Some people are under the illusion that the Americans have taken this step as a Confidence Building Measure ahead of the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Washington, DC. This may be partly true but apparently, the American Deep State has diversified its Pakistan-specific pressure tactics from sponsoring Baloch cessationist militancy to exploiting Pashtun ethnic fault lines.
The US government has finally decided to designate Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), as a terrorist organization. BLA is a separatist militant group sponsored, funded and armed by hostile agencies to fight the State of Pakistan for causing instability in this resource-rich province of Pakistan. The Americans have taken this decision at a point in time when this group had run out of its utility because Pakistani forces have fought it through to near elimination. Some people are under the illusion that the Americans have taken this step as a Confidence Building Measure ahead of the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Washington, DC later this month. This may be partly true but apparently, the American Deep State has diversified its Pakistan-specific pressure tactics from sponsoring Baloch violent struggle to exploiting Pashtun ethnic fault lines.
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, is no ordinary piece of land; its geographical location and its untapped mineral reserves make it a target of special interest among players of regional politics including the US, India, former Soviet Union, UAE and even Afghanistan. All these countries have one converging interest in Balochistan; the province should become an independent state in their geo-strategic interests. Located very close to the oil lanes of the Persian Gulf and having a common border with Iran and Afghanistan, Balochistan is strategically very important. Commanding almost the entire coast of the country – 470 miles of the Arabian Sea, and boasting of a deep sea port recently completed with Chinese assistance at Gwadar, Balochistan comprises 43 per cent of Pakistan’s total area but is home to just over five per cent of the population, 50 per cent of which are ethnic Pakhtuns. Balochistan has always been ruled autocratically by sardars (tribal chiefs) who have kept their people backward, illiterate and deprived.
These sardars have been extorting billions each year from big corporations, federal government and equal billions in the name of development funds. They remain up in arms against the government to keep the funds flowing. Their other sources of funding are money from regional players channeled as donations. Mainly three sardars of Bugti, Marri and Mengal tribes have been in revolt against the federation from time to time. These sardars used to inflame nationalist sentiments and demand for greater provincial autonomy and control over the province’s natural resources developed into a demand for independence. The armed insurgent group, Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) has been active in acts of terrorism to keep the province destabilized for various long-term and short-term objectives which serve the interests of sole civil power and the states under its influence.
According to Institute for Study of Violent Groups, BLA was formed in 1999 and has 500 active members. Like many guerrilla and terrorist groups, the BLA has a structure comprised of both paramilitary and cellular components. The majority of the organization is composed of various units assigned to different training camps under various leaders, but some are assigned to urban cells and are responsible for the planting of explosives and reconnoitering targets. Some of the cells are ad hoc and once a BLA member has completed a mission, he may return to his paramilitary unit. There is no shortage of weapons in Balochistan available to the militants; many are regularly supplied from across Pakistan-Afghanistan border courtesy a host of “consulates” established for this very purpose. Other weapons are left over from previous conflicts in Afghanistan. Common weapons in the region include Russian Kalashnikovs, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), and various types of land mines.
Pakistan has always asserted that an “outside hand” is playing a role in the Baloch insurgency, though conclusive determinations are difficult to come by. One of the most widely cited examples of outside aid occurred in 1973 when Pakistan authorities entered the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad and uncovered a small arsenal of weapons, including 300 submachine guns and 48,000 rounds of ammunition. Akbar Bugti extended a helping hand in dismissal of ANP government and was made governor as a reward. He is the one who supervised the worst military operation against the separatists. The government claimed that the arms were destined for Balochistan; these accusations were never proven.
The BLA is not believed to have an organized recruitment effort in place; rather, the group is capitalizing on popular sentiment in the province and giving Balochs with nationalist tendencies a way to fight back at the government. The chief means of attracting poor, uneducated Baloch youths are the dozens of training camps believed to be in operation in the province. The group’s targeting and tactics are designed to reduce the economic incentive for the central government’s presence in the province. Accordingly, sites where natural resources are harvested by the government are the most common target; these include natural gas pipelines and oil fields. Soldiers and civilians working in government capacities in Quetta are also prominent targets, in addition to journalists. The BLA has shown equal proficiency with both bombings and armed assault, though it appears that members prefer the use of RPGs as opposed to planted explosives, some of which appear to have been planted by younger members with little or no insurgency experience.
The militants and their sponsors may have disintegration of Pakistan and establishment of an independent state of Balochistan as their long-term objective but their short-term objectives are very clear; closing down of deep-sea port of Gwadar and failing Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. India and UAE have direct stakes in the first objective whereas the US does not want to allow the pipeline project to go ahead. Gwadar port has both strategic and commercial implications for UAE and India. Chinese involvement in building the port, aimed at generating economic activity in Balochistan and facilitating the Chinese to import oil and raw materials from the Middle East and Africa and export goods through a land corridor extending from Gwadar to China’s Sinkiang province, became the sore of many eyes. An oil refinery in Gwadar and recovering huge mineral deposits in the province to serve as the precursor of another enormous economic opportunity – a trade corridor for Central Asia, particularly for its oil and gas.
