’ “terrorist” activities from the Afghan soil, targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan.  However, New Delhi and Kabul dismiss Pakistan’s allegations, calling them “fabricated.”

New hideouts in Iran? 

Analysts believe that after the Taliban took control over Afghanistan, Baloch insurgents will likely lose their sanctuaries in Afghanistan and move to Iran’s neighbouring provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan where there is a sizable Sunni Baloch population. 

Abdul Basit, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, said that after losing their sanctuaries, there will be a rise in attacks in Balochistan in the short term. “But in the long term, there will be a decrease in the attacks and it will be beneficial for Islamabad.”

Basit believes that Afghan separatists are likely to shift their sanctuaries from Afghanistan to Iran’s Baloch-populated province.

In Sistan and Baluchistan, several Sunni religious groups, such as Jaish al-Adl, have been battling Tehran, accusing it of discrimination against Sunni Muslims and the ethnic Baloch population.

Talks with ‘angry’ Balochs

Since 2004, a fifth insurgency has been started in Balochistan and it was intensified after the killing of Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti in a military operation in 2006. Thousands of civilians, insurgents, and soldiers have been killed in separatist attacks and military sweeps across the province. Violence has also displaced thousands while families continue to protest over the disappearance of hundreds of their relatives.

Last month, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government will talk with ‘angry’ Baloch leaders for the solution of Balochistan province’s problems and bringing peace to the region. 

“If funds meant for Balochistan’s development had been put to good use rather than channelled away by corrupt politicians, Pakistan would not have had to worry about the insurgency in the province,” Khan told a gathering of tribal elders in Gwadar. 

Six years after Pakistan’s last failed attempt to conduct negotiations with ‘angry’ Baloch leaders, the country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced a fresh move with hopes to woo Baloch insurgents to negotiations in the changing situation of the region after the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan.  

In 2015, the then Nawaz Sharif’s government in Islamabad approved a reconciliation policy with Baloch groups with the backing of the military, announcing a general amnesty for those militants who surrendered under the plan. That government also sent Balochistan province’s Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch to convince exiled Baloch leaders to come to the negotiating table but the outreach did not succeed. 

However, after the recent announcement of the negotiation, a debate revolved around how serious Islamabad is in it and whether they have the support of the country’s powerful military leadership. The prospect of ‘angry’ Baloch leaders having a dialogue with the government was also part of the debate.

After a few days of the announcement, Khan appointed Nawabzada Shahzain Bugti, a parliament member and a grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti, and, as his Special Assistant, a designation equal to a minister, on ‘reconciliation and harmony in Balochistan.’ 

But political analysts studying insurgency in Balochistan believe that the forcible annexation of princely Kalat state to Pakistan after the formation of Pakistan had sowed the seeds of armed insurgency against the state.

“There have been successful and unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with separatist leaders in Balochistan to end the insurgency. That is why the process of negotiations does not matter for Balochistan,” said Anwar Sajidi, the editor of a widely circulated Urdu newspaper in Balochistan.

“If the government is serious in talks, it should hold talks in a third country, such as the US-Taliban talks that occurred in Qatar,” he said. “It seems that a strict operation will be launched against the Baloch separatists under the pretext of the Baloch militants’ lack of interest in the talks.”

Before launching full-fledged Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant outfits in the country’s tribal areas, the then Sharif government in 2013 had formed a negotiating committee, he said. 

Some Baloch separatists groups have reacted to Islamabad’s desires for talks.

Sher Mohammad Bugti, the spokesperson of a Baloch separatist group, said that appointment of Shahzain Bugti for the negotiation shows “the inexperience and lack of seriousness of government institutions.” “Why would anyone talk to a person who does not even have a basic understanding of the real problems of Balochistan? It’s a joke.”  

Reducing one of the two internal threats

Experts believe that Pakistan wanted to manage the threat of Baloch insurgency by initiating a dialogue because the state is concerned about the uncertainty emanating from the other side — the border it shares with Afghanistan. 

“The Pakistani government wants to focus on addressing the internal threat of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on the border with Afghanistan by negotiating with Baloch separatists,” Basit said.  

Until around early 2020, the TTP was crumbling due to several factors: the deaths of successive leaders in US drone attacks, Pakistan’s sustained crackdown that pushed them to relocate to Afghanistan, and an internal rift. 

However, the TTP has now reinvigorated with the recent reunification of its disgruntled groups, and most importantly, they feel encouraged by the Afghan Taliban’s recent territorial gains.

The TTP has stepped up its attacks on law enforcement agencies in the country’s bordering districts — the region that was terror outfit’s former stronghold until the Pakistani military launched a large-scale operation in 2014.

Only in July, the TTP claimed 26 terror attacks, mainly on law enforcement personnel, the group said in a statement, though some of the attacks are not verified independently because of not having access to those areas.