January Issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

A thin-framed man with a cropped beard, Karim Baksh leads a group of Baloch guerrillas dug into position under a huge rock on the edge of a dusty road, a few miles away from a government paramilitary post. The ricocheting of machine-gun fire echoes in the distance.

“Let them come here, they will not be able to go back alive,” Baksh laughed, stroking his Kalashnikov rifle. The others nodded approvingly. “Our men are spread all over,” he claimed, pointing his finger towards the brown, parched hills. There were only a few thatched hutments scattered around the vast, barren land. The treacherous terrain made it an ideal location for guerrilla warfare.

The guerrillas, who claimed to be members of the shadowy Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), appeared well trained and were armed with machine-guns and rocket-launchers. One of the men was constantly on a wireless set receiving information about the movement of government troops. The fighters were from both the Bugti and Marri tribes. It was certainly, by far, a different outfit to the groups that confronted the Pakistani army with bolt rifles in the 1970s. Some of them were veterans, while others belonged to a new generation of fighters who were getting a crash course in guerrilla warfare.

A school dropout, the 30-year-old Baksh took up arms almost a decade ago. “It was difficult to continue my education after the tenth class and I could not find any employment,” he said. The others were even less fortunate. They never went to school at all and got involved in the conflict at a very early age.

Javandan sat quietly in a corner, playing with his rifle. His neatly curled black beard and greenish eyes betrayed his Marri antecedents. He seemed to be the most experienced of the group. “We are all united now in the struggle,” he said, finally breaking his long silence. “They are bombarding our areas and killing innocent people. We don’t have any choice but to fight.”

The BLA, whose name first emerged during the 1970s, originally comprised mainly the Marri tribesmen loyal to Nawab Khair Baksh. But later its composition changed with members of the Bugti and Mengal tribes joining its ranks. Today, the BLA boasts many members from an educated, middle-class background. The present conflict in Balochistan has, for the first time, united the educated Baloch with the tribesmen. “People feel that they won’t get their rights through democratic and legal means,” said Dr. Abdul Hayee Baluch, a leader of the Balochistan National Party.

It is the first time that the two largest Baloch tribes have set aside their differences to join hands in the struggle. The Bugtis sat on the fence when the Marris led the armed insurrection in the 1970s. More than 6000 Baloch and around 3000 soldiers were killed in the bloody conflict, which ended after General Zia-ul- Haq declared amnesty and allowed Khair Baksh to return home from his self-exile in Afghanistan. Thousands of Marri fighters received weapons training in Afghanistan during that period and they form the nucleus of the guerrilla forces now fighting in Balochistan.

balochistan-2-jan06Though the primary loyalties of the Baloch insurgents may lie with their tribal chiefs, they also appeared to be politically aware, religiously listening to the BBC Urdu service whenever possible. “What are you fighting for?” I asked. “We want the right of self-determination,” they replied in unison. They were obviously well tutored.

The BLA resurfaced after the arrest of Khair Baksh in 2000, on charges of the murder of a high court judge. Initially the government dismissed the existence of the BLA, but now senior security officials concede that the group is behind the current insurgency. Intelligence agencies have accused the BLA of receiving financial aid and weapons from India. “We have evidence that the insurgents are getting help from India and some other countries which are not happy with China’s involvement in the construction of Gwadar port,” says a senior security official. Some intelligence officials claim that Indian intelligence agents were providing guerrilla training to the insurgents. These allegations, however, are rejected by Baloch leaders.

The BLA operates a website, “Baloch Voice,” which carries reports of their actions. It has its own flag and national anthem. Its spokesmen, who identify themselves as Azad Baloch, Meerak Baloch and Col. Doda Baloch, regularly call newspaper offices in Quetta. The group is believed to have more than 5000 well trained men in its ranks. Though the identity of its leadership remains secret, it is reportedly led by Ballach, the younger son of Khair Baksh. A sitting member of the Balochistan assembly, Ballach, who is a graduate of Moscow University, is one of Pakistan’s most wanted persons. His brother Meheryar, a former provincial minister now based in Dubai, is also part of the BLA leadership.

