Balochistan: Colonial and Post-Colonial Governance, Insecurity, and CPEC
Straddled along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and Iran, the Pakistani province of Balochistan is ripe in paradoxes. While making up 44% of the country’s landmass, Balochistan accounts for only 5% of the population, the majority of which are ethnic Baloch (Chaudhry, 2022). Balochistan is home to most of Pakistan’s mineral resources, including gas and oil fields believed to be worth up to one trillion US$ (Kowalski, 2019). Despite this, the province significantly underperforms in key development indicators when compared to other provinces, including poverty and unemployment rates, illiteracy, and child mortality (Husain, 2021). It has the worst growth record of all provinces, its infrastructure and fiscal base is underdeveloped, and water supply is unsteady and limited (World Bank, 2008, p. 1). This socio-economic deprivation is partially the result of artificially limited energy revenues. Balochistan has received $0.29 per 1000 cubic feet of gas compared to $1.65 and $2.35 per 1000 cubic feet in Sindh and Punjab respectively (Khan, 2015, p. 127). Baloch energy, sold at below market prices, has been utilized to cheaply supply the rest of Pakistan while constraining provincial fiscal revenues.
The security situation in Balochistan is volatile and has continued to deteriorate further following the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan in August 2021. Since 1947, ethno-nationalist groups have repeatedly rebelled against the central government, protesting the province’s politico-economic marginalization and demanding a greater degree of provincial autonomy or full-on secession from Pakistan (Grare, 2013, pp. 5-6). State repression of (supposed) Baloch nationalists has been brutal: torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and State-support for sectarian, anti-Baloch groups, have become endemic (Amnesty International, 2020). As in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), which runs along the Durand Line separating Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban’s return to power has also translated into a boost for anti-Pakistani militant outfits such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch nationalists. Between January and June 2022, Pakistan witnessed 434 militant attacks, 247 of which took place in KP and 171 in Balochistan, resulting in the death of at least 323 Army members (The Express Tribune, 2022). Intensifying militancy in Balochistan and KP destabilizes Pakistan’s western front and undermines State authority in Balochistan. For Islamabad, Balochistan is important both due to its mineral resources as well as its location along the Arabian Sea, forging Pakistan’s access to maritime trade and energy networks.
Post-2015 Chinese investment in Balochistan has further complicated provincial security dynamics. China has invested heavily in Balochistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), announced in 2015 in the context of Beijing’s Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). A China-built deep seaport in Gwadar is designed to link Gwadar to Kashgar in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, enhancing Xinjiang’s (and Pakistan’s) integration into global supply networks (McCartney, 2022, p. 1). The expansion of Chinese investment through CPEC has led to a growing presence of Chinese workers in Balochistan, heightening pre-existing fears of ethnic displacement in the Baloch population and forging an image of the Chinese as complicit in the repression of the Pakistani State (Rafiq, 2021). Attacks against Chinese assets and nationals have become a key strategy for Baloch militants: in April 2022, a suicide bomber of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) killed three Chinese nationals in Karachi (Fazl-e-Haider, 2022). Similar attacks have also taken place in KP, where an attack on a bus carrying Chinese workers killed twelve passengers, including nine Chinese, in 2021 (Dagia, 2021). Although the activities of Pakistani anti-State militants aim at predominantly domestic objectives, such as enhancing the influence of ethnic minorities in Pakistan, the recent surge in attacks indicates how an expanding presence in South Asia inadvertently heightens China’s exposure to a wide range of security challenges.
This paper situates contemporary developments in Balochistan in their broader historical context. Both State-led repression and ethno-nationalist militancy can be traced back to Balochistan’s integration into the British Raj. This paper initially maps out the legacy of colonial governance in Balochistan before examining Pakistan’s governance model after 1947, including an analysis of how and why components of the nationalist movement have changed in the 21st century. The paper then discusses CPEC’s significance before reviewing the prospects of the nationalist movement and the State’s response.
Balochistan in the colonial and post-colonial era
Colonial governance models and logics towards Balochistan from the late 1830s onwards have laid the foundation of many of the province’s contemporary issues. Pakistan has partially replicated the approach taken by the Raj, empowering and co-opting tribal elites and using these elites to suppress unrest in the Baloch population.
- Balochistan in the Raj
Balochistan has historically been at the crossroads of different empires and polities. The primarily Sunni Baloch are believed to have settled in today’s Balochistan around the 12th century (Walsh, 2020, p. 231). Today, the historical region of Balochistan is divided between Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, occupying the southwestern portion of Pakistan (see Figure 1).
