Separatists, Islamists and Islamabad Struggle for Control of Pakistani Balochistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 37

To say that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in October 2001 shook Pakistan to its core would be an understatement.  Since then, the war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan on multiple levels.  The escalating cycle of violence between Pakistani security forces and a patchwork of tribal militants, particularly the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and foreign fighters aligned with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) is a case in point. Many observers of Pakistani affairs have used the deteriorating situation in the tribal agencies along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier as a bellwether of future trends in Pakistan.  In this context, it is no surprise that events in Pakistan’s tribal areas seem to draw the most attention.  Yet Pakistan’s Balochistan province is also beginning to draw interest as a center of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity.  

Reports that the U.S. is seeking Pakistan’s approval for expanding its controversial drone campaign against targets in Balochistan – a clear red line for Pakistan – have raised serious concerns in Islamabad about Washington’s ultimate intentions (The News, [Islamabad], September 29).  As the Obama administration escalates its military campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistani leaders have expressed deep concerns about the potential destabilization of Balochistan resulting from the intensified fighting expected in Afghanistan in the coming months (The Nation [Lahore], November 27).  As if these concerns were not enough, Balochistan remains a hotbed of ethno-nationalist militancy, drug smuggling, and organized crime.  Balochistan is also in the throes of a refugee crisis that has been largely ignored.  The confluence of these trends – which indirectly or directly reinforce each other – is making an already dangerous situation worse with severe implications for Pakistan and the wider region.  

Geography and Demographics

Balochistan occupies approximately 42 percent of Pakistan’s total landmass, making it the country’s largest province.  Yet in spite of its large geographic area, Balochistan is only home to an estimated population ranging between 7 and 12 million, a consequence of its harsh, mountainous terrain and paucity of water sources, making it Pakistan’s least densely populated region and smallest province in terms of total population.  The provincial capital of Quetta is home to an estimated 750,000 to 1 million people.  Ethnic Baloch represent a slight majority in the province, with ethnic Pashtuns, many of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees from Afghanistan, representing the next largest community, especially in the north.  Ethnic Pashtun influence is significant in Balochistan; the provincial capital Quetta, for instance, is a majority Pashtun city, as are other areas of the province.  Balochistan is also home to smaller ethnic and religious minorities.

Pakistani Balochistan is situated in a strategic location in southwestern Pakistan due south of the South Waziristan region of the FATA and adjacent to the borders of the neighboring Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan and Afghanistan’s Nimruz, Helmand, Kandahar, Zabol, and Paktika provinces.  Balochistan lies on the Gulf of Oman, a busy sea passage that connects to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and by extension, the wider Indian Ocean.  Balochistan is also home to the strategically important Gwadar deepwater seaport.  The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was motivated largely by Moscow’s pursuit of access to a long coveted warm water seaport giving access to the Indian Ocean.

Balochistan is among Pakistan’s poorest and least developed regions.  Paradoxically, it is also rich in natural resources.  Balochistan is home to significant natural gas deposits (accounting for at least one-third of total Pakistani consumption) and oil reserves.  It is also rich in minerals and metals, including copper, uranium, and gold (Asia Times [Hong Kong], May 9).  Balochistan lies along the route of the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline – popularly dubbed the “peace pipeline” – designed to transfer natural gas from Iran to India via Pakistan.  Balochistan also lies along the alternative regional pipeline network favored by the United States (precisely because it excludes Iran) known as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. [1]

Ethno-Nationalist Militancy

Balochistan has been a center of ethno-nationalist militancy and violent revolts against the state since the province was forcibly annexed by Pakistan after the partition of India gave rise to an independent Pakistan.  Prior to being annexed by Pakistan, Balochistan enjoyed autonomy under British colonial rule.  Pakistan’s ethnic Baloch community is underserved and deeply resents what it sees as a calculated effort by Islamabad to suppress Baloch identity and culture.  Baloch nationalists argue that Islamabad is actively working to keep the Baloch people impoverished, weak, and disorganized, thus making it easier for the ethnic-Punjabi dominated central government to reap the benefits of Balochistan’s vast natural resources.  The latest outbreak of the Baloch insurgency was sparked by the deaths of three prominent Baloch rebel leaders following a period of relative calm.  Baloch militant groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF) accused Islamabad of instigating the latest round of violence.

