If Pakistan Wants Peace in Balochistan, It Must Look Inward
Balochistan is a breeding ground for extremism, with links to terror groups both globally and regionally.
Pakistan's port city Gwadar came under attack once again less than a month after the last one from Baloch separatists, as they stormed a hotel and killed at least one person. This is a few weeks after the Baloch rebels had carried out a targeted killing of 14 security personnel after offloading passengers from a bus and identifying those working for the armed forces when the vehicles were about to reach Gwadar city.
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The Pakistani government had said the attackers had come in from the Iran border, which is around 100 kilometres away and a heavily militarised zone. This time around, some reports have emerged saying that the attackers came in a boat via the sea that Gwadar is connected to. Pakistan has earlier blamed Afghan and Indian backing for the attacks in Balochistan.
But Pakistan's terror problem is not just external.
While there is a possibility of the Baloch insurgency being exploited by foreign enemies, especially since Pakistan also supports militant proxies in the region, these attacks raise a question about the internal workings of the province, rife with bloodshed, violence and militancy for many years now, despite the heavy military presence all across the region that has been conducting unannounced operations against the Baloch for years now.
And the problem is certainly not limited to the Baloch insurgency. The province is a breeding ground for extremist groups with linkages to terror organisations globally and regionally.
A Hotbed for Terror Groups
To begin with, the Afghan Taliban have been headquartered in the province for years now, and much of the leadership moves freely in the region. Many Sunni extremist groups are also allowed to operate, which the Pakistani state uses to lure Baloch youngsters towards an Islamic identity they can associate with the Islamic republic, rather than joining the separatist insurgency.
Between these two groups are also self-styled Islamic State groups who identify with the global Middle Eastern movement, Pakistani Taliban who have fled the neighbouring Khyber Pakthunkhwa province and relocated here, and the alleged Saudi-backed extremist groups that attack inside Iran, as acknowledged by Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan who said in a recent visit to Iran that Pakistani soil was being used for attacks on Iran.
Intelligence and security circles in Balochistan have acknowledged that many times, the arms and explosives found in raids are usually Pakistan-sourced.
Why Is It so Easy to Operate Freely, Source Arms Locally?
The problem lies with the good-bad militant policy that the Pakistani state seems to continue to employ. While it goes after one kind of violent group, it ignores the other. But on the ground, these groups collaborate with each other to provide weapons, training and ideological support too.
The violence in the tribal belt north of Balochistan escalated for the very same reason post 9/11, when the Pakistani military allowed refuge to fleeing Afghan militants, who then influenced locals to form the Pakistani Taliban.
Until 2005, the Pakistani military would often be seen hobnobbing with many of these militants, calling them an asset to be used against India, if need be. But then these very militants went on to wreak havoc on the Pakistani state, in a terror campaign that continues to this day.
Pakistan is amidst attracting investment in Balochistan, with the Chinese, Saudis and other international investors eyeing billions of dollars of investment – but if it wants a stable environment, it must stop differentiating between militants on the ground so that it is able to fully crack down such violent groups.
But the military solution isn’t the only option.
The Solution Lies Within
It also requires addressing the grievances of the local population who continue to identify with the Baloch cause, and increasingly so, given the mistreatment they face.
In just Gwadar, hundreds of local fishermen have been displaced from the seaport they had fished in for centuries – their only source of livelihood. The port has been handed to the Chinese, who do not allow locals to fish in the waters there. The fishermen have been protesting for months now, but the media is not allowed to cover these stories.
The locals also have complained of a severe lack of water in the area, while they continue to see the Chinese and other foreigners come in and exploit the local resources. Such perceived and real discrimination is open to exploitation by violent groups who have separatist aims.
Pakistan cannot hope for peace in Balochistan unless it realises that the solution to sustainable peace has to do with addressing domestic problems.
It should stop blaming it on a foreign hand and start taking responsibility for making Balochistan a hotbed for terror groups.
(Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist living in exile in Paris since February 2018 and is currently writing a book about Pakistan. He teaches journalism at SciencesPo and runs a digital platform called safenewsrooms.org , which documents censorship in the media. He tweets at @TahaSSiddiqui . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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