Baluchistan in the Shadow of al-Qaeda

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 4

The sudden surge in violence in southern Afghanistan, which Kabul blames on Pakistan-based al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, has thrust Baluchistan into the international spotlight (Dawn, January 21). Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Kandahar and southwestern province of Helmand, which border Baluchistan, have recently convulsed with violence. On January 16, Kandahar’s border town of Spin Boldak, which adjoins northwestern Baluchistan, suffered a deadly suicide attack in which 26 people were killed. Since November 2005, there have been 13 suicide attacks in Afghanistan. Similarly, Helmand, which borders southwestern Baluchistan, has witnessed the Taliban’s lethal engagements with Afghan and coalition forces; on February 3, for instance, 25 people were killed in a skirmish (BBC, February 4).

Afghan leaders blamed the violence on the growing presence of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Baluchistan, who are reportedly using the area as their logistical base, while keeping their military base in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), especially its North and South Waziristan agencies. It is worth noting that FATA, including North and South Waziristan, is a geographical extension of northwestern Baluchistan. Successive governments in Kabul have described this area as “South Pashtunistan,” to which they have laid territorial claims. Whenever al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters have come under military pressure in North and South Waziristan, they have retreated into Baluchistan where they instantly drop off the radar. Baluchistan’s vast deserts, high-rolling mountains, and sparsely populated plains provides many places to hide.

In late 2005, however, al-Qaeda and the Taliban transformed Baluchistan from a logistics center to an operational base. Two factors explain this shift. The first factor is that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have brought FATA and North and South Waziristan under their virtual writ. They have successfully immobilized 70,000 Pakistani troops in the area, forcing them into their fortified barracks and checkpoints. In February 2005, the Pakistani military indirectly paid them 32 million rupees (about half a million dollars) in extortion money (South Asia Tribune, February 10). Having tamed the government, they brought in line the local population by executing more than 100 government loyalists in North and South Waziristan alone (Dawn, January 19). None of these executions have been punished by Islamabad. These militants are now regulating moral life, administering justice, and enforcing their version of Sharia in the region. Their control is so complete that one of their clerical allies has set up an FM Radio Station in the neighboring town of Bara near Peshawar to air his religious broadcasts against non-Salafi Muslims (Dawn, January 18). The government has yet to take the station off the air and dismantle the illegal radio transmissions. These intrepid measures suggest that al-Qaeda and the Taliban feel far safer in FATA and no longer need Baluchistan as a safe haven.

The second factor is that the impending redeployment of U.S. troops in Kandahar has further emboldened the insurgents to open another front in Baluchistan. They think that NATO forces, which will replace U.S. troops, cannot match their determined assaults. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban think that they can bring Kandahar and Helmand under heavy military pressure by mounting attacks from northwestern and southwestern Baluchistan.

Alarmed by the gathering strength of the Taliban and other Pashtun insurgents, Afghan leaders believe that the Afghan provinces along the Durand Line with Pakistan—such as Kandahar, Helmand, Kunar and Paktika—are increasingly vulnerable to insurgent attacks. The Afghan minister for foreign affairs publicly accused Islamabad of allowing al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup in Baluchistan (Khabrain, January 21). It is pertinent to note that Pashtuns live in the northwest of Baluchistan and Baluchs in the southwest. Pashtuns in northwestern Baluchistan are ethnically linked to those in Kandahar. Spin Boldak, Kandahar’s border town, adjoins northwest Baluchistan’s border city of Chaman, whose residents routinely cross over into Spin Boldak and stay there at will. Many top leaders of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, a Sunni supremacist terrorist group (and the armed wing of the formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba organization) that has killed hundreds of Shiites in Baluchistan and elsewhere in Pakistan, took up residence in Chaman after the fall of the Taliban.

On the other hand, the Afghan province of Helmand has a substantial Baluch population. Although there is no evidence that Afghan Baluchs are helping al-Qaeda or the Taliban, Baluch residents of Helmand have long supported the nationalist Baluch armed struggle against Islamabad. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, however, draw on the religious affiliation of Baluchs, who happen to be predominantly Sunni. What fires up this mutuality, however, is the alleged persecution of Sunni Baluchs by the Iranian government. Iranian Baluchs are spread across southern Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces in southeastern Iran and have long nursed grievances against Iran’s Shiite majority. Such grievances find ready resonance with their nationalist co-ethnics in Afghanistan’s provinces of Helmand, Farah, Nimroz and Herat, as well as in Pakistani Baluchistan. To avenge the “persecution” of Iranian Sunni Baluchs, al-Qaeda and its allied group Jandallah are reported to have established a presence in southeastern Iran. Recently, Jandallah’s fighters kidnapped nine Iranian soldiers from Saravan along the Iran-Pakistan border. Iranians asked Islamabad to intervene, but nothing happened. On January 29, Jandallah, on its own terms, released the soldiers after two months of captivity (Dawn, January 29). Lawlessness in southeastern Iran, on the border of southwestern Baluchistan, is so widespread that on December 15, 2005, a motorcade of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came under heavy fire on Zabul-Saravan Highway, in which one of his bodyguards was killed (Jomhouri Islami, December 17, 2005).