Traditional Baloch society is divided into different tribes governed by tribal chieftains known as Sardars. The various tribes are subdivided into smaller tribal units (Grare, 2013, p. 8), in turn governed by subordinate chieftains (Lieven, 2011 p. 354). Intra- and inter-tribal conduct is regulated by tribal codes superficially comparable to Pashtunwali, the Pashtun tribal code (Barfield, 2003, p. 5). Compared to the more egalitarian Pashtunwali, however, Baloch tribal norms are explicitly hierarchical, semi-monarchical, and hereditary, with the title of Sardar passing to the eldest son (Lieven, 2011, pp. 353-354). These tribal structures had retained their importance at the advent of a growing British colonial presence in South Asia.
Upon the initial expansion of British colonial interest in the region in the late 1830s, Balochistan was governed by the Khanate of Kalat, based in the southeastern portion of today’s Pakistani Balochistan. The Khan derived political legitimacy from his relationship to the Sardars, who were largely free to conduct their tribal affairs but pledged allegiance to the Khan (Shah, 2019, p. 6). This loose structure led to frequent tensions between the Sardars themselves and between the Sardars and the Khan. What today is Pakistani Balochistan was subsequently a loosely unified but decentralized political space by the early 19th century.
The British presence in Balochistan began to expand from the 1830s onwards as part of the British-Russian contest for colonial influence in Afghanistan. Between 1838 and 1842, the Empire fought the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842) with the Durrani Empire in Afghanistan. Balochistan was key for the colonial Afghanistan strategy as Baloch territory could guarantee road access to Kabul (Grare, 2013, p. 7). In 1839, the Khan permitted the presence of colonial military and trade operations in return for financial subsidies (Shah, 2019, p. 8). In subsequent years British authorities entered separate agreements with the Sardars, consolidating the British influence and strengthening the Sardars’ role at the expense of the Khan’s. The British presence in western South Asia expanded further following the annexation of Sindh (1843) and the Punjab (1849). By the mid-19th century, Balochistan had emerged as a peripheral, informal part of the British Empire in South Asia.
Balochistan’s presence and role in the British Raj was formalized in the second half of the 19th century. The Goldsmith Line, drawn in 1871, demarcated British and Persian spheres of influence in Balochistan, creating the border between today’s Iran and Pakistan. The border negotiations were led by British administrators in the Khan’s name, indicating the heightened influence of colonial officials in Kalat. In 1876, the Khan and the British representative Robert Sandeman signed the Treaty of Kalat, which permitted the Raj to conduct construction projects in Balochistan, appoint political agents to the Khan’s court, and act as a mediator in Khan-Sardar disputes (Shah, 2019, p. 8). One year later, Balochistan became a formal part of the Raj as the Balochistan Agency, with the Khan accepting British suzerainty over Kalat and its dependent territories (Lieven, 2011, p. 345). The Agency consisted of five subdivisions: the Chief Commissioner’s Province, also known as British Balochistan, headquartered in Quetta and semi-directly ruled by the British Chief Commissioner, and four princely states (Kalat, Kharan, Las Bela, and Makran). Kharan, Las Bela, and Makran maintained their subsidiary status to Kalat (Saiyid, 2006, p. 26). The port enclave of Gwadar remained under control of the Sultan of Oman (Kowalski, 2019 - Gwadar had come under control of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman in 1797 and would only formally become a part of Pakistan in 1958). Balochistan was further formally divided by the 1893 drawing of the Durand Line demarcating Afghan and British spheres of influence in the Hindukush. By the end of the 19th century, the Treaty of Kalat and border negotiations had fully delineated Balochistan and formalized colonial control.
The Raj ruled the princely states by co-opting Balochistan’s tribal elites. Popular opposition towards the British presence frequently flared up, especially through attacks on colonial infrastructure (Shah, 2019, p. 9). To quell unrest the colonial administration depended on the Sardars, who retained wide-ranging autonomy and received financial assistance in return for their suppression of revolts (Walsh, 2020, p. 224). This model, also known as 'Sandemanization', capitalized on pre-existing tribal structures to enforce control while integrating the Sardars into colonial power structures (Khan & Amin, 2015, p. 4). The empowerment of the Sardars and colonial authorities at the Khan’s expense was reflected in the growing importance of Quetta as Balochistan’s main administrative center. As elsewhere in the Raj, the British governance model strengthened local elites without incentivizing these elites to distribute socio-economic influence and power.
