August Issue 2019
The Price of Liberation
The US announcement in early July, declaring the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group, weeks before Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington, came as a sigh of relief to the Pakistani administration, which has been demanding the same for years.
The BLA, the oldest Baloch militant group, has carried out armed attacks across the eastern, central and western areas of Balochistan. Far larger than any of the other armed groups in the province – including the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), the United Baloch Army (UBA), the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and the Lashkar-e-Balochistan (LeB) – it has attacked trucks transporting coal from the Chamalung mines in the districts of Kohlu and Loralai. It has also launched attacks on security forces in Loralai, Musa Khail and Harnai, and on the Quetta Cantonment using long-range rockets.
In 2000, the BLA launched the fifth insurgency, when its leader, the late Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri (1928-2014), was arrested after being charged with the murder of then senior judge of the Balochistan High Court, Mir Mohammad Nawaz Marri. The group is also said to have been active in the 1973 insurgency, under the umbrella of the Marri tribe, but lacked proper organisation. It has claimed to have waged an armed struggle of independence for mineral-rich Balochistan.
The announcement from Washington came as a surprise to other Baloch armed groups and Pakistanis at large, as it had long been believed that the the BLA was receiving US backing and support for its anti-CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) stance.
The group was the brainchild of the Marri family, particularly Nawab Khair Bakhsh, who was a Marxist. His son, Balach Marri, also led the group until he was killed in a military operation near the Pak-Afghan border, in November 2007. Later, Nawab Marri’s two London-based sons – Hairbiar Marri and Zamran (aka Mehran Marri) – reportedly took over the reins of the BLA. But after developing serious differences, the two brothers parted ways and Mehran is said to have associated himself with the newly formed United Baloch Army (UBA) – which was banned on March 15, 2013 – while Hairbiar continued to lead the BLA.
The LeB, also a militant group agitating for Balochistan’s autonomy, was created out of the BLA. The BLF, another separatist group, was formed in 2009, when Allah Nazar Baloch, a medical doctor, announced an armed struggle against the state the day he was released on bail from a court in Turbat, Kechh district. The BRA, meanwhile, is alleged to be the militant wing of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP). Its prime target are Pakistan’s security forces and their installations. The government banned the BRA in September, 2010.
Pakistani authorities have often claimed that all Baloch armed groups – including the BLA – receive financial assistance from India’s RAW and Afghanistan’s National Defense of Security (NDS). Kabul has denied this allegation and accuses Islamabad of supporting the Afghan Taliban.
Defense analysts term the US’ branding of the BLA as a terrorist organisation as a diplomatic triumph for Pakistan, which had always lobbied to achieve this goal. How this move will affect the group’s activities in Pakistan and the wider geo-political arena, will be visible in the coming days.
“I don’t think the US announcement will make any difference, both within and outside Pakistan, as such organisations don’t work openly or according to the law or the Constitution; they operate underground,” says Yusuf Masti Khan, President of the Pakistan Worker’s Party. “I see it as the US’ reward for Pakistan’s contribution to the ongoing US-Taliban negotiations, as well as Washington’s hope of securing Islamabad’s ‘favour’ in the US-Iran tussle in Balochistan.”
According to experts, the announcement will not make any difference whatsoever, as the BLA had already been declared a proscribed organisation by Pakistan and the United Kingdom, many years ago. It has no offices or properties, nor any bank accounts that could be sealed, forfeited and frozen. They do contend, however, that things may change for the group’s associates based in the US and Europe. Additionally, supporters who had always staged protests and openly praised Baloch armed groups in speeches, may no longer be able to campaign publicly for their cause.
It is believed that the US’ announcement is a precursor to its future moves: exerting pressure on the British government to expel the Marri brothers, on Delhi to stop financing the group and on Kabul to stop the BLA from using its soil against Pakistan and expel its workers/commanders from Afghanistan.
Pakistan, meanwhile, seems to be gearing up its lobbying within the US to achieve these objectives and pressure the BLA leadership into curtailing its armed activities – such as the suicide attacks on Chinese engineers near Dalbandin on November, 23, 2018, the attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, on August, 11, 2018 and the killing of 14 personnel of the armed forces in Ormara, on April, 18, 2019.
A splinter group of the BLA known as the Majid Brigade, led by Aslam Baloch (alias Achoo), is a death squad whose sole mission is to carry out deadly attacks on security forces and Chinese nationals. Achoo and four of his associates were killed – most likely by the Afghan Taliban – in a compound in Kandahar, on December, 26, 2018, one month after the attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi.
The Majid Brigade had become a potential threat after it initiated a suicide attack on a bus carrying Chinese engineers working on the Saindak Copper-Gold project. The suicide bomber, Rehan Baloch, was the son of Achoo and a video was released in which his mother is seeing him off prior to the attack.
Some political observers are of the view that the US announcement is also aimed at normalising tensions with its economic foe, China. Chinese authorities are believed to have contacted some armed groups directly a couple of years ago, to carry out negotiations with their leaders, but failed to make any breakthrough. Later, China had to drop the idea after protests by Pakistan.
All four Baloch armed organisations – the BLA, BLF, the Baloch Republican Army and the Baloch Republican Guard – formed an alliance earlier this year, with the name of ‘Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar’ (BRAS), which translates into the Baloch National Front for Independence and vowed to struggle jointly, instead of as different groups, for the same goal.
The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).