Rising Organized Political Violence in Balochistan: A Resurgence of Baloch Separatism?

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Balochistan, home to a majority ethnic Baloch population, is the largest and least populous province of Pakistan. Rich in natural mineral resources and gas reserves, Balochistan is also the country’s least urbanized and most impoverished province. Despite an abundance of natural resources, and major investment through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), both the province and the Baloch community have struggled to receive an equitable share of the benefits derived from these assets (Gandhara, 15 June 2019). Mainstream Baloch politicians have strived for greater autonomy and control over resources. At the same time, armed separatist groups demand full independence for the province. Various separatist groups have been battling Pakistani security forces since 1948 in the longest running insurgency in the country. Since the beginning of 2020, ACLED records a rise in organized political violence events involving armed Baloch separatist groups. The rise in events has been preceded by greater unity among Baloch separatist groups, the formation of trans-province alliances between Baloch separatist groups and other separatist groups, and increased exploitation and repression of Baloch civilians by Pakistan’s military during security operations in Balochistan. These three factors, along with the rise in violence, suggest a possible resurgence of the Baloch separatist movement.

Post-2015 Decline in Baloch Separatist Violence

While the struggle for Baloch independence has its roots in the immediate aftermath of the independence of Pakistan in 1947, the current insurgency began in early 2000 to challenge the central government’s control over the province, and, in particular, the state and military’s exploitation of the province’s resources. From 2010 to 2015, organized political violence events linked to the insurgency gradually increased, peaking in 2015 with 96 events and 383 total reported fatalities for the year (see figure below). After 2015, organized political violence events involving Baloch militants steadily decreased. From 2017 to 2019, ACLED records 38 events with 110 reported fatalities (see figure below). Compounding decades of counterinsurgency operations and government amnesty schemes, discord among Baloch militant groups, and a lack of leadership contributed to the insurgency’s decline (Firstpost, 26 January 2019; Gandhara, 18 April 2019).

The decline in Baloch militant violence after 2015 can be partly explained by the Pakistani government’s launch of a two-pronged approach to counter the insurgency that year. Security forces intensified counterinsurgency operations in the region and introduced an incentive-based disarmament and rehabilitation program for Baloch militants. Counterinsurgency operations intensified across the nation after the introduction of the National Action Plan (NAP). The NAP was a counterinsurgency policy initiative aimed at curbing militancy around the country following the December 2014 attack by the Islamic militant group Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on the Army Public School in Peshawar city, which killed 141 civilians, including 132 school children. After two years of continued counterinsurgency operations, the Pakistani government claimed to have subdued militancy in the country, including the Baloch insurgency. The state claimed that militants were either on the run or laying down their arms under the government’s amnesty scheme, which involved financial rewards. Reportedly, over 1,025 Baloch militants surrendered under the amnesty scheme through August 2016 (Geo TV, 29 August 2016).

Additionally, internal divisions among Baloch separatist groups and the death of prominent Baloch leaders led to a weakening of the groups. The death of long-time nationalist leaders such as Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, who provided an ideological platform for Baloch armed movements, and was credited by many for inspiring the latest wave of Baloch militancy (BBC, 11 June 2014), created a leadership gap for the insurgency. Marri, who was a key insurgent leader during the 1970s in Balochistan, led the oldest and largest armed group, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) (Dawn, 11 June 2014). Following his natural death in 2014, disagreement between his sons over succession led to two of his sons spearheading two different armed groups, the BLA and the United Baloch Army (UBA). Reports suggest there were two distinct divisions among the most active separatist groups, one aligned with the BLA and the other aligned with Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), including the UBA (Stratagem, 2017). The BLF, currently led by Dr. Allah Nazar, is a trans-national Baloch organization that was first founded by Juma Khan Marri in Syria in 1964. It first became active in Pakistan in the 1970s. Mainly based in Balochistan’s Makran region, it is one of the oldest separatist groups and, together with the BLA, it is one of the most active groups since the latest insurgency began in early 2000. While the separatist groups have the shared goal of establishing Baloch independence, the rivalry between the BLA and BLF has occasionally led to internecine armed clashes (Stratagem, 2017). Furthermore, the death of unifying leaders, such as Manan Baloch of the Balochistan Nationalist Movement (BNM), during operations by security forces in 2016 dealt a setback to the insurgency’s common goals. Manan Baloch was reportedly the brains behind efforts to reorganize fragmented separatist factions and mend relations between the rival BLF and BLA (Gandhara, 2 February 2016).