- Balochistan under Pakistani rule
Disputes concerning Balochistan’s future following the 1947 partition of the Raj resulted in the first outbreak of an insurgency in post-partition Balochistan. While British Balochistan automatically joined Pakistan, the Khanate initially declared independence from Pakistan for the Khanate and its subsidiary states, claiming that the lack of direct British control over these entities allowed them to become independent (Lieven, 2011, p. 345). This position was not necessarily supported by the Sardars, who ultimately pressured the Khan to sign the instrument of accession following drawn-out negotiations with Pakistani authorities, resulting in the annexation of Balochistan (Saiyid, 2006, p. 44). The Khan and Khan-affiliated elements perceived this as coercion, motivating a first low-intensity insurgency that lasted until 1950. During this time British Balochistan remained administratively dissociated from the four princely states, which operated in a loose federal union, the Balochistan States Union, between 1952 and 1955. The role of the State remained a largely peripheral one: Pakistan exercised control via a political agent, effectively continuing the British governance model and maintaining a Baloch perception of Pakistan as a quasi-colonial power (Shah, 2019, p. 11).
The discovery of natural resources in the early 1950s further heightened anti-Pakistan sentiments. In 1952, authorities discovered significant hydrocarbon reserves in Sui, leading to growing energy infrastructure investment in Balochistan (Wolf, 2017, p. 2). The energy infrastructure Pakistan began investing in, however, focused on the transportation of resources to Punjab whilst not integrating Baloch settlements into the supply chain, disconnecting the Baloch from both energy revenues and improved living standards that could have been generated by enhanced energy connectivity (Walsh, 2020, p. 232). Through the discovery of natural resources, Balochistan gained significant strategic importance while continuing to suffer from a peripheral political position in Pakistan.
This underlying sense of marginalization was exacerbated further by the introduction of the One Unit policy. Following the 1954 national elections, in which the East Bengal-based parties had outperformed those in West Pakistan, Prime Minister Bogra merged all provinces of West Pakistan into one administrative unit to forge an electoral-demographic counterweight to East Bengal. To consolidate a sense of Pakistani nationhood, policymakers in West Pakistan began framing Pakistani identity as constituted both by the command of Urdu (over minority languages such as Baloch) and adherence to the Islamic faith (van Schendel, 2020, p. 133). Although primarily geared towards the suppression of nationalist sentiments in East Bengal, this understanding of a Pakistani nationhood alienated West Pakistani minorities through its de-emphasizing of non-Punjabi languages and cultures (Shah, 2019, p. 11). The One Unit policy marked the “beginning of clear Punjabi dominance in the country’s economic affairs and political influence at the center [...] Punjab’s resulting military, bureaucratic, and economic roles in Pakistan contributed to the perception by other provinces of Punjab as an oppressor” (Qaiser, 2015, p. 110). The One Unit policy additionally came to embody a nation-building approach that viewed diverging identities as potential national security threats that India could exploit to undermine Pakistan (Shah, 2019, p. 10). For many Baloch, the One Unit policy embodied both the arrogance of the Pakistani establishment as well as the disregard for the cultural particularities of Baloch society.
Baloch opposition to Pakistani rule began to intensify from the late 1950s onwards, both through non-violent and violent means. The premises of the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), founded in 1957 and focused on protecting the rights of ethnic minorities (Malik, 2020, p. 97), appealed to large parts of the Baloch public (Shah, 2019, p. 14). Additionally, the Marri tribe began drawing inspiration from the secular, left-wing militant movements that sprang up elsewhere. In the 1960s, Marri militants started launching attacks against Pakistani security and energy infrastructure in Pakistan, demanding the withdrawal of the Army and the revocation of the One Unit policy. Opposition to the One Unit policy was also supported by the Khan, who rallied tribal leaders to oppose centralization attempts. This insurgency ended upon the termination of the One Unit policy in 1970, resulting in the establishment of Balochistan as a province that incorporated all four princely states alongside British Balochistan and Gwadar.
The situation in Balochistan deteriorated again following Bangladeshi independence in 1971 and growing anxieties of a potential Balkanization of Pakistan. In 1970, the NAP won an electoral majority in the provincial assembly and later adopted an anti-war stance towards Pakistan’s intervention in East Pakistan in March 1971. Pakistan’s loss of East Pakistan in December 1971 and India’s support for Bengali nationalists heightened fears of Indian interference, additionally stoking anxieties that other ethno-nationalist movements could seek to secede from Pakistan. In 1973, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto dissolved the NAP administration in Balochistan, accusing it of undermining State authority and enabling foreign interference (Shah, 2019, p. 14). The dissolution of the NAP government resulted in the outbreak of a new insurgency led by the Marri and Mengal tribes (Grare, 2013, p. 7). In response, the Bhutto administration began using scorched earth tactics, including via arms supplied by the Iranian Shah, who was fighting Baloch militants on the Iranian side of the border (Walsh, 2020, pp. 231-232). Bhutto’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics culminated in widespread human rights abuses (Wynbrandt, 2009, p. 270). The heavy-handed security response was supported by the passing of the 1975 Suppression of Terrorist Activities (Special Courts) Act, which required defendants to prove their innocence rather than requiring the court to prove their guilt, thereby opening the door for arbitrary arrests and executions (Fayyaz, 2008, p. 11). Baloch militants received support from the Afghan government of Sardar Daoud, including via arms and sanctuary in Afghanistan (Haqqani, 2016, p. 189). Afghan support for Baloch militants allowed the Pakistani security establishment to frame the Afghan government as a security threat, eventually factoring into Pakistan’s support for anti-government elements following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (Haqqani, 2016, p. 115).