Although southwestern (Pakistani) Baluchistan is predominantly Baluch, it also, however, represents a demographic twist. In the 1970s-1980s, the Pakistani government settled hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees of Pashtun descent as a buffer between Iranian and Pakistani Baluchs. The major brunt of this resettlement was borne by the all-Baluch border town of Chaghi, which made its name as Pakistan’s nuclear-test site in May 1998, turning its native Baluch population into a minority. Afghan Pashtuns of this restive border area provide much-needed cover to the fleeing operatives of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as to the gangs of gunrunners and drug traffickers, who saturate the place.

In addition, Pakistani Baluchistan has been gripped by an active Baluch insurgency before and after the fall of the Taliban, which Pakistan blames on Afghanistan and India. This insurgency is so fierce that on December 14, 2005, Baluch rebels fired scores of rockets at Musharraf while he was present in the heavily guarded Quetta Garrison. Earlier reports indicated that rockets were fired at Musharraf when he was addressing a public meeting in the troubled district of Kohlu in southwestern Baluchistan. Although Pakistani intelligence agencies set off rumors of al-Qaeda’s presence in Kohlu, there is no evidence that Baluch nationalists have any link with al-Qaeda. The Baluch insurgency and Pakistan’s restive western borders with Afghanistan are, however, absorbing almost one-third of Pakistan’s military resources, which relieve some pressure from al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

More importantly, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are benefiting from the rising tide of crime in Pakistan, especially in its most populous province of Punjab, where, according to Dr. Mubashar Hassan, Pakistan’s former finance minister, 52,000 outlaws are on the run. Many of them have joined jihadi organizations to escape detection. Tens of thousands of them have since moved into Baluchistan, where they have set up “ferari (fugitives) camps.” Many of them have secured the protection of Baluchistan’s cabinet ministers, who are largely drawn from the pro-Taliban Jamiat-I-Ulema-I-Islam (JUI). Pakistani intelligence agencies overlook JUI leaders’ patronage of feraris to curb Baluch nationalists. Recently, a senior ranking JUI minister unleashed his operatives into the private residence of a prominent Baluch nationalist leader, Attaullah Mengal, in Wadh. Intelligence agencies, as such, are combating “ethnic nationalism” with pro-Pakistan “Islamic nationalism.”

While Afghan leaders charge that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are present in Baluchistan, the governor of Baluchistan, Owais Ghani, emphatically rejects this assertion. “We have swept Baluchistan clean of even the shadow of Taliban and al-Qaeda,” says Ghani. Instead, he has slapped Kabul with a charge sheet of his own: “We have seen 500 million rupees worth (approximately US$8.2 million) of Afghan weapons being smuggled into Baluchistan every year” (Khabrain, February 4). Musharraf further berates Kabul and coalition forces for their lax control of the Afghan border that he regards as enabling terrorists to sneak into Pakistani territory.

Contrary to Pakistan’s denials, diplomatic sources claim that al-Qaeda’s leaders have found refuge in Baluchistan. A Western diplomat claims that the Pakistani government squandered a CIA lead that bin Laden was hiding in Baluchistan because Islamabad “delayed giving permission for the attack on its soil” (Dawn, January 30). The source said that by the time U.S. officials received the go-ahead, bin Laden had left the suspected hideout in Zhob in Baluchistan, where he and “his bodyguards had sought temporary shelter.” The source speculated that “elements within Pakistan’s ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] may have sought to protect bin Laden.”

Similarly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently alleged that Mullah Omar is hiding in Baluchistan. Asfandyar Wali Khan, Pakistan’s most prominent pro-Karzai Pashtun leader, publicly castigated Pakistani intelligence agencies for holding Afghanistan hostage to their misguided Afghan policy. Wali goes so far as to claim that intelligence agencies are treating al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders as their “guests” (Dawn, January 18).