Dissident sardars rose up in arms in an effort to destroy the project and its profound impact on Balochistan’s economy for fear of losing their hold on the people. In a sustained campaign, aided and abetted by outside interests opposed to Gwadar port, fears were expressed that this was an effort to colonize Balochistan. In this backdrop, a low intensity insurgency festered in Balochistan for a few decades now.
India began meddling in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s in the post-Bangladesh era. By fostering an insurgency, India tried the same model in Balochistan – exploiting the disaffection between the state and the dissident sardars. The aim was to deny Pakistan the energy resources, bleed it economically, and fragment it ultimately. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) – the most active insurgent group today, made its debut in 1973. Arms from the former Soviet Union found their way into the province and many insurgents were clandestinely trained and educated there. Down the road India became concerned at the development of Gwadar port which, besides making the Baloch people economically independent, was to be of strategic importance to the Pakistan Navy. India did not like the Chinese presence at Gwadar as this was to interfere with its desire of controlling the Indian Ocean region with its upcoming blue water navy. Leaders of Baloch insurgencies have publicly listed India among their sponsors. Brahamdagh Bugti, a BLA leader, said that he accepted assistance from India and Afghanistan to defend the Baloch nationalist cause.
Baloch Media Network quotes Wahid Baloch, President of Baloch Society of North America, as saying, “We love our Indian friends and want them to help and rescue us from tyranny and oppression. In fact, India is the only country which has shown concern over the Baloch plight. We want India to take Balochistan’s issue to every international forum, the same way Pakistan has done to raise the so-called Kashmiri issue. We want India to openly support our just cause and provide us with all moral, financial, military and diplomatic support.” Not to be left behind was the former RAW agent B. Raman who wrote this to Sonia Gandhi: “struggle for an independent Balochistan is part of the unfinished agenda of the partition”. With Afghanistan coming under US occupation, Mossad, MI6 and the CIA jumped into the fray with an agenda of Greater Balochistan, providing new partners to India.
Small pockets of local resistance mushroomed into organized foreign funded, armed groups, which were discretely supported by the three dissident tribal chiefs. As a hub for joint operations, India established a ring of 26 consulates along the Balochistan border in Afghanistan and Iran that began funding, training and arming the dissidents.
Interestingly, major stakeholders of insurgency are not the common people of Balochistan. The insurgent groups are led by the scions of the three rebel chiefs who are in line to succeed their aging patriarchs. The movement offers no substitute to the Sardari system. By creating instability through acts of terrorism they hope to chase the Chinese away and create obstacles for the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which is opposed by Washington.
According to the analysis of Baloch Media Network, the selection of targets and use of modern weapons demonstrates quite clearly that the dissidents have been trained by military experts. Violent movements of this magnitude cannot last without very large funds which they cannot raise on their own. According to an estimate of 2011, the financial outlay for BLA alone is 50-90 million rupees per month. Reportedly, massive cash is flowing into their hands from Afghanistan through American defence contractors, CIA foot soldiers and free lancers. The Americans have developed an interest in Balochistan for several reasons. It is the only available route for transportation of oil and gas from Central Asian and Caspian Sea region after alternate routes via Russia or China were not found feasible. Then Balochistan itself had an estimated 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves and six trillion barrels of oil reserves in addition to gold, copper and other minerals, making it attractive for exploration. Like the Indians, the Americans also did not like the Chinese breathing down their neck in Gwadar – so uncomfortably close to the oil lanes of the Straits of Hormuz and the US bases in the Indian Ocean, although at no point did Pakistan and China contemplate Gwadar to become a Chinese military base. Balochistan shares a long border with Iran along Iranian Balochistan, which is inhabited by a large Baloch population.
Look at the demand of Baloch sardars which was accepted for political expedience; remove army cantonments and garrisons from Balochistan. The armed forces are virtually absent from Balochistan yet they are held accountable for act of brutality unleashed by the terrorists. The BLA have all the characteristics of a foreign funded terrorist organization. It has massacred thousands of innocent civilians simply in order to spread fear and keep the province destabilized to serve foreign interests. Its victims include Punjabi settlers and even Baloch youth itself. Its tactics are the very same employed by Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan insurgency. They kill, loot and vandalize in the garb of security agencies’ personnel and successfully manipulate the obliging media. Yet it has not been declared a terror outfit because it is sponsored by CIA, MI5 and RAW besides intelligence agencies of UAE and Afghanistan. The reasons are obvious.
But this is all history. Thanks to security forces’ sacrifices, the Baloch stood behind law enforcers, particularly the Frontier Corps Balochistan. The security forces reached out to people in every possible way which emboldened them to stand upto BLA terrorists. Now the BLA is near dead and its designation at this stage is mercy-killing by the sponsors to end its agonies. (Updated July 3, 2019)
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