Pakistani security forces find themselves locked in a new and even fiercer battle in Balochistan. Baloch nationalists have led four insurgencies — in 1948, 1958-59, 1962-63 and 1973-77 — which were brutally suppressed by the army. Now a fifth is underway and this time the insurgents are much stronger. They are armed with more sophisticated weapons and possess a modern communications system. Can an already overstretched military deal with the increasingly volatile situation in Balochistan ?

balochistan-3-jan06Balochistan has remained relatively quiet for almost two decades and the return to civilian rule in 1988, brought the Baloch nationalists into the political mainstream. Although their major demands relating to natural gas royalty and allocation of resources remained unfulfilled, democracy, at least, provided the Baloch a sense of political participation. The tension started mounting a few years ago when the military government announced its intention to set up three new cantonments in Balochistan. The move was seen as a means to further tighten federal control over the province and the apprehension was not without basis. The problem of Balochistan has been chronic and is a direct consequence of an over-centralised system. The fresh deployment of army personnel further fuelled the discontent.

Under the current constitutional arrangement and the practices that have grown around it, economic resources and political power are concentrated with the federal government. The situation in Balochistan has been particularly worse, and even the maintenance of law and order is the responsibility of the federally controlled paramilitary troops. The master-servant relationship is much more stark in Balochistan than in any other province. The return of military rule has further aggravated the situation, and even the present pro-military provincial government wields no real power.

The federal government has completely ignored the long-standing demands of the nationalists to review the royalty formula on Sui gas, which had remained constant since 1952, and increase the province’s share in the NFC award. Despite the government’s claim of spending 120 billion rupees on mega-projects, there has not been much change in the lot of the locals, who remain the most deprived and backward section of society.

Despite such massive investment in the province, feelings of resentment against the centre run deep. There is an underlying fear that the benefits of these projects will not reach the local population and will be siphoned off to the Punjab instead. The nationalists have strong reservations on the construction of a new deep-sea port in Gwadar. They fear that the mega-project, which is being developed with the help of China, will lead to a massive influx of outside workers and turn the local population into a minority. The nationalists maintain that the project has been launched without taking the Baloch representatives into confidence. They contend that the Baloch would hardly benefit from Gwadar, or indeed any other mega-projects, as most of the jobs in the federally controlled organisations would go to the Punjab and other provinces according to the quota system. Meanwhile, land grabbing by the military further exacerbated the situation.

The Ormara naval base is another big project which has come up on the Makran coast, but Balochi nationalists maintain that the development of the second largest naval installation has not helped improve the socio-economic conditions of the local population. According to Baloch leaders, only 40 people in a population of more than ten thousand, have been given employment — and that too as daily wage workers. No educational institution has been established in Ormara town and electricity is available for only a few hours a day. Similarly, the Bugtis complain that they too are not given jobs at the Sui gas plant.

balochistan-4-jan06It is ironic that Balochistan, which fulfils 50 per cent of Pakistan’s gas requirement and is rich in mineral resources, finds it difficult to pay the salaries of its employees. Balochistan has sought a loan of around 24 billion rupees from the Asian Development Bank at the direction of the federal government, to service foreign and federal debts amounting to 44 billion rupees. Due to its extreme financial crisis, its overdraft with the State Bank has gone up to14 billion rupees. Apart from debt-servicing foreign and federal loans, the Balochistan government pays 200 million rupees per month to the State Bank in interest for the overdraft. While President Musharraf has admitted that the province has faced injustice in the distribution of resources, a long-term solution to the problem has yet to be found.

The government often accuses Baloch tribal chiefs of blackmailing the centre and opposing development work in the area. Though this may be true to some extent, interestingly enough, the majority of the chieftains, particularly the most retrogressive ones, have always sided with the establishment. And while corruption is endemic, again it is the establishment itself that is responsible. Patronage and bribes are commonly used establishment tools to buy loyalties of corrupt politicians and perpetuate their own control.