The insurgency in the 1970s came to an end following the collapse of the Bhutto government and the establishment of a military dictatorship under Zia ul-Haq in 1977. Zia re-entered negotiations with Baloch militants, culminating in the release of Baloch nationalists and the withdrawal of the Army from Balochistan (Grare, 2013, pp. 7-8). The security operations had left up to six thousand Baloch dead, with the real numbers likely being much higher (Siddiqa, 2007, pp. 94-95). Although the State had ultimately failed to subdue the nationalists, the insurgency had also exposed the political limitations of Balochistan’s tribal landscape, with insurgencies being based on tribal affiliations rather than trans-tribal cooperation (Lieven, 2011, p. 348). The centrality of the tribal system for the organization of political opposition indicated how decisive the Sardar-based structure had remained in organizing political life in Balochistan after 1947.
Pakistan’s post-1977 policy was based on both the increased tolerance of Baloch nationalist elements as well as a tacit promotion of Islamist elements as a counterweight to ethno-nationalist sentiments. The presence of nationalist parties in the provincial assembly and the role of ethnic Baloch in leading political positions in the government grew, mitigating the tensions between the province and the center (Grare, 2013, p. 10). Bhutto’s counterinsurgency tactics, despite not eradicating the nationalists, had nevertheless severely weakened the nationalist infrastructure, leading many Baloch to increasingly turn towards the political mainstream (Akhtar, 2007, p. 75). In line with the broader Islamization of Pakistan under Zia (and consistent with previous nation-building approaches), the State sought to emphasize the province’s Islamic identity by encouraging the rapid expansion of religious schools, so-called Madrassas, that replicated the Saudi’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam (Hoodbhoy, 2018, pp. 468-469). In the process, sectarian tensions in Pakistan heightened significantly, escalating from the 1980s onwards (Weinstein, 2020) and leading to the creation of anti-Shia militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) (Haqqani, 2016, p. 161). While the emphasis on Sunni Islam did not eradicate nationalist sentiments in Balochistan, it introduced a form of sectarian extremism that had been previously absent from Balochistan’s political landscape.
Pakistani policy was also geared towards the co-opting of tribal elites. The State has integrated tribal leaders into mainstream power structures by providing them with positions in the provincial assembly and the local bureaucracy (Lieven, 2011, pp. 364-365). This has ensured an alignment between most tribal elites and the State: out of 28 major Sardars in Pakistan, only the Bugtis, Marris, and Mengals have openly rebelled against the government (Grare, 2013, p. 8). Pakistani co-option has disincentivized pan-tribalism and allegiance to nationalist movements has remained predominantly tied to tribal affiliations. The Marris formed the BLA, the Mengals created the Baloch National Movement (now rebranded as the Balochistan National Party (BNP)), and the Bugtis constitute the core of the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), the armed wing of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP) (Shah, 2019, p. 28). Tribal conflicts and divisions in turn motivated closer ties with parties operating on a federal level: in 1991, the BNP entered an alliance with the Pakistan’s People Party (PPP), Bhutto’s former party. This co-opting continues the pre-1947 relationship between State authorities and tribal elites.
Militancy in Balochistan in the 21st century
Although government policy largely pacified the province in the 1980s and 1990s, Balochistan continued to face severe developmental challenges. The wealth and energy generated by Baloch resources failed to trickle down to the provincial population. Quetta only became connected to the oilfield in Sui during the 1980s, three decades after Sui had been connected to Punjab and Sindh (Walsh, 2020, p. 232). This socioeconomic precarity was aggravated by the growing influx of Afghan refugees after 1979, forging a growing Pashtun population in northern Balochistan and fueling fears of ethnic displacement (Lieven, 2011, p. 347). A political disconnect also persisted. The Musharraf government, which had come to power in 1999, promised to create jobs for the Baloch via a port in Gwadar, the construction of a pipeline to Iran, and additional gas and copper-mining projects in Sui (Walsh, 2020, p. 233). Most of these projects, however, remained underfunded or failed to materialize. By the turn of the century, the State had thus managed to pacify Balochistan without significantly addressing developmental issues.
