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Balochistan's insurgency

June 10, 2011

Armed groups of Balochs in southwest Pakistan are gaining momentum at a critical point for the country's future. Deutsche Welle looks at the phenomenon which presents yet another problem in the troubled region.

Baloch insurgents in the rugged mountains of Pakistan.Image: Zurutuza

A province marked by floods and images of burned-out NATO tankers, Balochistan is the land of the Baloch, who today see their country in southwest Asia divided by the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Balochistan is the size of France and boasts enormous reserves of gas, gold and copper, as well as untapped sources of oil and uranium. The exploitation of these natural resources in combination with repressive and discriminatory state-run policies have led to armed uprisings in the region.

In his book "Descent into Chaos," best-selling writer and renowned Afghanistan commentator, Ahmed Rashid, says that the Baloch have instigated five insurgent uprisings to date. These insurgents take shelter in the rugged mountains of southern Pakistan and across the border, in Afghanistan.

The Baloch insurgents in Pakistan are fragmented into several groups: the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army), the BRA (Baloch Republican Army), the BLF (Baloch Liberation Front) and Lashkar-e Balochistan (Balochistan's army). Several analysts say this fragmentation reflects the tribal element among the Baloch. Accordingly, the BLA, BRA and Lashkar-e Balochistan are led by the local main clans of the Marris, the Bugtis and the Mengals respectively, while the BLF is a more heterogeneous movement.

Despite the apparent fracture, all these groups are markedly secular movements - at odds with the Taliban - who share a common agenda focusing on the independence of Balochistan. They organize their actions around guerrilla attacks, primarily against military targets and government infrastructures like gas pipelines.

Growing discontent

Khair bux marri
Khair Bux Marri is the leader of the Baloch's biggest tribe, the Marris.Image: Zurutuza

"Given that parliamentary politics is a fake option for us, we are forced to make politics with weapons. Since the partition of India in 1947, we have had to chose between slavery and death," Khair Bux Marri told Deutsche Welle from his residence in Karachi. The 90-year old Marri is the leader of the biggest Baloch tribe. His life-long struggle against Pakistan has taken him from years of exile in Afghanistan to terms in Pakistani prisons.

His son, Balaach Marri, led the BLA and was killed in 2007 by the Pakistani army. The portrait of this guerrilla leader, wearing a Baloch cap and holding an assault rifle, is almost ubiquitous in Pakistani-controlled Balochistan and can often be spotted alongside Hayrbyar's, his younger brother, also considered to be a "national hero" by many Baloch.

From his London exile, Hayrbyar Marri calls for the independence of Balochistan and defends the right of "self defence" by his people. When asked about a possible dialogue with Islamabad, he is categorical. "There's only one thing to negotiate with Islamabad and that's the immediate pull-out of their occupation troops," he told Deutsche Welle from his house in London.

Hayrbar mari
Hayrbyar Mari is one of the leaders in exile of the Baloch cause.Image: Zurutuza

A major cause of discontent among the Baloch are the low revenues generated by the province's vast natural resources. Although Balochistan is the largest source of Pakistan's energy reserves, Baloch groups claim that these resources disproportionately benefit other provinces.

The gas field in Sui district produces around 45 percent of Pakistan's total gas but only a fraction reaches the Baloch. Moreover, many local families are still cooking with wood or dung despite living on top of Pakistan's biggest gas reserve.

Islamabad blames the tribal leaders for the underdevelopment of the region but Balochistan is also experiencing a number of military operations against the civilian population (often coordinated with Tehran) in recent times. There are also an ever-increasing number of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of Baloch dissidents.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International called on the Pakistan government to take "urgent steps to end killings and abductions in Balochistan, which have increased at an alarming rate during the past year, resulting in the deaths of over 150 political activists, journalists, lawyers and students."

Last October, the organization had expressed its concern over the "kill and dump policy" adopted by Islamabad. The Obama administration has also said it is alarmed by the apparent disappearance of thousands of political Baloch activists.

street market
Street market in the city of Iranshar, in Iran's Sistan and Balochistan province.Image: Zurutuza

Some Baloch groups are campaigning peacefully and some contest local, provincial and federal elections, something that has not prevented the Baloch insurgency from targeting civilians whom they often accuse of "spying for Islamabad."

"The Baloch insurgency has picked up steam considerably and has taken on a more bloody and vicious tone than ever before. Baloch young men are gunning down not only members of the Pakistan security forces but also non-Baloch residents in Quetta and other cities such as teachers and shop keepers," Ahmed Rashid told Deutsche Welle.

Fear of 'deep waters'

Many experts point to the "fragile demographic balance" as the main reason behind the killing of Pakistani civilians. Also called "settlers" by the local Baloch, they're often seen as the biggest threat to their sparsely populated region of between eight and 10 million inhabitants.

The deep water port project in the southern city of Gwadar is the clearest example of that "demographic threat." Native Baloch fear that once the place enjoys the benefits of a new infrastructure, it will attract a massive migration movement from other parts of the country, especially from Punjab region, something which may end up shifting the demographic balance in Balochistan province.

"Baloch do not want Gwadar to become another Karachi. Whether Balochistan will remain true to its name depends largely on whether Gwadar will remain a Baloch city or not," Ahmar Mustikhan, journalist and founder of the Washington DC-based American Friends of Balochistan, told Deutsche Welle.

Gwadar seems to be of the biggest concern for the local Baloch. Attaullah Mengal, leader of the Mengal tribe, has been very critical of the Baloch insurgent movements but he still calls for a "solid response" against the development of the Gwadar port.

"The killing of Punjabi civilians in the hands of Baloch fighters is one of the most shameful episodes of our national struggle. Nonetheless, we should fight against Gwadar by any means necessary," he told Deutsche Welle.

With the experience of over five decades in the region, American journalist and writer Selig Harrison has denounced a "slow-motion genocide being inflicted on Baloch tribesmen in the mountains and deserts of south western Pakistan."

Harrison also said that the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan enjoys sympathies in the neighboring Sindh province which, according to the journalist, "has brought back the ancient dream of a state or a Sindhi-Balochistan federation extending along the Arabian Sea, from Iran to India."

Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Balochistan
Editor: Rob Mudge

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