May Issue 2015
The War Within
The recent killing of 20 Sindhi and Seraiki labourers in the home district of Chief Minister Balochistan, Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, at the hands of Baloch militants, made headlines in the national media. Apart from widespread condemnation in the country, it was the first time that Sindhi nationalists, who have otherwise always harboured a soft corner for Baloch separatist groups, also expressed outrage.
The labourers had been brought in from Sadiqabad (Punjab) and Hyderabad (Sindh) to construct a small bridge on the outskirts of Turbat town on the firm assurances of fool-proof security arrangements provided by middle men from Karachi.
The Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), led by Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, took responsibility for the cold-blooded murders. In response, Balochistan Home Minister, Mir Sarfaraz Bugti, declared, “They are RAW-funded, anti-Pakistan organisations, playing with the blood of innocents to destabilise the country. They will be made accountable for each and every drop of blood they have shed.” Bugti maintains that there is no war between the Baloch and Punjabis; the killers are terrorists with no religion. He also admits there was a security lapse, saying that although over one dozen personnel of the police and levies had been deputed to the site to provide cover to the labourers, they could not offer any resistance when attacked. All the levies men stationed at the site have been arrested and are currently being interrogated.
The BLF for its part unabashedly claimed ownership of the gruesome crime saying it had warned the people, both local and outside the province, time and again that they should not involve themselves in development projects in Balochistan which are aimed at looting and plundering Baloch resources and turning the Baloch into a minority in their own land.
The morning after the massacre, the Frontier Corps Balochistan (FCB) claimed it had killed 13 militants, including a commander, and arrested a ring leader involved in the labourers’ killings. However, the Home Minister declared that five, not 13, terrorists had been killed. The BLF retorted that the so called terrorists the FCB claimed to have taken out were actually already in the missing persons list and included one man who was earlier paralysed in an attack of a security forces-backed ‘death squad.’
Baloch nationalists have been targeting labourers from outside the province as local people shy away from working on such federal projects that irk the former, or that are generally considered to be against Baloch interests. According to an estimate, some 75 labourers, including Punjabis, Seraikis and Pakhtuns, working on such projects have been gunned down since March 2011 to date, in seven incidents of terrorism in Balochistan.
In the wake of the recent grisly incident, security forces accelerated their already ongoing operation against separatist elements in the restive areas of Balochistan, particularly in Mekran, in a bid to provide a congenial atmosphere, presumably for Chinese nationals who are to begin work this year on making the Gwadar port operational.
The militants responded by launching an armed attack on the radar system in the coastal town of Pasni in Gwadar District in the early hours of the second day of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, and reportedly managed to wreak significant damage to the installations. The next day the Frontier Corps launched an offensive and in the clash with the militants two FC personnel and five militants were killed.
“Obviously the miscreants attacked the installations at the Pasni airport on the eve of the Chinese President’s visit to show that they have a presence in the Gwadar area. However, they are not great in either number or capability, and can easily be wiped out with a small use of force,” said Akbar Hussain Durrani, the provincial Home Secretary.
Last February, armed militants abducted Deputy Commissioner Abdul Hameed Abro and Assistant Commissioner Hussain Jan near Tump in Kechh District along with 18 levies personnel when they were returning to Turbat town after holding meetings with Iranian border officials. However, after keeping the abducted men in captivity for a couple of days, the BLF activists set them free with the announcement that they wanted to disprove government claims that they did not have any writ in the area.
As in other parts of Balochistan, government forces allegedly started supporting an armed group known as the Lashkar-e-Khurrasaan, that comprises Iranian and local elements against the separatists, and launched information-based actions under its cover. This enterprise did not work well. Hence ultimately, the security forces started information-gathering and conducting operations on their own.
Army Chief General Raheel Sharif recently paid a day-long visit to Quetta to review the situation, and presumably to finalise a plan to initiate full-scale operations in Mekran, particularly in two restive districts, Kechh and Gwadar. Both, Chief Minister Baloch, and his Home Minister, Bugti, are hesitant to divulge the reason for the army chief’s visit or the details of the high-level meetings that were held. “We are thankful to the army chief for making the provincial capital a priority,” Sarfaraz Bugti told reporters while parrying questions about the purpose of his visit.
Knowledgeable sources close to those who attended the high-level meeting chaired by General Raheel Sharif, meanwhile, claim that a security plan has been finalised to take on the group of Baloch youngsters (separatists) who are not ready to lay down their arms. One source divulged that it was decided that “the security plan they had devised at the meeting had to be implemented in letter and spirit on the basis of the notion ‘Enough is Enough’.”
Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, a chief minister heading a loose ruling coalition, is in a quandary about whether to support the security plan openly or tacitly. He is said to have differed with the plans for the operation to be launched in his area (Mekran), saying it would ultimately create complications for, both, the government and liberal political parties. He suggested that only information-based actions should be conducted against those involved in the killing of innocent people and attacks on security forces. According to an observer, “The army chief did not respond to these suggestions either verbally or through any facial expression.”
Dr Malik is under pressure since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s public admission that an agreement exists between the National Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to lead the ruling coalition in the province, with each party taking turns to do so for two-and-a half years each of the five-year term. “Mian Nawaz Sharif has given me the chief ministership, and whenever he asks for it, I will surrender,” said CM Baloch.
Although the PML-N provincial head and senior minister, Nawab Sanaullah Zehri, an aspirant for the Chief Minister’s post, is prepared to go to any extent regarding the implementation of security measures, the military establishment seems to want a dove element, but with a nationalist identity, rather than a hawkish one, to execute its plan smoothly. Meanwhile Zehri has already started flexing his muscles to take the province in December 2015, at the end of Dr Malik Baloch’s tenure.
The PML-N leadership seems toothless viz-a-viz Balochistan’s affairs, and the final say regarding whether Baloch or Zehri will be at the helm of the province, will lie with the military establishment. Nawaz Sharif has, meanwhile, publicly repented his role in elbowing former Baloch CM, Sardar Akhtar Mengal out of power in 1998.
The Balochistan National Party-Mengal is already making a vociferous hue and cry, both inside and outside parliament, over issues such as missing persons, the targeted killings of political workers, the ongoing operation by security forces and mega development projects, including Gwadar port. The BNP-Awami recently also joined hands with the Mengal group. Can Islamabad afford to push the only Baloch nationalist group, the BNP, out of power? If this happens, there are chances that all the Baloch nationalist groups will gang up against Islamabad, and the establishment’s dream of a smooth execution of development projects, especially the Gwadar port in Balochistan, will be in jeopardy.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.
The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).