The renewed outbreak of an insurgency in Balochistan in the mid-2000s is inextricably tied to Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy post-2001. After 9/11, Pakistan faced growing diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community for its ties with the Taliban. Still heavily dependent on US development aid, the Musharraf administration became a reluctant part in the US’ and NATO’s counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, including through the lease of an airfield in Shamsi, Balochistan, to the CIA. The CIA used the Shamsi base for its drone operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan until it withdrew from Shamsi in 2011 (Masood, 2011). The fall of the Taliban regime and heightened instability in Afghanistan furthermore led to a new influx of Afghan refugees and Taliban operatives. Maintaining its close relations with the Taliban, Pakistani security authorities allowed the Kandahar Shura, the Taliban’s primary political-ideological council, to resettle in Quetta, which quickly emerged as a major hub for Islamist groups previously based in Afghanistan (Dressler & Forsberg, 2009, p. 1). Pakistan maintained its dualistic policy towards Islamist militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan under Musharraf, selectively disclosing the location of Al Qaeda operatives to US forces while maintaining its support for the Taliban and other groups (Haqqani, 2022). For Balochistan, the growing presence of hardline Islamist organizations, many of which were explicitly sectarian in their vision, resulted in heightened sectarian violence. In 2003, LeJ killed 53 Hazaras in an attack on a Shia Mosque in Quetta (Human Rights Watch, 2014, p. 19). Balochistan’s strategic importance in Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy thus fundamentally changed the province’s security structures.
The growing presence of Islamist groups in Balochistan initially served two key purposes for the Pakistani security establishment. Firstly, Washington’s dependency on Pakistan for its counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan meant that the US effectively gave Islamabad a carte blanche for the government’s policy in Balochistan, including widespread human rights abuses (Kowalski, 2019). Secondly, Islamist activities in Balochistan allowed Pakistan to create a narrative in which the international community would need to maintain constructive ties with Islamabad if it wished to stabilize Afghanistan and the wider region (Grare, 2013, p. 17). The fall of the Taliban and its re-organization in Pakistan consequently provided Pakistan with diplomatic and strategic leverage.
Shifts in government policy towards Balochistan in the early 2000 heavily alienated Baloch nationalists. In 2000, Musharraf had already introduced a devolution plan that would have empowered municipal governments at the expense of provincial assemblies (International Crisis Group, 2004, pp. 9-10). To transform Balochistan into the Islamist base it required for its Afghanistan strategy, the central government rigged the 2002 provincial elections, resulting in the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) winning the vote in Balochistan and KP respectively (Kemp, 2012, p. 116; Quraish & Islam, 2018, p. 198). By enabling the dominance of Islamist parties in both provinces, Islamabad ensured that provincial politics would be geared towards support for the Taliban (Grare, 2013, p. 10). Interference by the central government alienated major parts of the Baloch political mainstream, which had been allowed to maintain a degree of nationalism within the provincial assembly after 1977. The subsequent hostility in parts of the nationalist camps was deepened by Musharraf’s promotion and expansion of Madrassas in Balochistan and a strengthening of the Islamic clergy as a counterweight to ethno-nationalist groups (Grare, 2013, p. 16). After 2001, Pakistan’s policy towards Balochistan was almost solely driven by its interests in Afghanistan while failing to consider provincial concerns.
Center-province relations deteriorated in 2005, leading to the outbreak of a renewed insurgency that has persisted until today. In 2005, a Baloch doctor was raped at a State-owned gas plant in Sui. The local Bugti tribe blamed the rape on a member of the military, which in turn accused Bugtis of the rape (Lieven, 2011, p. 350). Akbar Bugti, the tribe’s Sardar, used the incident to declare a renewed anti-State insurgency that received strategic support from Afghan intelligence services (Coll, 2018, p. 428). Having served as Baloch Governor and Chief Minister, Bugti had long been part of the State-aligned tribal elites. His relations with the Pakistani establishment had already begun deteriorating prior to the rape as Bugti had started to demand a greater share of energy revenues, a proposal that Musharraf rejected (Walsh, 2005). The BRA began attacking both security forces and public infrastructure in Balochistan, including through attacks on gas and oil pipelines, before Bugti was killed in an Army operation in 2006. Instead of subduing the nationalist movement, Bugti’s widely reported and violent death vitalized and radicalized Baloch nationalists, including non-Bugtis. Prior to 2005/2006, Baloch demands had focused on enhancing Balochistan’s autonomy within Pakistan - now, nationalists began demanding Baloch independence (Grare, 2013, p. 4). As during the 1970s, repressive State responses strengthened nationalist sentiments while undermining the prospects of potential political solutions.
