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Turmoil in Pakistan: The Balochistan Liberation Army

Matthew T. Meaney

Over the past several months, much of the news coverage of the Middle East has been devoted to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. However, that is not to say that there have not been other conflicts occurring in the Middle East. In the Balochistan region of Pakistan, tension has been brewing for quite some time, and it would appear that the Taliban takeover of neighboring Afghanistan has allowed this conflict to come to a head.

Balochistan has a long history of being largely independent of outside actors. Historians believe that there was a group of people indigineous to the region now called Balochistan, with this group most likely originating around the Stone or Bronze Age. People of the Baloch ethnic group, who are in fact native to the Iranian plateau, began to settle in Pakistan in the 14th century, remaining a constant presence in the region. In 1970, Balochistan became its own province within the country of Pakistan, with the capital of this new province being the city of Quetta. The modern province of Balochistan is both the largest and most sparsely populated, mostly inhabited by the Baloch and Pashtun ethnic groups.

Almost from its inception as a separate province in Pakistan has Balochistan desired its independence and autonomy. A nationalist insurrection movement known as the Independent Balochistan Movement existed from 1973 - 1977, and was notably responsible for many insurrectionist attacks against Pakistan. However for roughly 20 years the region remained without an “official” Baloch insurrectionist group. That is until the year 2000, when the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) was officially founded, and is considered to be the oldest and most dangerous Baloch nationalist group. Many analysts familiar with the topic believe this BLA is a reincarnation of the Independent Balochistan Movement from the 1970s. The self-proclaimed mission statement of the Balochistan Liberation Army is to fight for the freedom and independence of the Balochistan region, with the ultimate goal being the creation of a “Greater Balochistan” sovereign state which would include pieces of historically Baloch territory from Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Most of the early activities of the BLA remain unknown, with their workings from 2000-2003 largely undocumented. However that would change in May of 2003, when the BLA carried out a series of small scale attacks on police and non-native Balochistan residents, and though these attacks were small, they would be enough to attract the attention of the Pakistani government, who subsequently deployed 20,000 troops to Balochistan. This deployment was not enough to stop the BLA, whose attacks continued all throughout 2003, 2004, and 2005, the same year the organization attacked Camp Kohlu, which was housing then-President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf. The following year, 2006, Pakistan designated the BLA as terrorist organization. Later that same year, Pakistani forces killed alleged BLA leader Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti, and in 2007 new leader Mir Balaach Marri was also killed by the government. However, the Pakistani Human Rights Commission opines that the strikes by the Pakistanis served a double purpose: 1) to eliminate the BLA’s leadership, but also 2) to incite more violence from the BLA with the intent to justify further military involvement in the Balochistan region.

Over the next few years, tensions only rose between the BLA and the government, after Pakistan gave a forty year lease to the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) to use the Port of Gwadar, located in Balochistan. This transaction was seen by most Balochis as a direct attempt by Pakistan to colonize Balochistan. Balochis claim that this development of Port Gwadar would negatively affect the daily lives of the citizens of Balochistan, harming their access to water and electricity. In fact, the COPHC’s use of the port did create and is still creating problems for the residents of Balochistan, with food and water shortages abounding.

In 2008, the Balochistan Liberation Army, the Baloch Republic Army (another insurrectionist movement), and the government of Pakistan reached a ceasefire, but by January of the next year (2009), the deal was off. The BLA backed out of the agreement claiming that no meaningful attempt was made by Pakistan to reconcile. The situation only worsened after peace talks broke down. On April 15, 2009, the current leader of the BLA, Brahamdagh Khan Bugti made an appearance on a major Pakistani news network urging Balochi people to kill any non-Baloch residing in Balochistan. An estimated 500 people were killed in the chaos that ensued following Bugti’s statement.

From 2009 to 2012, the BLA claimed responsibility for various attacks carried out against the Pakistani government. In 2013, the nationalist organization attacked the summer home of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder and first Governor General of Pakistan, which is designated as a national historic site. The year after this attack (2014), reported leader of the BLA Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri passed away, leading to a fight between his six sons for control of the army. Three of the brothers, though little information exists about which brothers were on what side of the argument, split from the BLA and formed the United Baloch Army (UBA). The UBA and BLA, to this day, remain at odds with each other and often are in skirmish with one another. In 2018, the Balochistan Liberation Army renewed its mission of ridding Balochistan of foreign influences, with a specific focus on the Chinese and Pakistanis.

Over the course of the past few months, the BLA has returned itself to the spotlight once again as nationalist attacks have begun to pick up, with many pointing the blame at the BLA. After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Afghan territory is being used to aid the Balochistan insurgents against Pakistan. Recently 50 Pakistani troops were killed by separatist Baloch revolutionaries, however the BLA has yet to confirm their involvement in these attacks. On February 3 of this year (2022), seven Pakistani soldiers and thirteen Baloch militants were killed in a clash within the Balochistan province. The separatists claim more of their own men were killed in subsequent fighting, but independent agencies are yet to confirm these claims. It is also unclear if these militants were affiliated with the BLA, but many analysts feel that the Liberation Army is involved. The BLA has, however, claimed to have killed many Pakistani troops in an assault on state forces in Nauskki, but the military of Pakistan denies such claims. The Pakistan Army is at present also dealing with an enlarged presence of the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban, which is currently being aided by the Taliban in power in Afghanistan.

Placing the blame on one party in this conflict is very difficult to do. The Balochistan Liberation Army is to blame for their violent acts against many innocent people over the course of the organization’s existence, but that does not mean the Pakistani government is innocent here. The government has allowed for the Chinese (another party blame can be placed on) to come into Balochistan, treating the native residents there with blatant disregard for their basic needs, like food and clean water. There is a lesson, however, in the midst of this ongoing suffering, and though it might be easier said than done, peace talks must always remain an option. Both parties have had many opportunities to prevent future conflict, and both parties ignored those opportunities. It is also worth noting that allowing corporations run by foreign countries that commit atrocities against their own people to be responsible for the lives and well beings of people of other nations, is not a good idea for governments to pursue.

With that being said, this conflict is still developing, and while it will most likely take a backseat to the crisis in Afghanistan with the Taliban, it is something that the international community should not forget about.


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