A recent crash of a Pakistani military helicopter in the restive Balochistan Province has stirred the rumor mill and raised questions about the capabilities of increasingly active separatist insurgents.
On Sunday night, a military helicopter carrying six personnel including two officers went down in the district of Harnai, to the east of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan.
According to a statement released by Inter-Services Public Relations, the mouthpiece of Pakistan’s armed forces, the helicopter crashed during a “flying mission.” Baloch insurgents, on the other hand, claim they shot it down.
In a press statement, the Baloch Liberation Army said that its fighters hit the aircraft during a chase, after they captured two military personnel. Neither claim by the BLA — which is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department — could be independently verified, and experts have their doubts.
Still, the episode has highlighted anew the Pakistani government’s struggle to counter separatists who aim to turn its largest province into an independent state.
James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that if the helicopter was indeed shot down by the BLA, it would mark a major enhancement in their capabilities. “This would not have been possible without acquiring surface-to-air missiles and the training to use them,” he told Nikkei.
Dorsey added that it is also possible the helicopter crashed due to bad weather, and that the BLA’s claim is a mere public relations stunt. “We cannot say anything with certainty at this point,” he stressed.
Fakhar Kakakhel, an independent analyst specializing in militancy in Pakistan, agreed.
Kakakhel said the BLA’s ability to shoot down a helicopter would depend on the kind of weaponry they had. “We haven’t seen any anti-aircraft missile systems in the possession of BLA,” he said. “The BLA hasn’t provided any proof of shooting the military helicopter. We have witnessed dubious claims [from BLA] even in the recent past.”
In a similar case in early August, a Pakistani military helicopter carrying a senior commander and five other officers crashed on a mountain during a flood relief operation, killing all six on board. The BLA also took responsibility for that crash, but the claim soon fizzled out — rejected by the government and experts alike.
Either way, the frequent military crashes create a bad look for Pakistan’s armed forces. “Heli flying is getting dangerous,” Fawad Chaudhry, a former information minister, said in a tweet. “This needs engineering evaluation, too many crashes.”
There is little doubt that tensions between the government and the insurgents are heating up.
Balochistan has been in the grips of a low-scale separatist insurgency since 2005. The BLA is one of the larger groups among many. It stepped up its attacks after August 2018, when one of its commanders, Aslam Baloch, issued a direct threat to China to stop investing in Balochistan. The insurgents insist that foreign investors like China should not be doing business or exploiting resources in Balochistan for Islamabad’s benefit.
Aslam Baloch was killed in a suicide attack in Kandahar in December 2018, but the BLA did not back down after his death. The group was linked to a suicide bombing that killed three Chinese teachers at Karachi University in April, prompting pressure from Beijing for better protection of its interests, including Belt and Road development projects.
In the last few months, there have also been scores of attacks on Pakistani security forces in Balochistan. In August and September, multiple low-intensity shooting and bomb attacks targeted security checkpoints in the Makran region, a bombing targeted soldiers in the Bolan area, and security forces were attacked while erecting barbed-wire fencing on the Iran border, among other incidents. In many of these attacks, the BLA said they exacted a high death toll while the government rejected their claims.
In July, a lieutenant colonel of the Pakistan Army was kidnapped in Ziarat and executed by the BLA.
Experts suggest that the rise in violence is linked to instability in neighboring Afghanistan.
“Pakistan, having the longest border with Afghanistan, is obviously exposed to instability more than any other country,” Kakakhel said.
He added that after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, there were reports that Baloch insurgent camps were dismantled. “So, there may also be a possibility that these elements have resettled back into Balochistan with more weapons and training,” he said.