The post-2005 insurgency differs significantly from previous insurgencies due to the decreased relevance of tribal elites. Bugti became a martyr-like figure that stood in opposition to the complicity of most tribal leaders, motivating a further shift away from tribal affiliations. Grare (2013) describes this as a process of “Detribalization”: “while the tribal factor never totally disappeared, it did lose its centrality” (p. 9). Detribalization has reduced the Sardars’ influence over the nationalist scene, with influence increasingly passing to the Baloch middle class. Today, nationalists primarily stem from the educated Baloch middle class that is acutely aware of its limited socioeconomic opportunities when compared to its Pashtun, Punjabi, and Sindhi counterparts (Sood, 2010). The Baloch Student Organization (BSO) has become particularly important as an entry point for young, educated nationalists (Walsh, 2020, p. 239). As a result, nationalist bases have shifted to the somewhat more prosperous and urbanized southern part of Balochistan, away from the tribal centers of power (Shah, 2019, p. 19). The dissociation of the nationalist movement from the Sardars' sway strengthened its longevity. Detribalization has enabled increased collaboration between different groups, with the BRA and the United Baloch Army (UBA) merging into the Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA) in early 2022 (Rai, 2022). These underlying shifts have significantly transformed the strategic realities of Baloch militancy and made it more of an independent force.
The consolidation, detribalization, and radicalization of the wider nationalist movement has coincided with a growing operational focus on soft targets. Pakistani policy following partition and the growing number of especially Pashtun and Punjabi settlers in Balochistan has heightened ethnic divisions and reinforced perceptions of Punjabis as invaders and occupiers (Walsh, 2020, p. 240). The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported that between 2006 and 2012, at least 800 Punjabis were killed by militants in Balochistan (Sahi, 2014). Ethnic killings in the 2000s and 2010s were predominantly recorded in southern Balochistan, where Baloch militants enjoy a greater presence than in northern Balochistan, which remains dominated by sectarian groups such as LeJ and the TTP (Mohanty, 2019). The expansion of militant action exhibits the strengthening of the nationalist movement, its growing militancy, the decreased degree of Pakistani control over Baloch nationalism, and the intensified entrenchment of ethnic alienation.
Pakistani policy has further aggravated the already insecure situation through a heavy-handed security response. Between 2011 and 2016, four thousand people were killed in Balochistan during fights between the security forces and the nationalists (Joshi, 2018). The Army has returned to the counterinsurgency tactics it employed in the 1970s, making enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, and targeted assassinations of (suspected) nationalists commonplace (BBC, 2016). Violent repression has focused on eliminating (presumed) nationalist sympathizers, journalists, students, teachers, and other members of the Baloch intelligentsia (Grare, 2013, p. 14). The Army has systematically restricted media coverage of the region, blocking the access of journalists and media outlets (Zurutuza, 2014). This media blackout has meant that an accurate number of the people killed and disappeared by security forces is effectively impossible to ascertain (Sood, 2010). The economic and political influence of the Army over large swaths of the Pakistani media landscape has also helped to suppress public coverage on human rights violations in Balochistan (Siddiqa, 2007, pp. 326-327). The Army has subsequently had a free hand to repress (suspected) nationalists in Balochistan.
The security establishment has also used Islamist/sectarian groups as a counterweight to Baloch nationalists. This has included political parties such as the JUI as well as Islamist militants that have traditionally enjoyed close ties with the Afghan Taliban, including LeJ and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) (Akbar, 2012). The State-sanctioned nature of Islamist violence in Balochistan has two major effects: firstly, political violence, including the indiscriminate killing of Baloch civilians, has become more widespread as groups such as LeJ and LeT effectively operate with impunity due to their links with the armed forces. Secondly, the explicitly sectarian, anti-Shia ideology of some of these groups further magnifies the divisiveness of sectarian identities in Balochistan and Pakistan as a whole. Attacks on Shia civilians by Sunni militants have become commonplace in Balochistan (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Attacks against Shias in Pakistan more generally have intensified amid the growing influence and presence of Islamist-sectarian groups after 2001. Between 2004 and 2019, at least two thousand Pakistanis Shias were killed in sectarian attacks (Iltaf, 2019). The violence originating from State-supported sectarian outfits has begun to erode Balochistan’s fragile social fabric and has further heightened the potential for violence.
