The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is the first ruling party in Islamabad in two decades that does not feel compelled to shoulder Balochistan’s burden. Previously, when the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) or the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) formed the government in Islamabad, that would as a matter of course lead to a government in Quetta that remained loyal to the ruling party in Islamabad.
This was often a relationship based on the hope of receiving better economic packages and political accommodation from the federal government as well as the fear of being reprimanded and reshuffled by the ruling party in Islamabad in the wake of bad performance. In return, the ruling party in Islamabad would at least live under the moral debt to make its provincial government look happy and stable.
The aftermath of the general elections of July 2018 has completely renegotiated that relationship between Islamabad and Quetta. It was not Islamabad alone where a new party formed the government for the first time but even in Quetta the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), formed barely a few months before the general elections, won the majority and formed a coalition government in the province.
The new power arrangement between Islamabad and Quetta has worked perfectly well for both the parties as they keep shifting responsibility for almost everything on each other.
Prime Minister Imran Khan broke away from the past tradition of the newly elected (or unelected leaders, such as General Musharraf) apologising to Balochistan for the injustices and mistakes of the past. A defiant or indifferent Khan did not pledge any political reconciliation with Baloch insurgent groups that have been active for more than a decade. Khan extended no firm invitations to disgruntled Baloch leaders nor did he form any committees or commissions to approach the Baloch leaders to end a conflict that has further escalated since the announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2013.
In Quetta, Jam Kamal, 45, the new chief minister, has pragmatically calculated his political authority (or the lack of it) and limitations with respect to taking a stand on issues as crucial as CPEC or negotiating with the Baloch nationalists. Thus, he has decided not to squander time on issues beyond his control. While Kamal’s father, Jam Yousaf, who served as Balochistan’s chief minister under General Musharraf, was an avid video gamer, the junior Jam has instantly earned a reputation as a marathon Tweeter like no other chief minister. Kamal’s Twitter stream only portrays a prosperous and thriving Balochistan where, it seems, there is no insurgency, no disappearances, no protests over water scarcity. It’s social media fallacy at its best.
Being unacknowledged by Prime Minister Khan or CM Kamal does not go well with the Baloch armed groups. This indifferent behaviour makes them feel underestimated, belittled and unnoticed. Realising that both the federal and the provincial governments are ignoring their grievances and mounting resentment toward a lack of Baloch say on CPEC and increasing fears of Chinese coming and taking over Balochistan, the Baloch armed groups are resorting to desperate and previously unseen attacks.
The attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi on November 23, 2018, by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) has stunned not only the government but also their own sympathisers for a number of reasons. Three things immediately distinguished the Karachi attack from the past. It was the first time the Baloch insurgents directly attacked the Chinese diplomatic mission. Secondly, the BLA expanded its operations from Balochistan to Karachi and, thirdly, it employed suicide bombing methods for operation.
Some Baloch seem absolutely terrified and nervous on only seeing what’s going on. Not everyone is convinced that it is prudent on the part of the BLA to antagonise two nuclear-armed states. While the BLA activists can always hit and run to their unknown and underground hideouts, ordinary Baloch remain fearful for their fate should China and Pakistan wage retaliatory operations. It is always the college-going young folks or members of the Baloch Students Organisation who become the first casualty of a government crackdown.
Generally, extraordinary attacks like the one on Chinese Consulate in Karachi have triggered calls to revisit the Balochistan policy. However, the current nationwide wave of censorship has helped the government evade any discussion on Balochistan.
The issue was suppressed within days. The aftermath of the attack led to the widespread bashing of the missing persons because the government had falsely claimed that the names of the two of the Karachi Consulate attackers had been on the list of the missing persons. The government did not back its allegations with any evidence, attracting severe criticism from human rights groups and families of the missing Baloch persons.
Since the announcement of CPEC, the Baloch feel there has been a considerable decline nationwide in sympathies for them in the national media and daily conversations. The government’s strategy of blaming India for the unrest in Balochistan or arguing that the enemies of CPEC are active in fomenting tensions appeals to a big segment of the population. While there is tremendous buy-in for this official narrative across the country, it ends up hurting the ordinary Baloch whose loyalties, motivations and actions remain under constant surveillance. There is barely any evidence that most of the disappeared people in Balochistan were ever linked with the insurgency. The onus to provide evidence of citizens’ involvement in anti-state activities rests on the government while the mandate to convict them remains the prerogative of courts. In Balochistan, that due process seems elusive.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Finance Minister Asad Umar flatly denied that there was any ‘anger’ in Balochistan to Chinese investment. Ignoring the fact that it is completely normal, democratic and patriotic for citizens to have an approving or a disapproving opinion on a policy issue, the finance minister immediately discredited local perspectives and concluded: “This is not anger of the people of Balochistan, these are activities of sponsored terrorists who receive training, funding [and] material from outside Pakistan. And is there a serious attempt to try and destabilize Balochistan and through that, try and subvert CPEC? Of course, there is. There is a concerted effort to do that.”
The Asad Umar approach of terming all critics foreign-funded terrorists has silenced some moderate democratic voices. It has closed the doors of political reconciliation and given the armed Baloch groups new reasons to mock political parties and regroup to pursue a rather peaceful path to political struggle.
An international headache
Once Balochistan was deemed as a minor problem restricted to a few districts. Caused by a lack of peaceful and timely solution, today developments in Balochistan can have foreign policy implications. Balochistan has regularly featured as a burning issue in Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan. The recent Karachi attack indicates that the unresolved conflict in Balochistan can cause tensions between China and Pakistan in case of more attacks on Chinese officials or nationals. Even Pakistan and Iran, which have had a long history of cooperation for decades in fighting Baloch separatist tendencies have begun to express frustration with each other over violent attacks on both sides of the border with a Sunni Baloch population. Border tensions between the two countries have only been getting worse.
On October 16, 2018, Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), formerly known as Jundallah, a Sunni extremist group, kidnapped fourteen Iranian security personnel, including members of the elite Revolutionary Guards. Iran insists that Jaish al-Adl, allegedly funded by Saudi Arabia, operates from the Pakistani side of the border. Reuters quoted General Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the Guard’s ground forces, saying that the Pakistani side needed to assume “more responsibility” in bringing back the kidnapped guards. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had to visit Islamabad twice in a month to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, to ask for Islamabad’s help in securing the release of the kidnapped guards.
On November 15, Pakistan said it had successfully recovered five of the 14 kidnapped guards.
Within a month, a joint attack by the three Baloch armed groups, the BLA, the Baloch Liberation Front and the Baloch Republican Guards, on December 14 in Turbat district bordering Iran, pitted the two governments against each other. At least six personnel of the Frontier Corps (FC) were killed when insurgents attacked the convoy in a mountainous region bordering Iran.
This time on December 15, Pakistan summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest the attack on Pakistani security forces. Pakistan urged the government of Iran “to carry out an effective operation against the terrorist group responsible for the attack on its side of the border.”
Managing the chaos in Balochistan, both in the heart of cities and villages as well as in border towns, requires rigorous political intervention and involvement. The PTI government must reflect on the flaws in its Balochistan policy that continues to alienate the local stakeholders from the government and also threatens diplomatic ties with almost all of Pakistan’s neighbours — India, Afghanistan, Iran.
Prime Minister Khan is already late in addressing and helping fix Balochistan. It can get worse if he continues to ignore the province where insurgent groups are building new coalitions and carrying out joint operations while political stakeholders regret the absence of a sense of urgency, seriousness and commitment to review the country’s overall Balochistan policy.