Baloch Insurgency: Pakistan’s Moment of Reckoning

MANTRAYA ANALYSIS#58: 05 MAY 2022

BIBHU PRASAD ROUTRAY

Abstract

Baloch insurgency is on a resurgence and its widened targets include CPEC projects as well as Chinese nationals in Pakistan. The Pakistani security establishment is under pressure from Beijing to respond decisively to the killing of three Chinese nationals on the premises of the Karachi University on 26 April. And yet, neither a quick military operation, as part of the strategy of annihilation nor an attention diversion tactic in the form of punishment to a few perpetrators of the attack would suffice. A comprehensive solution to the insurgency needs to be found.  

The Attack

Three Chinese tutors were among the four people who lost their lives in a suicide terrorist attack at one of the entrances to the Karachi University on 26 April 2022. A female suicide bomber, identified as Shari Baloch, carried out the blast as the van carrying the victims approached the location, in the proximity of the Confucius Institute in the university. On 29 April, an editorial in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn termed the incident as part of a ‘new wave of terrorism’ in the country. It said, “While the attacks are mostly aimed at our border regions by religiously-motivated terrorist groups based in Afghanistan, there are frequent reminders that Baloch militancy, too, is on the rise.”[1]  

Terming these terror attacks as a wave could be an exaggeration. What is, however, true is that Baloch insurgents are indeed becoming selective in their target selection, which unmistakably includes the Chinese nationals in the country. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$60 billion spoke on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which passes through the Balochistan province and is accused of being an instrument of exploitation, has become a rallying point for the militants. The Pakistani state’s approach to Baloch insurgency is essentially force centric and has done little to address the factors that feed dissent. With intense pressure from the Chinese to bring the perpetrators to task, the approach could become further skewed.   

No Longer a low-intensity conflict

For a number of years, the Pakistani establishment has treated 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 in 2022 demonstrate.

On 20 January, an explosion ripped through a busy Lahore business district, killing three persons and injuring over 20. The Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA) claimed responsibility for the attack. On the night of 25-26 January, 10 soldiers lost their lives in an attack on a Frontier Corps (FC) check post in the Kech district carried out by the BLA. Two days after the attack, three Levies Force personnel along with a Bugti clan elder were killed martyred in twin bomb blasts in the Sui area of Dera Bugti. On 30 January, 17 people, including two policemen, were injured in a grenade attack in Dera Allahyar town of Jaffarabad district. In February, BLA cadres attempted to attack security forces’ camps in Balochistan’s Panjgur and Naushki, both of which were repulsed. While the military’s media wing said that a lone soldier and four terrorists were killed in these two separate attacks, the BLA claimed that more than 100 soldiers have perished.[2]

Among the factors that explain the surge in violence is a gradual move toward consolidation of what was previously a dissipated insurgency. Over the years, insurgent groups have either merged or have formed tactical alliances to put up a united fight against the Pakistani state. For instance, the BNA which claimed responsibility for the attack in Lahore had come into existence in early January 2022, with the merger of the United Baloch Army (UBA) and the Baloch Republic Army (BRA). In 2018, the BLA merged with the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and BRA to form Baloch Raji Ajohi Sangar (BRSA), or Baloch Nationalist Freedom Movement. Two years later, in June 2020, BRSA formed an alliance with a Sindhi militant group known as the Sindudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA). The BNA has affirmed that it is a part of the BRSA.  

These mergers and alliance formations have seemingly demonstrated the willingness of different tribes to put their differences at rest. The BNA represented the ‘coming together of the Marri and Bugti, two of Balochistan’s largest tribes that historically have not always seen eye to eye’[3].  Strategically, this coming together of disparate Baloch groups could be leading to a restructuring of the insurgency. Not only has it beefed up the numbers of the insurgents under a common banner and with common objectives, but it may also have facilitated fine-tuning of the tactics. There is a possibility that the insurgents have a number of suicide attackers available to them. Whereas fidayeen (suicide) attacks have remained a preferred mode for the BLA in the past couple of years, the deployment of a woman suicide bomber in the attack on the Karachi University premises has added a new dimension. Given the success it has achieved, such a strategy could be repeated in the coming months. 

