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Pakistan’s other insurgency: The fight for Balochistan
Along with ongoing Taliban insurgency, Pakistan also faces rebellion in its southwestern Balochistan province
Along with a years-long Taliban insurgency, Pakistan also faces a simmering separatist movement in its southwestern Balochistan province, which shares borders with both Afghanistan and Iran.
Since the birth of Pakistan in 1947, several parts of the mineral-rich province -- especially those dominated by ethnic Balochs -- have seen sporadic rebellions.
Baloch separatists fighting for what they call the "liberation" of Balochistan say the province was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan -- against the will of its people -- following the end of British colonial rule.
They also accuse Punjab -- Pakistan’s richest province -- of appropriating Balochistan’s natural resources.
Their critics, however, argue that the then-rulers of Balochistan (which at the time of Pakistan’s creation was divided into two independent states, Qallat and Makran) were incorporated into Pakistan voluntarily, along with scores of other states that joined either India or Pakistan in 1947.
Over the last 66 years, thousands of people -- including numerous security personnel -- have been killed in the on-again, off-again insurgency, which remains ongoing.
The latest outbreak of the rebellion began in 2006 following the death of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti -- a Baloch nationalist leader who had formerly served as a provincial chief minister -- in an army operation ordered by then President Pervez Musharraf.
Balochistan, which accounts for 42 percent of Pakistan’s total territory and is the country's least developed province, provides 20 percent of the country's total gas production.
Although a number of different separatist outfits operate in various parts of Balochistan, there are five main groups.
The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), founded in the 1970s, is the oldest Baloch separatist group. Prior to its emergence, there had been minor insurgencies by different tribes at different times.
The BLA, which has its roots in the Kohlu District near Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, is believed to be led by Mir Hyrbyair Marri, a nationalist leader currently residing in the U.K.
The group is comprised of hundreds of trained guerilla fighters from the powerful Marri tribe.
The Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), an offshoot of the BLA, has its roots in the province’s coastal Turbat, Makran, and Gawadar districts. It is the only Baloch separatist group whose leader, Allah Nazar Baloch, openly admits to leading it.
Although Pakistani security agencies claimed to have killed Baloch in an operation carried out earlier this year, he refuted the claim in a video purportedly released last month.
The United Balochistan Liberation Army (UBLA), meanwhile, is a relatively a new group, founded after 2000. It is known for confronting Pakistani security forces in the province’s Mhuch and Qallat districts.
The Balochistan Republic Army (BRA), for its part, was established following the assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti by youths from the Bugti tribe. It has roots in Dera Bugti, Bugti’s home district.
Nawabzada Barahamdagh Bugti, the grandson of Nawab Bugti, is thought to be the BRA’s current leader. He currently lives in self-imposed exile in Switzerland.
There is also the Lashkar-e-Balochistan, which operates in and around Balochistan’s strategically important Khuzdar district. This group is said to be comprised mainly of Mengal tribesmen.
Karachi-based analyst Aziz Sanghur says Baloch separatist groups intentionally work independently of one another -- rather than join forces under a single umbrella -- so as to avoid being traced in case of the arrest of their respective leaders.
"They [the various separatist groups] don’t want to operate under a single chain of command, as the arrest of a single key leader could ruin the entire network," Sanghur told Anadolu Agency.
He believes the entire separatist movement was almost dead until 1999, when several "disastrous" steps taken by Musharraf combined to resuscitate it.
"There are four key factors behind the rejuvenation of the separatist movement," Sanghur observed.
The first of these, he said, was the construction of Balochistan’s strategically important Gawadar Port without taking the local leadership and people into consideration.
The second, he said, was the proposed resettlement in Gawadar of hundreds of thousands of people from other parts of the country following construction of the seaport. This prompted fears among ethnic Bolochs that they would become a minority in the province.
The third factor, according to Sanghur, was the proposed construction of four cantonments (permanent military stations) in Balochistan.
"And last but not the least was the assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti," the analyst said. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Over the last two and a half years, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken a handful of steps aimed at easing tension and damping separatist ambitions in Balochistan.
For one, he allowed nationalist parties to form the provincial government, even though his party had the majority required to do so.
Analysts believe the move has significantly reduced the sense of marginalization felt by much of the local population.
What’s more, the government is actively engaged in backdoor negotiations with Baloch separatist leaders living abroad in an effort to persuade them to lay down their arms and join the political process.
Most observers, however, believe reconciliation remains a long way off due to the ongoing lack of trust between the two sides.