July 29, 2021
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A Tragedy Unfolds

As the world pays virtually no attention, the Baloch insurgency is an indication of the larger malaise that afflicts Pakistan, a crisis which opposition leader Raza Rabbani aptly calls "a crisis of the federation".

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A Tragedy Unfolds
"A very great tragedy is unfolding in Balochistan, and sadly the world is not paying attention." 

- Akbar Bugti

On December 17, 2005, the Pakistani Army and paramilitary launched an operation against the Baloch insurgents in the Kohlu, Dera Bugti, Noshki and Makran Districts, as well as other parts of the Balochistan province. The subsequent and escalating violence, including the indiscriminate bombing and strafing of civilian populations, and repeated and widespread clashes with suspected Baloch insurgents and dissenting tribesmen has led many to describe this as the 'fourth rebellion' in the Province since the creation of Pakistan.

Senator Sanaullah Baloch of the Balochistan National Party - Mengal group (BNA-M) told South Asia Intelligence Review on January 12 that the Pakistan Army and Air Force 'carpet-bombing' from December 18, 2005, had killed over 300 people, mostly women and children. Sources from the Marri and Bugti tribes indicate that intensive bombing and shelling by Helicopter Gunships and heavy artillery are currently continuing in Balochistan. The operations, which initially targeted the Marri tribe in Kohlu District, are now reported to have spread across other parts of the province.

Baloch leaders claim that the 50,000 regular Army troops are currently deployed in Balochistan, in addition to 37,000 personnel of the para-military Frontier Corps (FC). Sources confirm that there has been a significant enhancement of the military presence in the province over the past months, with an addition of at least four thousand FC personnel; another 2,000 Pakistan Rangers redeployed from Sindh and Punjab; and the 29th Infantry Brigade that has been brought in from Zhob to Dera Bugti. Baloch sources claim that the weaponry being used includes helicopter gunships, fighter jets, heavy artillery and missiles. 

Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, chief of the Bugti tribe, told Praveen Swami of Frontline in an exclusive interview that jet aircraft have been strafing and bombing the heights on either side of the Sui and Loti valleys. According to Sanaullah Baloch, moreover, "some dirt bombs and gases have also been used in first phase of bombing." These claims are yet to be corroborated by any independent media or source, since the Press and various independent agencies are being rigorously kept out of Balochistan by the military. Baloch sources, nevertheless, have put up a large number of photographs, lists and details suggesting that the overwhelming majority (Nawab Bugti claims 85 per cent) of those killed have been women and children, and that most of the military actions have targeted civilian settlements, rather than identifiable insurgent groups.

While the intensity of Islamabad's response may have come as a surprise to many outside the region, these are entirely in line with President Pervez Musharraf's earlier proclamations on a 'solution' to the 'Baloch problem'. In early 2005, he had warned the rebels, "Don't push us… It is not the '70s. We will not climb mountains behind them, they will not even know what and from where something has come and hit them." The Baloch leadership, 12 months later, is only shocked at the immediate scale of devastation, but not by the means employed, or the intent of the President.

The province, it merits repetition, is of critical importance to Pakistan, both strategically and otherwise. There are four major cantonments, 59 'mini cantonments', six missile testing ranges and three nuclear testing sites in Balochistan. Pakistan Air Force has six bases and the Navy another three in the troubled province, which is dotted with over 600 military check posts. Baloch nationalists describe the entire province as a 'mega-cantonment'.

Available information suggests that Kohlu and Dera Bugti Districts are currently completely surrounded by troops. Further, of Balochistan's 28 Districts, the 16 most strategic and important in terms of natural resources are now directly affected by the insurgency, and constitute a security problem for the military regime. Contrary to General Musharraf's position that only three of the 78 tribal chiefs in the province were "troublemakers", the truth is that insurgent attacks have left no part of the province unaffected. There has also been a continuous series of bomb and rocket attacks on gas pipelines, railway tracks, power transmission lines, bridges, and communications infrastructure, as well as on military establishments and governmental facilities and enterprises over the past 12 months, and on December 27, 2005, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao confirmed that there had been "an increase in the momentum of militancy recently".