Targeting the Chinese

Map of Balochistan (also written as Baluchistan) and Pakistan. Source: Wikipedia

Baloch insurgency’s hostility towards China in general and the CPEC, in particular, is not a secret. The CPEC, which runs through the restive Balochistan province, has clearly added a new purpose to the Baloch separatist insurgency, which has been battling the Pakistani state for years. The separatists accuse both Beijing and the Pakistani government of unfairly exploiting Balochistan’s natural resources. The BLA says it attacks Chinese nationals because Beijing ignored warnings not to enter deals and agreements regarding Balochistan before the province had been ‘liberated’.[4] The June 2020 alliance between the SRA and the BRSA aims to “liberate” both Sindh and Balochistan and target the CPEC. The BNA too shares the same objectives. The group has claimed that it was formed to “expand Baloch national resistance movement against the Pakistani military’s fascism” and also to intensify attacks against both “Pakistan state and its partners (e.g. China).”

In 2018, the BLA expanded its operations and attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, but failed to enter the compound. In April 2021, a suicide attack at a luxury hotel hosting the Chinese ambassador in Quetta killed four people and injured dozens. The ambassador was unhurt in the attack.

Following the Karachi University attack, the BLA has warned of more deadly attacks on Chinese targets. BLA Spokesman Jeeyand Baloch, in a statement, threatened China with “even harsher” attacks unless the country halted its “exploitation projects” and “occupying of the Pakistani state.” Prior to the 26 April incident, in 2018, Karachi police had foiled an attack on the Chinese consulate. In 2020, a similar attack had been foiled at the Pakistan Stock Exchange where the Chinese have major investments.

The targeted attacks demonstrate that the anti-China position on the Baloch insurgency has moved far beyond the rhetoric phase. The increasingly emboldened insurgents are not only peeved with the Chinese investments but have attained the capacity to carry out these types of operations. Their targets include the CPEC projects which enjoy security cover, and also the unprotected Chinese nationals like the teachers in the Confucius Academy in Karachi.       

The Response

In the past, the Pakistani military has typically relied on force-centric operations to weaken the Baloch insurgent groups, after every major attack. This time, the pace and intensity of the response are being determined by Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry has asserted that ‘Blood of Chinese people cannot be shed in vain’. Four demands communicated to the Pakistani side by the Chinese include (i) conduct of a thorough investigation into the incident, (ii) apprehension and punishment to the perpetrators ‘to the full extent of the law’, (iii) initiation of measures to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens in Pakistan, and (iv) prevention of such incidents from recurring.[5] Quite understandably, Islamabad has little option other than fulfilling some of these demands.  

Two of these demands can be acceded to with some degree of success. However, fulfilling the last two demands—providing security to the thousands of Chinese personnel working on CPEC projects and others like the victims of the Karachi University attack—would invariably require a comprehensive approach to end the insurgency. The approach has to include, to the extent possible, negotiating with the insurgents to address some of their grievances regarding the CPEC. Needless to say, neither the Pakistani military has any competence or interest in this nor have the Chinese any patience for it. What Beijing could be privately pushing for is a joint strategy of annihilation, similar to the one it implements against the Uyghurs. However, while such a strategy has been quite successful in keeping the Uyghur insurgency under control in Xinjiang, the Pakistani military’s capacity to implement a similar strategy in Balochistan is clearly in doubt. Token and diversionary gestures to please Beijing either in the form of an investigation and few arrests, blaming a foreign intelligence agency, or undertaking a quick military operation against the BLA would suffice.  


Endnotes

[1] “Attack on the Chinese”, Editorial, Dawn, 27 April 2022, https://www.dawn.com/news/1687052/attack-on-chinese. Accessed on 27 April 2022. 

[2] “Killed more than 100 soldiers at military camps in Pakistan, claims Baloch Liberation Army”, India Today, 3 February 2022, https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/killed-more-100-soldiers-military-camps-pakistan-baloch-liberation-army-1908300-2022-02-03. Accessed on 4 April 2022. 

[3] Salman Rafi Sheikh, “Baloch militant merger targets Pakistan and China”, Asia Times, 29 January 2022, https://asiatimes.com/2022/01/baloch-militant-merger-targets-pakistan-and-china/. Accessed on 2 May 2022.

[4] “Factbox: Who are the Pakistan separatists behind attack on Chinese citizens?”, Reuters, 26 April 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/who-are-pakistan-separatists-behind-attack-chinese-citizens-2022-04-26/. Accessed on 5 May 2022.

[5] “Blood of Chinese people cannot be shed in vain: FM condemns terrorist attack that killed 3 Chinese in Pakistan”, Global Times, 26 April 2022, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202204/1260412.shtml. Accessed on 5 May 2022.

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director of Mantraya. This analysis has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Mapping Terror & Insurgent Networks”, “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” and “China and South Asia” projects. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)

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