Despite their geographical proximity as neighbors, the Baloch separatists and the Afghan Taliban are poles apart ideologically. Yet, there seems to be a link between what happened in Afghanistan last summer and what could happen in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province in the near future, if the latest developments are any indication.
The southwestern region of Pakistan is once again in the news following two deadly terror attacks. In the latest one reported last week, 10 Pakistani Army personnel were killed when separatist insurgents stormed a security checkpoint in Kech district.
Later, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), which claimed responsibility for the attack, said in a statement sent to Reuters that 17 soldiers and one of its members were killed.
The incident came days after another separatist organization, Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA), owned up a blast in Lahore that killed three people. As reported by The EurAsian Times, BNA emerged recently as a result of a merger of two militant groups, the Baloch Republic Army (BRA) and the United Baloch Army (UBA).
That the rebels carried out an attack in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, located more than 1,000 kilometers away from Balochistan, speaks volumes of their new resolve and perhaps capability.
The new wave of violence that rocked Pakistan of late hints at a revival of tribal insurgency in Balochistan. To understand this tectonic shift in the Baloch separatist movement, one must look at a key indicator that has come to the limelight – the merger of BRA and UBA to form a new outfit called BNA, which vows to target the Chinese-made infrastructure, part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, in the region.
This merger seems unprecedented as it brings together the “Marris and Bugtis, two of Balochistan’s largest tribes that historically have not always seen eye to eye”, according to political scientist Salman Rafi Sheikh, writing for Asia Times.
They have now found a common ground – Chinese neo-colonialism in the form of CPEC projects resulting in rapid militarization of Balochistan. Needless to say, ethnic Baloch rebels have long accused Pakistan’s federal government of unfair exploitation of the rich gas and mineral resources of the province. The perceived exclusion of the local population from the development projects is what made the matter worse, according to analysts.
What’s The Afghan Connection?
It is pertinent to highlight first that the insurgency in Balochistan is quite different from what the Taliban stand for. The seven-decade-old Baloch separatist movement is aimed at establishing a sovereign state. In the past, the movement was influenced by radical Marxist ideology and received support from the erstwhile Soviet Union.
It is said some of their leaders were trained by Moscow. Even the new generation of leaders continues to be guided by the same radical ideology.
In contrast, the Afghan Taliban are a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists and they abhor everything modern. They are militant Islamists who returned to power after waging two-decade of war with Western militaries, led by the US.
In recent years, many Baloch rebel leaders fled to adjoining Afghanistan owing to the crackdown by Pakistani security forces. But they are not safe on Afghan soil either.
In 2018, a suicide bombing in Kandahar’s Aino Mina killed Aslam Baloch, a young rebel leader, along with some of his supporters. It is believed that the Pakistani spy agency has a link with this assassination.
Nevertheless, the recent merger of Baloch outfits and the sudden surge in violence have been linked to the situation in Afghanistan. Sheikh, in his piece, has identified two reasons in support of this theory.
First, despite their ideological differences, the Taliban’s victory against the US, a superpower, has “inspired Baloch insurgent groups into forming a united front to achieve a similar victory, engage the Pakistan army in a serious war to give the Pakistan state a formidable challenge,” a Baloch nationalist told Asia Times.
The second reason, according to Sheikh, is Pakistan’s lack of support from the Afghan Taliban after they came to power last year. And without the Taliban’s aid, Pakistani security agencies will find it difficult to eliminate Baloch separatists hiding in Afghanistan.
The Baloch movement will likely draw its strength from the popular protests against CPEC projects in Gwadar. Local residents vented their ire when authorities started fencing the port city to protect CPEC projects from insurgent attacks.
— Sameer Baloch (@SameerBaloch_) December 13, 2020
In her book, Balochistan: Bruised, Battered and Bloodied, Francesca Marino wrote: “In order to build highways and the port’s infrastructure, land has been expropriated without the rightful owners receiving a penny of compensation.
“Furthermore, the promised jobs have, in Balochistan’s case, gone to workers ‘imported’ from other provinces of Pakistan instead of to the local people. In the province alone, 15,000 soldiers have been deployed to ‘protect’ the Chinese workers and the investment.”
It’s abundantly clear that Gwadar will turn into a full-fledged Chinese colony as Beijing will receive 90% of revenues generated from the port for 40 years, according to the terms of the contract. And this would provide enough fodder to the Baloch separatists to intensify their armed campaign against the Pakistani government and Chinese-funded projects.
Pakistan has for long accused India of aiding the Baloch separatists, but New Delhi denies this claim.