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Baloch grievances need political action. History shows insurgency can’t be killed with force

Like a bad dream, the ghosts of Aslam Baloch's slain insurgents resurfaced this week and stormed Pakistani military outposts in Panjgur and Noshki.

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Early on the evening of Christmas in 2018, a fire rose from Kandahar’s Aino Maina Development, a gated residential community built by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother Mahmoud Karzai as a home for the city’s colourful, hard-partying elite of drug-dealers, warlords and spies. For several hours, gunshots kept ringing out as insurgents from the Taliban-linked Haqqani network battled their way past guards towards a dark home at the far end of the complex.

There were celebrations that night, it is possible, some seven hundred kilometres away at the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’s headquarters in Rawalpindi. The attack had claimed the life of Aslam ‘Achu’, the most important Baloch insurgent commander, who had long harried Pakistan’s intelligence services from his Afghan citadel.

Like a bad dream, though, the ghosts of the slain insurgents resurfaced this week as those who Aslam Baloch had prepared for battle stormed Pakistani military outposts in Panjgur and Noshki. Nine soldiers, at least, are reported to have been killed in a battle that raged for days — shattering illusions that the Baloch insurgency’s back had been broken.

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The story of Baloch Fidayeen

Last week’s strike by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) has fuelled speculation that the Left-leaning nationalist insurgency group has tied up with regional jihadist groups. The truth is that the BLA’s Majeed Fidayeen Brigade — named, the story has it, after a Baloch soldier who attempted to assassinate Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1975 — was active for at least twenty years before the operations at Panjgur and Noshki placed it under the arc-lights of international media attention.

In December 2011, using a car bomb driven by a suicide-attacker, the Majeed Fidayeen Brigade attempted to assassinate former Pakistan minister Nasser Mengal at his home in Quetta; the bombing killed 13 people and injured 30. Then, in August 2018, the BLA killed three Chinese engineers in a strike at Dalbandin. Later in 2018, the Fidayeen Brigade attacked the Chinese mission in Karachi.

The Fidayeen Brigade was founded by Takari Mohammad Aslam, the real name of the insurgent killed in Kandahar. Born in 1975, Aslam emerged from the ranks of a new generation of educated, urbanised young Balochs who stood apart from the region’s traditional tribal structure. Like many of his generation, Aslam harboured a deep resentment against ethnic-Punjabi immigrants in the region, who were claimed to be cornering economic opportunities and arable lands.

In his late teens, Aslam became involved in Baloch nationalist circles. Later, he began attending a study circle led by Khair Baksh Marri, a prominent Left-wing Baloch politician who had himself just returned to Pakistan in 1994, after two decades in exile.

From around 2000, Aslam joined the BLA, running its first training base in Bolan. The BLA is thought to have drawn in several hundred volunteers — among them, Aslam’s son Rehan, who was killed in the 2018 strike on the Chinese engineers. The organisation, however, proved incapable of mounting a sustained insurgent campaign. In 2006, Aslam led the remnants of the BLA across the border into Pakistan.

BLA leaders, Islamabad has long alleged, began receiving assistance from Afghanistan’s intelligence services — as retaliation against Pakistan’s own sponsorship of the Taliban — as well as India’s Research and Analysis Wing. In 2016, Aslam was treated for combat injuries at the Max Hospital in New Delhi’s Saket.

Following the triumph of the Taliban last year, however, the BLA lost its safe haven in southern Afghanistan, and many believed the insurgent group was about to be consigned to history.

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How the Baloch insurgency was born

Like so many other South Asian insurgencies, the conflict in Balochistan was rooted in the efforts of post-Independence governments to stamp their authority over polities where the British Empire had only a loose influence. In 1947, Mir Ahmad Yar Khan, the ruler of the quasi-independent State of Balochistan, declared Independence. In March 1948, Pakistan sent in its military to settle the issue.

Even though Mir Ahmad Yar Khan made peace with Pakistan, his younger brothers — Agha Abdul Karim Baloch and Muhammad Rahim Baloch — refused to stop fighting. Their Dosht-e-Jhalawan insurgent groups harried the Pakistan army till the 1950s.

Following the India-Pakistan war of 1971, tensions began to resurface again, scholars Gulshan Majeed and Rehana Hashmi have recorded. The National Awami Party (NAP), which won provincial elections in Balochistan, irked Prime Minister Bhutto by evicting ethnic-Punjabis from the civil services and setting up its own local police force.

In 1972, armed clashes broke out between the supporters of federal interior minister Abdul Qayyum Khan and the NAP.  Islamabad alleged that key regional leaders like Ataullah Mengal and Abdul Wali Khan had conspired, at a meeting in London, to declare Independence with Indian help.

The path had now been cleared for outright war. Led by the Balochi People’s Liberation Front and Balochi Students’ Organisation, thousands of ill-armed guerrillas took on six entire divisions of the Pakistan army. Tens of thousands of civilians, along with 5,300 insurgents and 3,300 troops, are estimated to have been killed.

Also Read: Help from Pakistan Taliban? What lies behind ‘unprecedented’ attacks by Baloch Liberation Army

The third Baloch insurgency begins

From early in 2005, a fresh wave of insurgency broke out, following Pakistan’s military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s refusal to prosecute a soldier alleged to have raped a local doctor. Insurgents loyal to Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti — who, in 1973, had lined up against the nationalist insurgents — responded by storming the Sui gas fields. Insurgents also besieged dozens of military outposts scattered across the province.

General Musharraf responded with threats: “Don’t push us”, he warned, “It isn’t the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won’t even know what hit you”.

Like in the 1970s, this third insurgency was precipitated by the Pakistani State. In 2002, General Musharraf had engineered the electoral victory of an Islamist coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. Journalist Najam Sethi noted that this alienated “the old non-religious tribal leadership as well as the new secular urban middle classes of Balochistan who [saw] no economic or political space for themselves in the new military-mullah dispensation”.

Eventually, the insurgents were crushed, and Bugti himself slain. The core of the insurgents, though, slipped over the border into Afghanistan.

Few details have emerged on how the BLA rebuilt itself from 2006 on. Elements of the parallel Baloch insurgency in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, the scholar Antonio Giustozzi has written, developed ties with the Islamic State in Afghanistan. In addition, some ethnic-Baloch criminal organisations played a role in Taliban-controlled trafficking of narcotics from the opium heartlands of southern Afghanistan into Iran. These linkages might, conceivably, have helped the BLA acquire access to weapons, training and funding.

The message is a simple one: Force isn’t a substitute for meaningful political action on Baloch grievances. Despite the extrajudicial execution of thousands of Baloch civilians, as well as torture and a thoroughgoing media crackdown, the insurgency is refusing to die.

The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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