The Platform

Pakistan and U.S. soldiers during joint training exercises in 2022.

The increasingly bloody insurgency in Balochistan, Pakistan shows no signs of letting up.

In the expansive and resource-rich province of Balochistan, the stage is set for a protracted conflict between insurgent groups and the Pakistani military. This region, Pakistan’s largest by area yet sparsely populated, has recently experienced a sharp escalation in violence with a surge in deadly assaults against Pakistani security forces. These incidents, part of a broader insurgency, have seen Baloch rebels inflict severe casualties on state forces through various operations. Observers note a significant increase in the recruitment and activity of Baloch separatist groups, a phenomenon they describe as part of the “Fifth Wave” of the ethnonationalist insurgency that began in the early 2000s.

For decades, the Pakistani military has adeptly managed to deflect criticism and attribute internal insurgencies, particularly the Baloch uprising, to grand conspiracies or political failures. The military, from the outset, has framed Balochistan’s strife as a security issue, sidelining social or ethnic considerations, thereby ensuring that military generals hold decisive influence over policy decisions concerning Balochistan.

The military’s strategy involves shifting the entire burden of public outrage in Balochistan onto the government and bureaucracy by highlighting their neglect while conveniently obscuring its more draconian practices against the Baloch people. It is these gross human rights violations and horrific atrocities committed by Pakistan’s army that have pushed the oppressed locals to arm themselves against the state.

This strategy is a significant source of discontent among the Baloch populace and a pivotal catalyst for the violent unrest in the region. Enforced disappearances in Balochistan typically occur during so-called anti-terrorist operations conducted by the Pakistan Army and various paramilitary, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies under its command. Anyone suspected of supporting or sympathizing with the Baloch freedom movement is considered a threat and is likely to be abducted, tortured, or killed. This policy has impacted not just ordinary citizens but also high-ranking officials, as evidenced by the 2006 arrest of Akhtar Mengal, the Chief Minister of Balochistan, illustrating the extent to which these practices are attributed to either Pakistan’s security forces or the Inter-Services Intelligence, a component of Pakistan’s intelligence community.

To target Baloch separatists and political activists, the military has outsourced these operations to private militias known as “death squads.” These squads, supported by the army with training, weapons, and intelligence, are often comprised of hardened criminals and drug lords. Some are led by extremists, pro-Pakistan politicians, and even former separatist insurgents who have reconciled with authorities under various schemes.

Another tactic used by the army to suppress local rebellion, particularly in the northern parts of Balochistan, involves promoting hardline Sunni Islam. By fostering religious extremism through seminaries affiliated with militant groups, the army aims to undermine the secular nature of the Baloch movement and divide its tribal-dominated structure. This effort has seen the proliferation of Deoband Madrasas and the rise of extremist groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the province.

The ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its flagship project, the Gwadar Port, have not delivered significant benefits to local residents. Instead, these projects have predominantly favored the military, excluding Baloch people from employment and development opportunities, and displacing them to accommodate construction efforts. While the prime minister officially inaugurates key CPEC projects, it is the Pakistan Army that exercises control over them.

The Pakistan Army’s approach to handling the insurgencies it faces is fundamentally flawed. Relying on excessive force and colonial-era tactics, the military elite’s actions display a profound lack of empathy for fellow countrymen and highlight the nation’s failure to learn from its past. A recalibration of military strategy toward supporting a political and democratic resolution, recognizing, and addressing the ethnic and social grievances of the Baloch people, is imperative for the stability of Balochistan and the broader integrity of Pakistan.

Special thanks to journalist Bahot Baloch (@bahot_baluch) for her assistance.

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.