Baloch militants typically target symbols of the Pakistani state, political leaders, members of the security services and targets associated with the region’s natural resources, such as gas pipelines.  Pakistan has always viewed the Baloch with great suspicion, owing in part to their strong sense of national identity and their numbers in Afghanistan and the neighboring Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan, where ethnic Baloch insurgents led by the obscure Jundallah (Soldiers of God) movement are mounting their own violent campaign against Tehran (see Terrorism Monitor, February 9).  While Pakistan and Iran have a history of cooperating closely to suppress Baloch nationalism, as the Baloch separatist aspirations threaten the territorial integrity of both countries, Pakistan is wary of attempts by regional rivals such as India to support Baloch militancy (PakTribune [Rawalpindi], November 19).

The threat of Baloch separatism will remain a challenge for Pakistan in its own right.  The deteriorating security situation across Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, could severely complicate matters for Islamabad in Balochistan.  Baloch rebels, for instance, may see a window of opportunity to escalate their campaign against Islamabad as Pakistan concentrates its efforts on fighting militants in the tribal areas.  A potential expansion of the U.S. drone campaign to Balochistan may also provide Baloch militants with another opening to strike at Islamabad.  There is evidence to suggest that Baloch rebels are already exploiting the current turmoil in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  A series of bomb blasts and abductions in recent years targeting Chinese laborers prompted China to halt construction of the Gwadar oil refinery in Balochistan due to security concerns (Financial Times, August 14).  Baloch rebels have also begun abducting international NGO personnel in the province.  A senior UNHCR official was kidnapped and his driver killed by members of the BLUF in Quetta in February.  BLUF staged the operation in part to highlight the plight of Baloch political prisoners in Pakistani prisons.  While the UN official was eventually released, the BLUF’s decision to target UN relief workers represents a major escalation of Baloch militancy (Dawn [Karachi], February 4).  Islamabad fears that Baloch rebels may position themselves as a potential bulwark against the spread of Taliban and al-Qaeda-style extremism that is increasingly gripping the province’s ethnic Pashtuns in an effort to gain allies in Washington, thus circumventing Islamabad’s authority and potentially ushering in a new and more dangerous stage of the Baloch separatist movement.  

The Taliban and al-Qaeda

U.S. officials identify Balochistan as a critical center of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity.  Many observers believe that high-profile al-Qaeda figures and ranking Taliban members, including Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, have fled Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal areas for sanctuary in Balochistan.  The provincial capital of Quetta is believed to serve as a critical hub for financing and organizing Taliban and al-Qaeda operations (Dawn, September 30).  Islamabad’s intelligence service is often accused of protecting Afghan Taliban members in Balochistan, namely the powerful Taliban faction led by Mullah Omar known as the Quetta Shura.  Pakistan disputes the very existence of the Quetta Shura, choosing instead to lay the blame for the resurgence of the Taliban and the deteriorating security situation in South Asia on what it describes as the failure of the U.S.-led mission to stabilize Afghanistan (Dawn, September 27).  Because of its geographic proximity to the tribal areas, Balochistan is open to a spillover of violence and radicalism. The emergence of Baloch-based militants aligned with the Taliban, namely the obscure Tehrik-e-Taliban Balochistan (TTB), is indicative of the larger concerns regarding the spread of radicalism in the region (The News, March 4).    