Official data indicated that 187 bomb blasts, 275 rocket attacks, eight attacks on gas pipelines, 36 attacks on electricity transmission lines and 19 explosions on railway lines occurred in the year 2005. According to open source information monitored by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 182 civilians and 26 security force personnel died in the Province during 2005. However, given Islamabad's understated accounts, the suppression of the Press and erratic reportage from this poorly covered region, the actual numbers could be much higher.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) team led by Asma Jahangir, after its visit to Dera Bugti, noted that, "Due to the ongoing armed sorties, around 85 percent of the local population has already left Sui while Nawab Akbar Bugti has also vacated his residence in the town. Sui has in fact been shut off from the outside world since December 17th." Incidentally, on January 8, 2006, the HRCP team came under attack when two unidentified men fired at their vehicles in Sui. The Daily Times noted that the HRCP team was allegedly shot at by "security personnel" to prevent a neutral observer from finding out what was actually going on. The HRCP delegation was also "amazed to note" that the "police have not registered the FIR [First Information Report] of the firing incident on the HRCP vehicle that took place Sunday. Three charges of Kalashnikov fire were unleashed during the attack. It is also intriguing that the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) has claimed responsibility, given that the outfit has no quarrel with HRCP."

In addition to the widely dispersed attacks on vital state installations and SFs, two emerging patterns of insurgent attack are of great significance. The first of these is what Federal Interior Minister Sherpao called a deliberate attempt to target "settlers" in Balochistan, some of whom he claimed had been attacked and killed on December 26, 2005. The second is an attack on three launches of the Pakistan Navy at the Fish Harbour in Gwadar on January 7.

Amidst all this violence, Islamabad continued to issue denials about any military operation in the troubled province. Thus Federal Minister for Defence, Rao Sikandar Iqbal, stated at Okara, on January 9, 2006, that no military operation was being launched in Balochistan. Strikingly, the Federal Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, noted at Islamabad that the "operation has been wound up in Balochistan", but that SFs would remain in the province and strictly deal with those found involved in breaches of the law. These denials and reluctant admissions have been central to the military regime's attempts at a complete clampdown on information from the province. 

Islamabad has been actively blocking information in its efforts to cover up the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force and the lack of accountability of security agencies operating in Balochistan. Nevertheless, news has been gradually trickling in and the military regime, consequently, struggling to contain the fallout of the world noticing the Baloch insurgency, and Musharraf himself reacted with ferocity when India's External Affairs Ministry urged restraint in the use of force in Balochistan, declaring, "We know who is financing and supplying weapons". Indeed, the military regime and its political proxies have repeatedly sought to lay the blame on the 'hidden hand' and 'external actors' - with India and the US recurring in the statements of the radical Islamist parties - an aspect which very few are willing to accept. 

Dismissing allegations of external support, Nawab Bugti declared, "President Musharraf is using his favourite weapon - lies. His Objective is to defame the legitimate demands of the people of Balochistan." Bugti stated, further, "What is the need for us to take anything from anyone? The weapons we are now using flowed into this region when the United States financed the jihad in Afghanistan. It was the Inter-Services Intelligence which distributed them to Afghanistan, Iran, Jammu and Kashmir - and to us in Balochistan." As an editorial in Pakistan's Daily Times rightly noted, "While an exaggerated sense of external threat will not do Pakistan any good, what is happening internally is quite heart-breaking".

Further, the military regime has sought to justify the ongoing action in Balochistan as a reaction to the December 14, 2005, attack on General Musharraf in Kohlu. But this has only deepened the hatred the ordinary Baloch has for Islamabad. As Nawab Bugti recalled, the President had also been attacked in Rawalpindi and Karachi earlier, but no action was taken against the people of these cities.

With the threat of the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) to withdraw from the Cabinet having evaporated, at least for now, the small measure of caution that existed within the Musharraf regime has also disappeared. While an MQM pullout would not have affected the Federal Government, the coalition Government in Sindh would have collapsed, and the sectarian violence that long dominated the province may have revived. With Sindh and Balochistan destabilized, an opportunistic escalation in NWFP would be a distinct possibility, and the whole situation in Pakistan could explode beyond the current 'manageable' levels. Such an eventuality has temporarily been averted, with Musharraf buying off the MQM with assurances on the Kalabagh Dam, freeing the military regime to focus its might on repression in Balochistan.

But the Baloch insurgency is an indication of the larger malaise that afflicts Pakistan, a crisis which Opposition leader Raza Rabbani aptly called "a crisis of the federation". The potential for destabilisation in the Sindh and Punjab provinces may currently have been contained, but Musharraf's growing isolation, both within and outside Pakistan, can only compound the multitude of problems faced by his regime, especially as the regime gets increasingly bogged down in the Balochistan quagmire.

Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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