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COUNTER-INSURGENCY DYNAMICS IN BALOCHISTAN: EXAMINING MILITANT SURRENDERS AND RESURGENCES

Special Tactical Operations Squad (STOQ) of Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).
Special Tactical Operations Squad (STOQ) of Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).

On 20 December 2023, Sarfaraz Bangulzai, leader of the outlawed Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA), announced his surrender along with 70 associates. This marks a significant development in the complex landscape of Balochistan’s separatist movement.

The BNA, a separatist militant organisation fighting for an independent Balochistan, was formed in early 2022 as an amalgamation of the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and the United Baloch Army (UBA). The new separatist alliance faced its first major blow in April 2023, when the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of Pakistan’s armed forces, announced the apprehension of one of the BNA’s co-founders, Gulzar Imam, in a targeted intelligence-based operation. While Bangulzai’s surrender sounds like the BNA’s death knell, it will not substantially undermine the separatist movement in Balochistan.

Despite the BNA’s prominence in Balochistan’s militant landscape, its tactics have not been as sophisticated as those employed by other groups like the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and Baloch Liberation Front (BLF). Moreover, the last huge wave of surrender by militants in Balochistan only led to a temporary reduction in violence levels, as demonstrated by the recent resurgence of violence. In 2023, Balochistan experienced more than 300 attacks perpetrated by separatist militant groups. The conflict dynamics in Balochistan are multifaceted, rooted in issues of economic marginalisation, unequal distribution of benefits from development projects, and a prevailing sense of political alienation among the Baloch, which drives the insurgency. Past trends show militant groups have demonstrated the capability to bounce back after setbacks. But most importantly, the resurgence of violence emanates from a deep sense of alienation and the state’s reliance on a heavily securitised approach that deals with dissent through coercion.

Demobilisation and conflict dynamics

Militant fighters demobilise for a variety of reasons, motivated by both personal and structural factors, especially ideological disenchantment and infighting, personal hardship and a desire to unite with family. Soon after its formation, the BNA faced internal rifts and infighting, which was exacerbated after Gulzar Imam’s arrest. One of its regional commanders, Babar Yousaf, was killed by members of his own organisation. Financial difficulties, as well as lack of access to weapons and equipment, further undermined the group’s organisational integrity. In a press conference soon after his surrender, Bangulzai attributed his decision to give up armed struggle to foreign interference, the suffering of common people, and ‘families living in fear’. Periods of organisational disarray tend to increase the frequency rate of surrender among militant groups.

The twin threats of separatist movement and militancy by religious-ethnic groups in Pakistan and Iran, respectively, have been perennial sources of mistrust, mutual accusations, frequent border skirmishes, and the recent military strikes and counter-strikes between the two states.

The surrender by militant groups yields multiple benefits for a state’s counter-insurgency measures. It reflects an erosion of militant groups’ capacity, creates a perception regarding the inability of insurgent groups to maintain retention, and raises questions about the ideological commitment of its fighters. In addition, states use information extracted from militants to further weaken insurgencies. Most importantly, the surrender of militants also undermines the capability of insurgent groups, which is reflected in the overall decrease in violence levels. During 2015-17, more than 1300 militants gave up armed struggle under the government’s amnesty program. In 2015, Balochistan witnessed 96 incidents of violence, resulting in approximately 400 fatalities. But subsequent years saw a considerable decrease in violence; from 2017-2019, only 38 incidents of violence took place in Balochistan, resulting in 110 fatalities.

The increase in surrender rates and decrease in violence levels can be attributed to internal strife among separatist groups that have, at times, led to brutal infighting as well as military crackdowns. A decapitation strategy implemented by the Pakistani government targeting leaders of militant organisations both within the country and abroad contributed to the further erosion of militant groups’ capability. The government also carried out a massive, country-wide military operation to stem a new wave of terrorism targeting airports, schools, and important government installations.

Revitalised insurgency

Although the last spate of surrenders weakened the insurgent movement and violence levels considerably reduced, it proved to be a brief interlude. A few years’ lull has been followed by a revitalised insurgency in Balochistan armed with new tactics and strategies and demonstrating greater sophistication in attacks and target selections. The province has experienced significant casualties, making it the worst-hit province in 2019, accounting for more than 40 per cent of all casualties. This trend has persisted in Balochistan, along with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), accounting for more than 90 per cent of militant attacks in 2022.

