The Geostrategic Implications of the Baloch Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 22

Pakistan continues to grapple with insurgent violence in its southwestern province of Balochistan, which is bounded by the country’s tribal belt in the northwest, Afghanistan in the north and Iran in the west. In the northwest, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has also been a hotbed of violence, where Taliban militants have humbled Pakistan’s otherwise unbeatable armed forces in a three-year active conflict. On November 8, they dealt the Pakistan Army the deadliest blow yet, in which 42 soldiers were killed in one strike. Similarly, Afghanistan to the north continues to simmer with the Taliban’s violent attacks that have registered a four-fold increase from 130 a month last year to 600 a month since the September 5 Pakistan-Taliban peace deal in North Waziristan (Dawn, November 13). The Taliban are alleged to have some operational bases in Balochistan, in addition to those in Pakistan’s tribal north. In the west, Sistan-Balochistan, also known as western Balochistan, is up in arms against the Iranian government. On December 15, 2005, a daring assassination bid was mounted against a motorcade of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on the Zabul-Saravan Highway, in which one of his bodyguards was killed (Terrorism Monitor, February 23). Pressure is, therefore, mounting on Islamabad to solve the situation in Balochistan before it spirals out of control.

Pakistan’s Military Buildup in Balochistan

Pakistan has been watchful of Balochistan’s violent surroundings, especially since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, which delivered Kabul from the Taliban’s dogmatic theology and strict social order. Yet the Taliban, however repugnant, were Pakistan’s guardians of its northwestern frontier with Afghanistan and its southwestern border with Iran, freeing up Pakistan’s military resources to allow it to fortify its eastern border with India. Since the Taliban’s toppling in 2001, Pakistan feels that its western border is now exposed to “hostile intentions.” It has since moved fast to build up its military presence in Balochistan, planning a host of garrisons all across the province, especially in its resource-rich, but Islamabad-wary, bits of Dera Bugti, Kohlu and Khuzdar.

In parallel with army establishments, Pakistan, for the first time, began to build naval defenses in Balochistan to safeguard its nearly 1,000-kilometer coastline. One such defense installation is the Jinnah Naval Base at Ormara, which is the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) second-largest base after its flagship naval port in Karachi. The Jinnah Naval Base has displayed Balochistan’s paramount naval importance that has long been envied by regional powers, including the former Soviet Union and India. Yet the Jinnah Base is ancillary to the development of Pakistan’s ultimate naval defenses in Balochistan’s coastal town of Gwadar, which sits along the Arabian Sea coast. Pakistan, in collaboration with China, is building one of the world’s largest deep seaports in Gwadar. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, and the visiting Chinese Vice Premier Wu Bangguo laid the foundation of the Gwadar Port on March 22, 2002, exactly four months after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan (China Brief, February 15, 2005). The first two phases of the $1.6 billion port has since been completed. Musharraf will visit it on November 16, ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Islamabad on November 23.

The Baloch, who are weakly represented in the military government in Islamabad, were opposed to the planned militarization of their province and “colonization of their natural resources,” which include 29 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, six billion barrels of oil and about a 1,000-kilometer coastline (Terrorism Focus, September 6). They raised their voice against Islamabad’s moves to “occupy their land.” Islamabad dismissed them as “miscreants,” “saboteurs” and “terrorists,” responding with a large-scale military deployment to crush opposition. The conflict that ensued pushed Oxford-educated Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was internationally acclaimed as a statesman, especially in neighboring Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Middle East, India and Iran, to become involved. Nawab Bugti first called on his political reserves to persuade Islamabad against advancing on Balochistan’s constitutionally protected “provincial autonomy.” He, instead, offered a negotiated settlement of the dispute over appropriation of Balochistan’s natural resources by reconciling federal claims of “eminent domain” with constitutionally protected “provincial autonomy.” Islamabad agreed. Two parliamentary committees were formed to work out a settlement (Daily Times, July 31, 2005). When one of the committees announced its recommendations, Musharraf did not accept them and turned to military means to resolve the conflict.

Nawab Bugti’s Assassination and its Aftermath

Early this year, government troops targeted Nawab Bugti in his house with artillery fire, in which he escaped unhurt (Terrorism Focus, September 6). He then collected his followers and took to living in the mountains, which is a centuries-old Baloch tradition of protest, called “pariris” (i.e., when all avenues of peaceful resolution of grievances are exhausted, violence becomes justified). On August 24, an intercepted telephone call tracked him to his mountain retreat (The News, August 27). For three days, a fierce battle raged which killed him and 21 Pakistan Army commandoes (The News, August 31). On September 1, when he was laid to rest, most of Pakistan (except for central Punjab province) was shut down to mourn his passing and to protest his assassination. The “official” Pakistan, however, was jubilant after eliminating its chief antagonist.