The reliance on violent repression as a counterinsurgency strategy has severely limited the potential for political compromises. The 2008 fall of the Musharraf regime, for instance, neither translated into a meaningful shift in government policy nor a rapprochement between the central government and Baloch nationalists. The 2008 provincial elections were boycotted by most nationalist parties in protest of the government’s policy (Kakar, 2016, p. 178). In 2009, the new government of President Zardari attempted to introduce the ‘Balochistan Package’, which would have included the release of Baloch nationalists, the partial withdrawal of the Army, enhanced resource allocation to the province, more federal investment in provincial labor opportunities, and more provincial say in resource extraction mechanisms (Grare, 2013, p. 12). The Package, adopted by the national parliament in late 2009, was rejected by all major players in Balochistan’s nationalist movement. Although the package addressed some of the movement’s key demands, the negotiations failed to include even moderate nationalists and civil society elements, reinforcing the top-down logic that has dominated Pakistan’s governance model (Manchanda & Bose, 2015 p. 164). The Package also lacked steps to facilitate further provincial autonomy, reinforcing anxieties that government measures would ultimately seek to eliminate nationalist groups (Baqir, 2009). The Package’s failure illustrates the trust deficit between the nationalist movement and the central government. Incidents such as the death of Bugti, in combination with State-led/sponsored repression, have irrevocably alienated many Baloch. Nationalists have also become more capable of acting on this alienation because of the tribal elites’ reduced influence. Heightened militancy invites an even more repressive response by the State, creating a cycle of mutually reinforcing and escalating violence.
Insecurity in Balochistan has intensified significantly after 2001. Until Balochistan became a more central component of Islamabad’s Afghanistan policy, a more distant governance model produced satisfactory (as in pacifying) policy outcomes. Pakistan’s post-2001 policy towards the province has irrevocably changed the status quo, heightening the presence of sectarian groups, further alienating the Baloch population, disconnecting Baloch nationalists and the tribal elites, and radicalizing Baloch nationalism.
The role of CPEC
The launch of CPEC in 2015 has further complicated the relations between the province and the center. Worth up to 62 billion US$, CPEC has been hailed by the Pakistani establishment as a ‘game changer’ for the Pakistani economy. Islamabad aims CPEC to bolster Pakistan’s integration into global trade networks, provide external infrastructure investment, and address Pakistan’s chronic electricity shortages (Aggarwal, 2021). CPEC consists of several mining projects, the construction of power plants, the upgrading and construction of new transport infrastructure throughout Pakistan, the establishment of special economic zones (SEZs), and the broader investment in “regional connectivity” (CPEC Authority Office, n.d.). Its flagship project is the construction of a deep-water port Gwadar, nestled on the Arabian Sea. CPEC’s continental infrastructure aims to expand both Xinjiang’s and Pakistan’s role in global consumer and supply chains (see Figure 2 below).
For China, the successful development of CPEC promises to reduce Beijing’s dependence on maritime trade and choke points such as the Strait of Malacca, through which 85% of Beijing’s petroleum imports continue to be transported (Heath, 2018, p. 7). The geography of Gwadar and Balochistan consequently bestow it with a key strategic importance for China’s investments in South Asia.
For Pakistan, CPEC and Chinese FDI (foreign direct investment) in Pakistan more generally are viewed as a substantial component of Pakistan’s long-term growth strategy. Pakistan continues to suffer from limited tax collection, deeply embedded patronage networks, and a lack of productive industrial capacities. Pakistan’s continued support for terrorist organizations in South Asia has also seen the repeated imposition of international sanctions, especially from the United States (Pandey, 2018). Various sanction regimes and the threat of extremist violence has translated into stagnant FDI inflows, with net inflows (in % of GDP) dropping significantly after 2007 and settling at 0.8%, akin to 1994 levels (World Bank Data, 2022). Although Pakistan recovered reasonably well from the COVID-19 pandemic in macroeconomic terms, the World Bank (2022) has noted that,
“long-standing structural weaknesses of the economy and low productivity growth pose risks to a sustained recovery. Strong aggregate demand pressures, in part due to previously accommodative fiscal and monetary policies, paired with the continued less conducive external environment for exports have contributed to a record-high trade deficit, weighing on the Rupee and the country’s limited external buffers”.
Dwindling foreign exchange reserves have also created a looming debt crisis, with the Ministry of Finance recently noting that “Pakistan is currently facing several severe challenges: accelerating inflation, high external deficits, exchange rate depreciation, declining foreign exchange reserves and mounting uncertainty” (Rana, 2022). In short, Pakistan needs investment to even limit the short- and medium-term implications of the economic mismanagement that has long dominated its economic policy.