The situation exploded last year when Bugti tribesmen, protesting against the rape of Dr. Shazia Khalid in the high-security PPL residential compound guarded by the army’s elite Defence Security Group, blew up the gas installations at Sui, disrupting gas supply to the Punjab and other parts of the country for several weeks. The subsequent armed clashes between Bugtis and the security forces resulted in scores of deaths. The stand-off ended after both sides agreed to pull back from their positions and the federal government gave an assurance to implement the Senate Committee Report on Balochistan. But the promise never materialised.

Musharraf and the military leadership were not prepared to concede to Balochistan’s genuine economic and political demands. Instead of addressing the Baloch grievances politically and through negotiations, the military-led government has resorted to greater use of force. Musharraf threw fuel on the fire last year when he declared : “Don’t push us. It isn’t the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won’t even know what hit you.” The comment provoked a strong reaction from the Baloch leaders who warned the army not to create a 1971-like situation which led to the disintegration of the country.

Sporadic incidents of violence continued after the Sui incident, but the situation flared up last month after the insurgents launched a series of rocket attacks during President Musharraf’s visit to a newly constructed army garrison in Kohlu. According to informed sources, some of the shells fell less than a 100 yards from Musharraf. It was a close call. The next day a rocket hit an army helicopter carrying the Inspector General , Frontier Corps, Maj Gen Shaukat Zamir Dar, and his deputy, Brigadier Saleem Nawaz.

Following those incidents, security forces mounted a massive operation in the Marri area using air force jets and helicopter gunships. The military authorities claimed the offensive was directed against “miscreants” and aimed at destroying “terrorist camps,” but many women and children were are also reportedly killed in the bombings. Senator Sanaullah Baloch alleged that security forces used poisonous gases against the people. According to official and unofficial sources, the security forces also suffered huge casualties during the operation in the Marri area.

The ongoing operation has now been extended to many other areas and thousands of paramilitary and regular troops with heavy machine-guns and artillery have been moved into the Bugti areas.

Dera Bugti looks like a town under siege, with heavily armed paramilitary troops positioned on the surrounding hills and check posts set up at the entry points. All the posts vacated by Bugti tribesmen after the March agreement have now been occupied by army troops. Heavy artillery guns and armoured cars are deployed all along the roads leading from Sui to Dera Bugti.

“It is a war now,” declared Akbar Bugti, who is confined to his bullet-ridden fort. A mortar attack in March had left a huge crater on the roof of his living room and 60 of his tribesmen were killed in that attack. He himself narrowly escaped death, when a splinter brushed past his head. Heavily armed tribesmen, with flowing beards and huge turbans coiled around their heads, guard the place. Some of them have taken up positions in the bunkers around the fort.

The white-bearded charismatic tribal chieftain, who is in his late ’70s, accused the government of colonising Balochistan. “We are fighting for the control of our national wealth and for our political rights,” he said. The Bugti tribe owns the land which contains Pakistan’s largest natural gas fields. But the majority of the tribesmen live in abject poverty, with no employment or basic health and education facilities. ” We are not scared and will fight back,” he warned, sounding bitter over the government’s backtracking on last year’s agreement. “The troops sneaked in under the cover of darkness, into positions which we had vacated under the agreement. They do not want peace. They are mistaken if they think they are superior and can eliminate us.” His grandson is being accused by military authorities of being involved in the bombing incidents in Karachi and Balochistan.

The conflict has already taken a huge economic and political toll. Billions of rupees are being spent on the establishment of cantonments and the deployment of troops. However, the use of brute force has only aggravated the situation. Hundreds of people have been killed in this war, which seems to have no end in sight. Several government soldiers have been killed over the past few weeks as the insurgents intensified attacks on security forces, key economic and government installations and railway tracks.

Bugti warned that the Baloch were much better prepared to fight the army now. “Musharraf is right that this is not 1970. He will not know what has hit him,” he laughed. Heavy fighting broke out as we left Dera Bugti.

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.