Imran’s Baluchistan Dilemma

By Malik Siraj Akbar

The recent unprecedented siege of the Frontier Corps (FC) headquarters in Baluchistan’s Panjgur and Nushki districts has once again reset the conversation on the unresolved conflict. These days, Twitter Spaces provides an excellent opportunity for people from various walks of life to exchange ideas on such pressing issues. Politicians, journalists, activists from Baluchistan seem to vigorously have the missing conversations they have not had on such a widespread scale. This is all positive and heartening as people are getting to hear each other’s unfiltered perspectives that barely reached from one part of the country to the other due to self-censorship practiced by most of Pakistan’s news channels when it comes to Baluchistan.

I eavesdropped on some of these prolonged conversations that often last for several hours where leading politicians from different parties and senior opinion-makers participate and share their analysis of what they believe caused the recent attacks and what should now be done to ensure damage control.

It is surprising how so many people intentionally or unintentionally deflect the topic toward the issues that do not seem to concern the perpetrators who attacked the FC. Some experts insist that Baluchistan’s development budget should be increased while others propose constitutional modifications to protect the province’s rights.

These are all great ideas. But the problem is this is not what the BLA and the other Baluch armed groups are asking or fighting for.

The BLA does not cite economic deprivation, under-representation in the federal services, or the issue of missing persons as a reason for its struggle against Islamabad. Of course, it exploits all these existing genuine grievances, but they are not the primary drivers and sources of motivation for the BLA to fight against Pakistan. Not many liberal, moderate Pakistani politicians or journalists wish to hear that, but these armed groups are solely fighting for Baluchistan’s complete freedom. No economic and constitutional package can please them.

At this point, it is irrelevant whether or not the BLA’s demands and approaches are legitimate. Still, it is unhelpful to misinterpret or misconstrue their struggle to avoid offending patriotic Pakistanis.

Does anyone actually believe that the insurgency in Baluchistan will end if Dr. Allah Nazar (leader of the Baluch Liberation Front) is appointed as the Chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), or will Bashir Zeb, the BLA commander, give up arms if he is offered a job at the Pakistan Petroleum Limited? The answer is clearly no (at least for now). Hence, there is more work to be done by those who are earnestly striving to find solutions to Baluchistan’s problem. Jobs at WAPDA, PPL, and OGDCL are apparently not the answer to these armed Baluchs.

The shift in the leadership of the Baluch armed groups has plunged the tribal elite in exile in complete isolation and irrelevance.

Another significant trend from the recent operations that merits attention is the BLA’s sophistication in using social media and other tools of communications to spread its message and pose itself as the winner of the dayslong standoff. Despite enormous human and financial resources, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistan Army, lagged way behind the Baluch insurgents, who remained people’s primary source of information on what was happening during these days. The ISPR had a responsibility to inform the entire country and the media, but it miserably failed. Over the years, the ISRP has applied coercion and threats to manage the news and the narrative on Baluchistan. The BLA took advantage of the widespread appetite for information about the situation. It continuously released the audio conversations between the fighters on the ground and their commander.

A lot of these conversations were revealing, given the calmness and the confidence of the Baluch fighters. Despite being inches away from death, they can be heard laughing at the Pakistani military’s failures and their inability to fight them for days. Although the army prevailed and eliminated all of the armed fighters, the recordings from these recent operations have added an unmatched wealth of propaganda and recruitment materials the Baluch insurgents will use to lure more soldiers in the future.

Prime Minister Imran Khan not only visited Baluchistan along with the Army Chief but he also announced a staggering 15% increase in the salaries of the Frontier Corps personnel. But this could be counterproductive given how the Baluchs will perceive it. The temperatures in Baluchistan are currently incredibly high. Any gesture from the Prime Minister that suggests that he is on the side of the troops will be manipulated by the armed groups but even members of the Baluch civil society as proof that he does not equally care about the Baluch sufferings. Most Baluch conversations during Khan’s visit were punctuated with questions like, “where was he when our people were being whisked away?” or “why does he not show the same level of compassion for the Baluch when security forces throw away the dead bodies of our loved ones?”

Mr. Khan is supposed to be the whole country’s Prime Minister. There are several speeches and statements of his dating back to his time as an opposition leader where he puts into context why the Baluchs are up in arms against Pakistan, but now that he is the Prime Minister, he pretends not to remember what he used to say about Baluchistan.

Ironically, in 2009, Khan testified in support of Hyrbyair Marri, who was accused of heading the BLA. Mr. Khan then even went to the extent of justifying the BLA’s right to pick up arms against the State, insisting that he would do the same if he were in place of the Baluch activists who had no platform to assert themselves. “Hundreds disappeared [in Baluchistan], there was extrajudicial killing. It was treated more like a colony rather than a part of Pakistan.”

The loss of lives on both sides is deplorable. However, glorifying the troops, increasing their salaries, and justifying sending more forces in Baluchistan, amounts to encouraging the ongoing culture of impunity that the security forces have enjoyed for over a decade. There are already reports of a new wave of enforced disappearance across Baluchistan in what seems like retaliatory action by the security forces in response to last week’s events.

The Prime Minister must play his role in deescalating tensions in Baluchistan. One major step to sideline and isolate the armed groups would be to find and form allies and supporters among the families of the missing persons. Unless their grievances are addressed and the missing Baluch persons are released, these cases will fuel the fire that has engulfed Baluchistan. The province needs a massive political intervention. The Baluchistan Awami Party-led government undoubtedly doesn’t have the popular mandate, the political insight, experience, and vision to resolve this problem. The insurgency is only one problem that Baluchistan faces; the political engineering of the political system is another significant challenge that should urgently be addressed. Otherwise, this dysfunctional government will plunge the entire province into a state of chaos and anarchy.

The writer is the editor of The Baluch Hal:

Categories: News & Analysis

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