Developing Gwadar and Balochistan consequently becomes part of a broader growth strategy. The ambition to expand the port in Gwadar through foreign investors predates CPEC: prior to the Chinese takeover, Pakistan had offered substantial investments into a commercial port in Gwadar to both Moscow and Washington (Rafiq, 2021). In 2001, China provided technical and financial assistance to expand port development (Grare, 2018). In 2013, the contract for the construction of the port and the port’s SEZ was given to the Chinese State-owned enterprise (SOE) China Overseas Ports Holding Company. Besides enhanced infrastructure investment, CPEC promises access to Chinese technology transfers and the deepening of Islamabad’s economic ties with Beijing, which have remained underdeveloped despite the close strategic bilateral relations (Safdar, 2021, pp. 3-4). The construction of a functional deep-sea port could potentially allow Pakistan to reduce its international isolation by transforming it into a major hub connecting the energy markets of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. CPEC has not been without controversy in Pakistan, with the former government of Imran Khan frequently accusing previous governments of corruption in the negotiation of CPEC contracts (Tanvir, 2021). Even such protests, however, question the details of CPEC rather than the economic and strategic importance of CPEC as such.
For Baloch nationalists, CPEC epitomizes and reasserts the province’s exploitation while forging increased anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese SOEs have primarily hired Chinese nationals as labor forces in BRI projects (Hillman & Tippett, 2021), leading to a growing presence of Chinese workers in Pakistan as a whole and Balochistan in particular (Janjua, 2022). In Balochistan, the growing presence of foreigners has accentuated fears that the Pakistani State seeks to change Balochistan’s demographic identity by enabling the growing influx of non-Baloch. Chinese assets and nationals are viewed as complicit in the broader ‘colonization’ of Baloch territory by Pakistan (Gordon et al., 2020, p. 25). This has rendered Chinese investments and nationals targets of militant attacks. In 2019, the BLA attacked a high-end hotel in Gwadar that Chinese business associates were staying in, killing five members of the hotel staff (Notezai, 2019). In April 2021, the hotel that the Chinese Ambassador was staying in in Quetta was besieged by Baloch militants, resulting in the death of four people (France 24, 2021). A year later, the BLA killed three Chinese language instructors in Karachi (Peshimam & Hudson, 2022). Such attacks are directly aimed at undermining the safety of Chinese assets in Pakistan, in the process raising the political and economic costs for Chinese investments in Balochistan.
In combination with the growing number of attacks on Pakistani security forces in Balochistan and KP, attacks on Chinese assets frame the State as incapable of sufficiently securing foreign assets and transforming Pakistan into an investment-friendly business environment. Governance surrounding CPEC has been executed following a top-down logic (Rafiq, 2021) in a manifestation of “authoritarian intervention” (Siddiqa, 2007, p. 238). The positive economic effects promised by the central government have thus far failed to materialize (O'Donnell, 2022). Provincial electricity supply remains inconsistent and CPEC-generated labor opportunities have been limited, with most locals still dependent on fishing, the illicit transport of narcotics, and the smuggling of Iranian fuel (Rafiq, 2021). For now, it seems unlikely that Baloch militancy towards Chinese assets will shift Pakistan’s policy towards Balochistan in the long run considering the perceived centrality of CPEC in Pakistan’s development model as well as Balochistan’s richness in natural resources. Balochistan’s economic and geostrategic importance may consequently motivate an even more severe crackdown on (suspected) Baloch nationalists.
Conclusion: The road ahead
CPEC has become the latest manifestation of a broader governance approach that has permeated colonial and post-colonial governance strategies in Balochistan. The growing Chinese presence has further destabilized the province, exacerbating a degree of State repression that had already intensified significantly after 2001. The centrality of CPEC and Chinese FDI in Pakistan makes it unlikely that Baloch militancy against Chinese assets and nationals would suffice to motivate national authorities to make concessions regarding enhanced provincial autonomy. If anything, Pakistan now finds itself in a situation where it is so economically dependent on Chinese FDI that it will be hesitant to be seen as ‘weak’ on militancy undermining FDI inflows. The growing reach and intensity of Baloch militancy may therefore motivate a further crackdown on Baloch nationalists. As has been the case in the past, this is likely to involve both State-affiliated militant outfits as well as the military as such.
For the Baloch nationalist movement and the civilian population, this means that things are likely to deteriorate further. In Balochistan, Pakistan does not face the international attention it does in its dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, thus reducing the perceived necessity to conform with international regulations and norms. If it did face enhanced pressure, Islamabad could also maintain relatively broad plausible deniability by blaming militancy in Balochistan on the activities of Islamist outfits. Both CPEC and the concentration of mineral resources will make Pakistan extremely reluctant to make any meaningful concessions to even more moderate Baloch nationalists, which may have already undergone an extent of radicalization that makes any reconciliation with the State extremely difficult (if not outright impossible).
The combination of Balochistan’s strategic importance and the relative absence of global implications for a further crackdown are likely to motivate the continuation of a heavy-handed, security-focused response that fails to address local grievances and fails to work towards the establishment of sustainably peaceful political structures in Balochistan.
October 2022. © European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS), Amsterdam