Within hours of Nawab Bugti’s assassination, reality began to sink in for Islamabad. The backlash to his murder swept the country and shook the government. Many government leaders, except Musharraf, publicly grieved for the slain Nawab. Most importantly, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose power base is the majority province of Punjab, called Musharraf a “killer” (PakTribune, August 28). As the Punjab dominates Pakistan’s civil and military establishment, Sharif’s outrage resonated with the country’s elite. Above all, Punjab is the largest beneficiary of the federation, which instinctively makes it wary of centrifugal forces, especially since the fall of East Pakistan in 1971, which became the independent country of Bangladesh. Similarly, retired military leaders, who generally echo the views of serving officers, unanimously condemned the assassination and feared that “another East Pakistan is in the making.” They rejected the military solution to the insurgency in Balochistan and urged Musharraf to make peace with Baloch nationalists. Musharraf took their counsel, but in reverse. Within 10 days of Nawab Bugti’s assassination, he signed a peace deal with the Taliban in North Waziristan on September 5 (Terrorism Monitor, October 5). Observers find it ironic to see Musharraf cut his losses and run from the tribal north, leaving it in the hands of the retrogressive Taliban, only to crush a progressive nationalist movement in Balochistan, which is allied with the democratic federal forces, such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

In doing so, he played on the military’s general apprehension about the weak defenses in Balochistan, where the overwhelming majority of the Baloch and Pashtun population identify themselves with their own “Vatan” (i.e., native land of Balochistan) rather than with “Pakistan.” This apprehension was amplified by the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan since the removal of the Taliban government in Kabul. Pakistan blamed Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar in Afghanistan, and Zahedan in Iran, for insurgent violence in Balochistan (Terrorism Monitor, May 18). Pakistan specifically accused India of training and arming the militants of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) for sabotage in the province. In the same vein, Pakistan accused Afghanistan of being India’s conduit for cash flow and military supplies to the BLA (Terrorism Monitor, May 18). Yet, what unnerved Islamabad the most was India’s military buildup next door in Iran and Tajikistan. In Iran, it was building the Chahbahar Port to rival the Gwadar deep seaport that came to symbolize the summit of the Sino-Pakistan strategic partnership. As a major power of the Indian Ocean, India’s move into the Persian Gulf caused deep unease in Islamabad. Pakistan had not yet come to terms with the Indian presence in Iran, especially when it discovered that New Delhi was building an airbase in Tajikistan, which is its second base on foreign soil after its base in Sri Lanka (Terrorism Monitor, May 18). This base can bring northwestern and southwestern Pakistan (the tribal north and Balochistan) under India’s air cover.

Balochistan in Revolt

The internal dynamics in Balochistan, especially after the slaying of Nawab Bugti, became all the more dangerous for federal unity. At the Nawab’s funeral in Quetta on August 29, hundreds of youth tore down a portrait of Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who is revered in the country so much as to be mentioned only by his title of Quaid-i-Azam (The Great Leader). In Karachi, which is home to two million Balochs, protesters ripped the Pakistani flag off a wedding hall and dragged it through the streets while stomping on it before they set it on fire (Reuters, August 27). Such expressions of outrage were simply unheard of in Pakistan. Many ignored these outbursts as spontaneous venting of grief until the Baloch National Jirga met in Quetta on September 21, and called for revisiting the accession of Balochistan to Pakistan (The News, October 16). The jirga, which was convened for the first time in 130 years, moved the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to help end Pakistan’s occupation of Balochistan (The News, October 16). Earlier, the Balochistan National Party (BNP), a major nationalist grouping, resigned its seats in provincial and federal legislatures, dismissing them as no longer relevant. These events left most Pakistani shaken and unsure of Balochistan’s future in a federal Pakistan. Musharraf further shocked them with his blunt admission on October 23 that the “federation is weaker today than it was seven years before” when he came to power (The Nation, October 24). Earlier, he rushed his prime minister to Balochistan on October 13-14 to rally Baloch sardars for a pro-government Baloch jirga, which he called in Islamabad on November 8 to counter the Baloch National Jirga; the latter jirga was described as the most devastating fallout of Nawab Bugti’s assassination (The News, October 16). The prime minister’s two-day visit only revealed that no notable Baloch sardar was willing to attend the pro-government jirga, although Musharraf claims to have the support of 72 out of 75 Baloch sardars (The Nation, November 13). With this revelation, the government dropped the idea of the jirga, and instead decided to have “tribal elders” meet Musharraf in Gwadar when he visits the deep seaport there on November 16 (Dawn, November 4; The Nation, November 13).


Balochistan’s strategic significance and natural endowment makes it a critical province for Pakistan. Strategically, Balochistan bridges Central, South, Southeast and East Asia on one end, and Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East on the other. Regional states, especially India, cannot reach the energy and trade markets of the Caspian Sea region without transit through Balochistan, which Pakistan denies to India despite repeated pleas on New Delhi’s behalf by Washington. India absorbs punitive freight costs by routing its trade goods through the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, even for shipments to Afghanistan. Since 2001, New Delhi has made great strides in reaching out to Baloch leaders, whose National Jirga has now made it a party to the arbitration of their “Accession to Pakistan Pact” in the ICJ (The Nation, November 13).

India is also wary of the Sino-Pakistan naval port on the Arabian Sea, which has raised Beijing’s profile in the Indian Ocean. India is even more concerned over Taliban-inspired “militant groups” who operate in Indian-administered Kashmir. As the Taliban are widely believed to have their operational bases in Balochistan, they equally worry India’s allies in the region, especially Afghanistan and Iran. Afghanistan resents Pakistan’s patronage of the Taliban, which have become the largest threat to its stability since their regrouping in 2003. Iran is also unhappy with Islamabad’s policy toward the Taliban due to the group’s anti-Shiite theology and the subversive operations of the Taliban’s allies, such as Jandallah, in Iran’s Sunni-dominated province of Sistan-Balochistan.

Besides these external dynamics, Pakistan is not helping its cause either with its continued military repression of the Baloch national movement, the latest manifestation of which is the alleged abduction by its security forces of 6,000 Baloch youth who have been kept in illegal detention for years (The Nation, November 8). Although none of Pakistan’s neighboring countries threatens Pakistan’s integrity, every Pakistani’s worst fear, however, is that Islamabad’s repressive push in Balochistan will cause the province to revisit their accession to Pakistan.