Because Balochistan borders Afghanistan, including Helmand province—a center  for Taliban operations against NATO forces—Islamabad worries that an escalation of the U.S.-led campaign in Helmand and other parts of Afghanistan will compel Afghan militants to use Balochistan as a temporary sanctuary to evade direct engagements with U.S. forces.  Afghan militants may also use Balochistan as a staging ground for attacks against NATO forces in Helmand and beyond.  In other words, Pakistan fears that Balochistan may go the way of FATA and the NWFP following the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, a dangerous scenario, to say the least.  Afghan militants may also wreak havoc in Balochistan by launching attacks inside the province, particularly against religious minorities such as the small Shi’a community, a frequent object of radical Sunni Islamist ire.  In fact, Balochistan has seen a spike in sectarian attacks over the last few years (AFP, March 4).  Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani has expressed concern over a possible influx of militants in Balochistan after U.S. reinforcements arrive in Afghanistan (The Nation, November 27).  This is a nightmare scenario for Pakistan since it also has the potential to invite a more aggressive U.S. policy of launching drone attacks in Balochistan.

Tribal militants fleeing the Pakistani military’s offensive in the tribal areas may also use nearby Balochistan as a temporary base.  The problems affecting Balochistan are severe, considering that the region serves as one of the crucial logistical hubs sustaining the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.  Convoys ferrying fuel, vehicles, arms, food, and other crucial items to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan travel through Balochistan.  The first confirmed attack against a NATO convoy in Balochistan occurred in June in Chaman City, near the Afghan border (Times of India [New Delhi], June 3).  Militants struck again in September in an attack against a NATO fuel convoy passing near Quetta, setting eight oil tankers ablaze (UPI, September 9).  Vital supply routes used by NATO in Balochistan are likely to come under increasing attack as the escalation in Afghanistan unfolds, consequently raising a new set of challenges.

Opium and Organized Crime

Pakistani Balochistan plays a critical role as one the world’s busiest and most dangerous opium smuggling hubs, where the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran converge.  Known as the Golden Crescent, the region is home to scores of powerful organized crime networks, especially criminal organizations engaged in drug smuggling and opium production.  Not surprisingly, the rapid expansion of opium cultivation in Afghanistan in recent years has provided a boon to regional drug smugglers.

Ethnic Baloch-led criminal gangs based in Pakistani Balochistan (some of which associate with ethnic Baloch insurgent groups as well as Taliban factions based on mutual business interests as opposed to ideology or politics) figure prominently in the smuggling of opium out of Afghanistan (Asia Times, October 22).  

Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan is home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world with almost 1.8 million refugees on its soil. [2] Pakistani Balochistan is home to generations of refugees, mostly ethnic Pashtuns who fled Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979, as well as refugees who fled the country more recently.  Balochistan is also home to IDP camps housing upwards of 200,000 ethnic Baloch forced to flee various parts of the province as a result of Islamabad’s military operations against Baloch separatists in the region. [3]

UNHCR estimates that upwards of 2 million people – nearly all ethnic Pashtuns – were forced to flee their homes during the fighting between Pakistani security forces and tribal militants in the FATA and NWFP [4] The massive scale of the displacement of Pashtuns from the tribal areas to other parts of Pakistan, including Balochistan, has caught Pakistani, U.S., and international authorities by surprise.  The migration of IDPs into Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan will have a serious social and political impact on Pakistan’s society and economy that may ultimately threaten political stability.  Baloch activists, for instance, often accuse Islamabad and the international community of favoring Pashtun refugees and IDPs in Balochistan at the expense of ethnic Baloch IDPs for political reasons.  Some Baloch observers believe that Islamabad is exploiting the refugee and IDP crisis in Balochistan to further diminish Baloch influence through demographic changes. [5] The recent decision by the United Nations to withdraw much of its staff from parts of Pakistan – including Balochistan – due to security concerns will also exacerbate matters in the months ahead, adding another set of challenges to Pakistan’s embattled domestic institutions (Dawn, November 2).  


1. TAPI is sometimes referred to as the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAP).   
2. See “Country Operations Profile: Pakistan,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), December 1, 2009,
3. See “Differing Estimates of Displacement Due to Conflict in Balochistan,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), April 2008.
4. See “UNHCR Global Appeal 2010-2011 – Pakistan,” December 1, 2009,
5. Malik Siraj Akbar, “Afghan Refugee vs. Baloch IDPs,” July 4, 2008,