Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Balochistan looks ready to blow, and when it does, it likely will spill over

In the ungoverned corners of the world, conflicts simmering under the surface will almost inevitably boil over every now and again.



By Emily Whalen
Best Defense bureau chief for Balochistan

In the ungoverned corners of the world, conflicts simmering under the surface will almost inevitably boil over every now and again. Given the variables involved, the conflict in Pakistan’s Balochistan province looks ready to do just that — and it will almost certainly spill over Pakistan’s borders.

Pakistan strategists will often talk about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Pakistan-Afghan border as security considerations, but rarely examine Balochistan, the largest and most resource-rich province in Pakistan, in detail. This can be misleading: The FATA make an ideal backdrop against which to praise the Pakistani Army’s relatively successful Zarb-e-Azb counterterrorism offensive, yet in Balochistan, the main stage for China’s $46 billion infrastructure investment, security forces falter. The active Baloch separatist movement dates from the time of Pakistan’s partition from India, and militants have complicated the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s centerpiece, a highway connecting China’s western provinces with the new deep-water port in Gwadar (allowing China overland access to the Persian Gulf). Increased attacks by militants on CPEC construction sites in the past year pushed project leaders to reroute the highway largely through Sindh province, rather than directly through Balochistan.

At the same time, the Pakistani military and police force have stepped up their presence in Balochistan, with little benefit. Forced disappearances and raids against alleged separatists have continued over recent years, with nationalist militias responding in kind. There is no love lost between the Baloch and the security apparatus in Pakistan, a dynamic further complicated by power struggles in Islamabad: It’s still not clear who has won the murky power struggle between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government and the Pakistani military. As a result, while the Balochistan conflict has always been an international conflict (ethnic Baloch reside in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan), 2016 saw an unprecedented internationalization of the instability in province.

In 2014, at the start of the Zarb-e-Azb operation, the Pakistani armed forces dramatically ramped up their raids and airstrikes against extremists in the FATA. The FATA are a functionally independent region of Pakistan, where tribal law outweighs national law. This means that the areas acquired a reputation as a lawless hinterland. The Pakistani Taliban and its counterpart in Kabul operated fairly freely there, as did a number of other violent extremist groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. Yet after the Zarb-e-Azb operation’s success, Pakistani officials unveiled in August 2016 a ten-year plan to formally integrate the FATA into the nearby Khyber-Pakhtunkwa province, firmly bringing the tribal areas under Islamabad’s authority.

Three months before this announcement, a U.S. drone strike killed Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Balochistan’s capital city, Quetta. Drone strikes are relatively common in the FATA, but the May 2016 strike in Quetta was the first in Balochistan; many of the region’s residents felt the strike crossed a “red line,” representing an untenable infringement on Pakistani sovereignty. Within days, protests against the drone strike took place in Lahore and Quetta, among other cities.

Both the successful Zarb-e-Azb operation and the drone strike in Quetta have pushed Balochistan to the foreground of Pakistan’s simultaneous internal-external struggle: against violent extremism and for international credibility and clout. Between August and November of 2016, Quetta saw three major violent attacks: on a hospital (where Jamaat-ul-Ahrar killed 93 people), on a police academy (where Lashkhar-e-Jhangvi killed 63 people), and on a Sufi shrine (where the so-called Islamic State killed 62 people).* Baloch resistance leaders draw parallels between the broken promises of the international community in Syria and Balochistan’s own nationalist aspirations (link in Urdu). Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred specifically to Balochistan in his 2016 Independence Day speech, a controversial move that drew criticism from Islamabad.

A striking aspect of globalization has been that regional conflicts eventually begin to draw invested international players. Savvy resistance leaders will exploit this tactic to their advantage (consider the success of the Palestinian Liberation Organization at the United Nations), but internationalization is also a perilous path. On the international stage, nuance and subtlety get flattened out, and the political middle ground — where opportunities for moderation and compromise thrive — evaporates as the stakes (and defense budgets) get higher.

What, if any, conclusions are to be drawn from this troubling forecast? Force — whether in the form of Pakistani army raids, or U.S. drone strikes — treats the symptoms of resistance, but not the cause. Real, sustainable security in Balochistan, as in the rest of Pakistan, will not develop until Prime Minister Sharif, with the support of regional partners, addresses Baloch political and economic grievances directly. Without courageous political reform, Pakistani leaders are incentivizing the internationalization of Balochistan and sowing the seeds for a dangerous harvest.

Emily Whalen is a doctoral student at the University of Texas, Austin, specializing in the history of American foreign policy in the Middle East. She is a consultant for the EastWest Institute and a former coordinator for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project Pakistan team. Follow her on Twitter: @eiwhalen

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1