The resurgence of violence in Balochistan is due to several factors, including unresolved political grievances, reduced inter-group rivalry, and more coordination among militant factions exemplified by the establishment of Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS). Reports also suggest tactical cooperation between Baloch separatist and religious militant groups, adding a new layer of lethality in violence. And, unlike past insurgencies that were led mostly by tribal leaders, the current phase of insurgency is led by an emergent middle class, contributing to an expanded support base and, consequently, prolonging the duration of the movement.

The insurgency is also evolving. The Fedayeen attacks by BLA’s Majeed Brigade signalled a greater willingness to challenge security forces directly. Unlike ambush and hit-and-run militant action, in Fedayeen attacks militants hit a target intending to cause maximum damage and at times attempt to hold hostages, with the awareness that they will not survive the attack/operation. One of the most lethal Fedayeen attacks was carried out by the BLA’s Majeed Brigade in 2022 simultaneously against security camps in Panjgur and Nushki districts. Furthermore, the targeting of Chinese nationals through suicide attacks, including women suicide bombers, since late 2018 has added a new dangerous tactical dimension with geopolitical implications. These developments challenge policymakers and security forces to not only understand the immediate challenges but also anticipate and proactively address the evolving strategies of insurgent groups, underscoring Balochistan’s complex security landscape.

However, the state has largely pursued a securitised approach to dealing with the Baloch political struggle, lacking a strategic vision to alleviate the sense of alienation among the people. Besides carrying out military and targeted intelligence-based operations across the province, it has undertaken practices of enforced disappearances of political workers, conducted allegedly fake encounters, and supported armed proxies/militias to counter the new wave of insurgency in Balochistan. These policies have led to grave human rights violations. Although the state contests this figure and reduces their number to a few hundred, according to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), there are more than 5000 missing persons in Balochistan, and their fate is unknown. The UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances says this state practice has created ‘a culture of entrenched impunity’. The lack of political vision, along with the festering conflict, has created an enabling environment for militant groups to operate, and as long as these policies persist, militant groups in one incarnation or another will continue to exist.

Marginalisation and militancy

The insurgent movement in Balochistan emanates from a deep sense of economic deprivation, political marginalisation, lack of equitable distribution of benefits from development interventions, and state repression. Despite mega development projects and Balochistan’s immense mineral resources, the province shows some of the worst socio-economic indicators in the country. Based on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), more than half of the top 20 districts are from Balochistan, which has an overall head-count poverty rate of 71.2 per cent. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan, Balochistan has 47 per cent of out-of-school kids against a national average of 32 per cent. Moreover, the maternal mortality rate in Balochistan is nearly 300 per 100,000 births, against a national average of 186 per 100,000 births.

The nature of the conflict in Balochistan is further complicated by the political and social context and dynamics of Baloch areas straddling the Iran-Pakistan border. The twin threats of separatist movement and militancy by religious-ethnic groups in Pakistan and Iran, respectively, have been perennial sources of mistrust, mutual accusations, frequent border skirmishes, and the recent military strikes and counter-strikes between the two states. Both regions hold strategic significance by hosting two important ports, Gwader and Chahbar are geographically vast, sparsely populated, largely ungoverned and inhabit an ethnic group that has been discriminated against and shows deep resentment against central governments in Tehran and Islamabad. These regions also happen to be one of the most significant routes for illegal human smuggling and drug trafficking.

The resurgence of insurgency in Balochistan presents formidable challenges for the state. It threatens to undermine hard-earned gains against militancy and terrorism made at a great cost in terms of both human lives and financial resources. The gravity of this threat intensifies further with the unleashing of a new wave of violence by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan across the country. The revitalized insurgency underscores deficiencies in the state’s counter-insurgency approach in Balochistan, which has primarily relied on hard power, lacking a strategic vision to politically resolve the conflict in Balochistan. Furthermore, the revitalised insurgency also poses a threat to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), particularly amid Pakistan’s prevailing economic challenges. This multifaceted nature of the threat demands a comprehensive reassessment of the state’s approach to effectively address the complex dynamics underlying the resurgence of insurgency in Balochistan.

Author biography

Sajid Aziz is an independent researcher whose whole work revolves around security and foreign policy issues. He has previously worked as a Consultant at the Strategic Policy Planning Cell (SPPC), an Islamabad-based research think tank. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/NATO Training Mission Afghanistan.

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