Security in Balochistan Worsens, Putting Political Gains At Risk

Publication Date: 25 February 2014
Edition: Volume I, Issue 4


Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province by geographical size and smallest by population density, making up 44 percent of the country’s landmass and five percent of its population. Ethnic Baloch insurgents are waging their fifth insurgency against the state of Pakistan, with some Baloch nationalists calling for greater provincial autonomy and control over natural resources and development, and more extreme forces pushing for full independence.

The most recent bout of insurgent fighting in Balochistan began in 2004, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Pakistani security personnel, Baloch activists and fighters, and non-Baloch civilians (who have been killed as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign by the insurgents). Baloch separatists, numbering in the dozens or hundreds, have also been abducted by Pakistani security forces, with many killed extrajudicially. The Baloch insurgency has dwindled in strength in recent years, but remains a persistent low-level threat.

Balochistan is not only home to Pakistan’s largest supplies of natural gas, copper, and gold, but the province — which lies along the Arabian Sea and borders Afghanistan and Iran —  is also at the heart of Pakistan’s plans to position itself as a trade corridor connecting China, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf. China now operates and will be expanding the deep sea port in the Baloch city of Gwadar. As part of its $20 billion China-Pakistan trade corridor plan, Beijing could connect the Arabian Sea port, which lies along Persian Gulf shipping lines, to its landlocked, restive Xinjiang province via rail and road networks. Last year, Islamabad signed an agreement to import natural gas from Tehran via Balochistan, but international sanctions on Iran have prohibited Pakistan from constructing its side of the pipeline.

Today, it is conflict, not commerce, that dominates the Balochistan province. In addition to its own insurgency, Balochistan is home to hundreds of thousands of Hazara Shias — many of whom fled Afghanistan in the past two decades — who are being targeted by anti-Shia militants. From Pakistani Balochistan, Iranian Baloch insurgents also target Iranian government officials and security personnel. And since 9/11, the Taliban insurgent group has used to the city of Quetta as its capital in exile and place of rest during its war against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan

  • The Balochistan region is experiencing a comprehensive breakdown in security as ethnic Baloch separatists, anti-Shia terrorists, and Iranian Baloch militants have increased their attacks this year.
  • The uptick in violence in the province marks a reversal of gains that had been produced by greater interagency security coordination and the election of a moderate Baloch nationalist as chief minister.
  • Baloch separatists are likely to expand their attacks on Chinese and other foreign workers in Balochistan.
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FIGURE 1: Baloch Insurgent Gas Pipeline Attacks: 2005-Present

Balochistan is experiencing a province-wide breakdown in security this year. Ethnic Baloch separatists have escalated the frequency and scope of their attacks on gas pipelines, passenger trains, and pro-government individuals. Sunni sectarian militants have resumed targeting Shia religious pilgrims. And Pakistan-based Iranian-militants have stepped up attacks in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan. 

  • Baloch insurgent attacks on gas pipelines this year are on pace to nearly match the total of number of attacks in 2011, in which the greatest number of pipeline attacks took place (see Figure 1 on right). The Baloch Republican Army last week engaged in a rare attack on a pipeline in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province. Most pipeline attacks occur in the Dera Bugti region, which is home to Pakistan’s largest natural gas field and has been the locus of the anti-state insurgency.
  • Though Pakistani gas companies are able to repair most gas pipelines within 24-48 hours, the impact of these attacks is amplified by the winter cold and preexisting gas shortages that has resulted in periodic suspensions of natural gas supplies to the Punjab province.
  • The Baloch Republican Army also engaged in three separate attacks on passenger railways bound for the Punjab province, killing a number of civilians. While Baloch separatists have not shied away from targeting civilians, the persistent attacks on railways mark an escalation in the insurgency’s lethality.
  • On 21 January 2014, the anti-Shia terrorist group Lashkar-e Jhangvi attacked a bus carrying Pakistani Shia pilgrims returning from Iran, killing twenty-four people. Previously, the last successful mass casualty sectarian attack in the province was in June 2013.
  • In early February, the Iranian Baloch terrorist group Jaish al-Adl kidnapped five Iranian border guards in the Sistan-Baluchestan province and are believed to have taken them to their refuge inside Pakistan. Iran subsequently threatened cross-border raids into Pakistan

The upsurge in violence marks a reversal of the gains experienced in the last quarter of 2013 that were produced by greater coordination between civilian and military security agencies. 

  • An unnamed senior security official in Quetta informed Pakistan Risk that Lt. Gen. Nasir Janjua, head of Pakistan’s Southern Command, enhanced intelligence sharing and coordination between the civilian, military, and paramilitary security services upon taking command in August 2013. The cooperation improved the ability of the security forces to thwart mass casualty attacks against civilian populaces.
  • However, Pakistani security forces and Baloch separatists continue to engage in unlawful killings with impunity. Senior officials from the Balochistan Frontier Corps, which is leading the counterinsurgency battle, have defied court orders for months, failing to present themselves before the Supreme Court. Pakistani security forces abduct and kill Baloch separatists.
  • This month, the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) killed a pro-government militia leader and seven members of his family, including women and children, in the Dera Bugti district. The BRA also bombed a government-organized festival in the Sibi area.

FIGURE 2: Heat intensity map indicating locations of gas pipeline attacks by Baloch militants from 2005-present.

Pakistan has failed to translate the election of moderate Baloch nationalist Abdul Malik Baloch into meaningful political progress. A political vacuum exists in Balochistan.

  • Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch has been described by his own party chief, Mir Hasil Bizenjo, as powerless.
  • Major insurgent leaders with feudal backgrounds, such as Bramdagh Bugti and Hyrbryair Marri, are based in Europe, cut off from direct contact with insurgents and have invested their time in cultivating the support of U.S. congressmen, such as Louie Gohmert and Ted Poe, who are ridiculed by mainstream Americans.
  • While development projects in Balochistan offer the promise of jobs for ordinary Baloch, the Balochistan provincial government plays a marginal role in policy formation. Islamabad has failed to introduce innovative revenue sharing measures — such as a provincial sovereign wealth fund — that address core Baloch grievances over autonomy and resource control.
  • Local government elections in Balochistan were marked by a low turnout in ethnic Baloch-populated areas. Many victorious candidates subsequently resigned from office after receiving death threats from separatist terrorists.
Implications and Forecast:
  • Islamabad lacks a political framework to pull young lower and middle class Baloch into national fold. It risks alienating a generation of middle class Baloch, who are increasingly taking the lead in the insurgency.
  • Baloch separatists will continue to attempt high-profile attacks designed to psychologically impact Pakistan’s center of power, Punjab.  Given Beijing’s partnership with Islamabad in developing Gwadar, Baloch insurgents are likely to renew their previous campaign to target Chinese workers inside the province.
  • Cross-border raids by Iran into Pakistan could induce Pakistani sectarian militants into extending their activities into Iran. However, Iran and Pakistan have established mechanisms through which to coordinate the monitoring of their shared border. Both countries also have a track record of avoiding direct conflict and engage one another with restraint.

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