The Platform


For decades, Pakistan has termed the Baloch insurgency as a low-intensity conflict confined mostly to Balochistan, the country’s largest province by territory. But that seems to have changed, as a spate of attacks that have taken place this year clearly demonstrate that the insurgency has entered a crucial new phase.

Despite Pakistani security forces claiming an intensive crackdown on rebels, the insurgency’s lethality has increased many folds in recent times. As a result, more ferocious attacks, such as suicide bombings, high-profile targeted attacks, and kidnappings of high-ranking army officers are now shaping the course of Pakistan’s oldest separatist insurgency.

Especially since the start of this year, a remarkable shift in the strategy of Baloch militants has been evident. This year started with a large-scale attack on a security checkpoint in Balochistan’s Kech region that borders Iran. Less than a week later, another bold attack was carried out by militants from the Majeed Brigade, the suicide wing of the Baloch Liberation Army.

In these attacks, militants stormed two security camps in Balochistan’s Nushki and Panjgur districts. Casualty numbers provided by the military and the militants are difficult to independently verify. But the latest string of organized attacks has undoubtedly rocked not only Balochistan but the whole country. In addition to carrying out bold and daring attacks, insurgents are also using more modern weaponry than security forces.

In April, the Baloch Liberation Army’s first female suicide bomber, Shari Baloch, a research scholar, and schoolteacher, attacked China’s Confucius Institute in the southern port city of Karachi, killing four, including three Chinese nationals. This was a dramatic shift in strategy as it aimed to expand the conflict to Pakistan’s major urban centres. Also following this strategy, militants carried out a bombing in a busy Lahore business district, killing three and injuring over twenty. Another new tactic was seen in mid-July when a high-ranking officer was kidnapped by militants while on a holiday trip in the hill station of Ziarat in Balochistan. After the kidnapping, the army launched a rescue operation but the soldier was eventually killed before being rescued.

Shockingly for the army, a spokesperson for Baluch Raaji Aajoi Sangar, an umbrella group of four separatist Baloch groups, claimed to have shot down a military helicopter in Balochistan’s Lasbela district in September. Pakistan quickly rejected this claim and termed it propaganda. But, again in September, a military helicopter crashed near Balochistan’s Harnai district. Militants claimed that its fighters had shot down the helicopter while it was on a rescue mission. The military confirmed the downing of the helicopter but didn’t give any specific reason for the crash. The claims of the militants can’t be verified but there is a high possibility that they now possess some form of anti-aircraft capabilities.

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, large quantities of highly sophisticated weapons have made their way onto the region’s black market. Many of these U.S.-made weapons have ended up in the hands of Baloch armed groups like assault rifles, rifle scopes, and grenade launchers. In addition to small arms, heavy machine guns have also been found on the black market.

Baloch armed groups have gradually moved towards consolidation of what was previously a fragmented insurgency. Over the last few years, insurgent groups have either merged or formed tactical alliances to put up a united front against the military. By doing so, they were able to have a better pool of resources and better coordination to carry out complex operations. The leadership of the armed groups has also shifted from tribal chiefs to the well-educated and highly motivated middle class. And these new ranks of Baloch insurgents are transforming the insurgency into guerrilla warfare.

It’s a hard truth that with time, the insurgents have adopted fighting tactics very much similar to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Pakistani policymakers have to understand that the armed conflict can’t just be dealt with through military means. Balochistan requires a political solution that can only be achieved through mediated talks. If the Pakistani state is willing to talk and negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban then why not follow this approach with Baloch armed groups as well? Until Islamabad meets some of the demands of the separatist movement the insurgency will continue to grow.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.