Baloch rebels like the BLA, who seek to become independent from Pakistan entirely, have reacted strongly to Chinese investment in the province…The complicated socio-political conflict in Pakistan’s largest province appears to be out of reach for the Pakistani central government, as security forces continue to face bombings and suicide attacks.
Pakistan has seen no shortage of conflict in 2023 amid growing socio-political polarization across the country. On 5 August, ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested and given a 3-year prison sentence on corruption charges. The sentence comes a year after Khan was ousted from power following a no-confidence vote, a move which was allegedly backed by the United States Department of State.
Aside from the ongoing political dispute in Islamabad, Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan has seen an escalation in violence. The insurgent separatist Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy of Chinese engineers on 13 August 2023, near the city of Gwadar. Two of the BLA assailants were killed by security forces with no casualties reported on the side of the Chinese personnel. The attack on the convoy is not the first time that Baloch separatists have targeted Chinese-related development operations. China is building a seaport in Gwadar as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The violence is largely attributed to China’s aim to link its Xinjiang province to the Arabian Sea by way of railroads and bridges as part of CPEC.
Baloch rebels like the BLA, who seek to become independent from Pakistan entirely, have reacted strongly to Chinese investment in the province. China vehemently condemned the attack on its workers and warned Pakistan to prevent further escalation. Growing militancy in Balochistan at the hands of the BLA and other groups has made Pakistan’s largest province an increasingly insecure region that teeters on the brink of collapse.
Not only does the threat of militancy in Balochistan affect Pakistan’s relationship with China, who is investing $62 billion into CPEC, heightened insurgency and violence in the province also poses a continued threat of conflict for women and girls. Purportedly, at the hands of Pakistani security forces, thousands of Baloch have gone missing in the province, which has left many mothers and wives without succour and they are suffering from extreme mental trauma. In addition to these enforced disappearances, Balochistan's close proximity to Afghanistan makes Baloch women and children increasingly susceptible to the anti-women agenda of the Taliban and the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), the Pakistani faction of the Taliban that has increasingly encroached into Balochistan. The ongoing violence in Balochistan is exacerbated by the province’s porous border with Afghanistan, allowing violent actors to move resources to and fro, making it easier for enforced disappearances and violent attacks to go unchallenged.
Continued militancy and terrorism operations in Balochistan not only threaten the livelihood of society’s most vulnerable people, but also the prospects of free and fair elections. The conflict is interlinked with Pakistan’s fragmented politics, amid an already fractious political scene in Islamabad. On 19 September 2023, the central leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), Advocate Arbab Ghulam Kasi, was found dead in an abandoned area outside of Balochistan’s capital, Quetta. The ANP’s anti-militant stance makes Kasi’s killing likely attributable to a militant or terror cell. In 2013, the TTP carried out an attack on ANP leaders during an election campaign in response to a perceived crackdown on extremism. Seemingly, Baloch separatists, likely supported by the TTP in some fashion, have sought to prevent cross-border trade with Iran. Many Baloch separatists supported by the BLA represent either the Balochistan National Party (BNP) or Haq Do Tehreek, another political party, who together claim that there is a ‘conspiracy’ against the people of Balochistan.
The complicated socio-political conflict in Pakistan’s largest province appears to be out of reach for the Pakistani central government, as security forces continue to face bombings and suicide attacks. One attack on 24 June 2023, carried out by a female suicide bomber, killed one and injured several more. However, Balochistan’s importance stretches far beyond Pakistan. The multitude of violent actors that aim to control the Baloch region appear to do so not just for sovereignty but also for its natural resources. The region is massively important to the energy sector due to its naturally-occurring mineral supply. There are large amounts of gold, copper, quartzite, marble, limestone, barite and sulfur in the Baloch mountain ranges, in addition to expansive oil reserves. With an estimated value at over $1 trillion, control over Pakistan’s largest province has become the top priority for terror cells and violent political groups alike. As Islamabad struggles to contain the violence in the midst of political furor in the central government, a larger, more wild conflict could break out. Perceived political alignment between the BLA, other Baloch militant outfits and the TTP will only fuel violence in the Baloch region, pitting Pakistan in an increasingly tumultuous position between lawlessness and authoritative control.
The unrelenting conflict in Balochistan is not taking place exclusively within the province’s borders, or even Pakistan itself. Baloch human rights activist Karima Baloch, who was living in exile in Canada, was found dead in Toronto in 2020 after she was charged with terrorism by the Pakistani state. The mystery surrounding Karima’s death is only compounded by the Canadian government’s lack of action in her alleged murder. Nearly three years after her death, there are still no concrete answers to explain what happened. It may not be unreasonable to assume that Pakistani authorities are responsible for Karima’s sudden death in light of the disappearances of thousands of activists and separatists in Balochistan. If this is the case, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s silence on the matter speaks volumes and hints at a much deeper differences between Canada and Pakistan.
Without causing more chaos, it is important for the Pakistani government to come clean on its alleged involvement in the enforced disappearances of Baloch activists and dissidents and address genuine concerns of the Baloch people. To end terror operations in the province, the governments of South Asia must coordinate their efforts to prevent a larger scale conflict from erupting. International fora must pay closer attention to Balochistan’s ongoing violence in order to develop a cohesive strategy if it is serious about eradicating insurgency in Balochistan. The fighting in Balochistan could explode into a transnational conflict if the roots of the conflict remain unaddressed.
Josh Bowes is a Research Assistant at South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) which functions under the Millennium Project in Washington, DC. He focusses on South Asian security challenges. The views expressed are his own.