QUETTA: The decline in insurgent violence over the past year, at the cost of savage violence by the state, has produced a fragile recovery in Quetta and other insurgency-hit parts of Balochistan.
In the provincial capital, markets are open past sunset, rowdy traffic clogs streets well into the evening and the occasional park in the city has more visitors than a year ago.
But fear and apprehension are never far from the surface. The Baloch quarters in Quetta are accessible to non-Baloch visitors, but outsiders are still cautioned by residents against frequent or unnecessary visits. The modern and spacious Sheikh Zayed Hospital in the Sariab Road area is largely deserted. Doctors, mostly non-Baloch, are still unwilling to work in the Baloch neighbourhood.
“The no-go situation of earlier years is perhaps no more,” according to Dr Ishaque Baloch, a central vice president of the National Party, “But it’s still very tense. Similarly, you can travel outside Quetta now, but there are dangers.”In Mastung, a town south of Quetta, residents acknowledged that while insurgent violence was down, fear and uncertainty are still rife. Teachers bussed in from Quetta each day arrive irregularly and the local womenfolk return home before sunset. Locals reported that shops shut early, roads were deserted after sunset and few residents left their homes after dark.
A low-level insurgency
Gauging support for the fifth Baloch insurgency since Pakistan’s creation or assessing the number of active insurgents is particularly tough given the two-pronged threat confronting independent voices: from the security apparatus and from insurgents.
Meanwhile, official statements are often problematic because of stakes in the present set-up and because of the deep ethnic and tribal fault lines that characterise the province.
“Go around the province, visit the different Baloch belts and you’ll see that the insurgency does not have much support,” said Nawab Aslam Raisani, chief minister of Balochistan. But Raisani’s home district is Mastung, where insurgent and criminal activities have left residents fearful.
Aslam Bhootani, speaker of the provincial assembly, also tried to downplay the strength of the insurgents: “More people die in Karachi each day. When diplomats visit here, they urge us to tell the world more about the realities of Balochistan. Balochistan is more normal than people expect.”
But MPAs move in heavily guarded convoys in Quetta.
What seems relatively clear, though, is that the present insurgency is much less severe than the last one. “This isn’t like the insurgency of the ’70s when tens of thousands participated. There are only a few hundred now. The support just isn’t there,” claimed Anwarul Haq Kakar, a local PML-N politician.
That view was echoed by several journalists, notables and locals of Baloch areas who spoke off the record.
Mapping the insurgency
The present insurgency has three main components. The Baloch Republican Army focuses on Dera Bugti, Kohlu, Jaffarabad and Naseerabad. It is led by Brahmdagh Bugti, who left his base in Afghanistan for Switzerland earlier this year.
The Baloch Liberation Army is operationally headed by Hyarbyar Marri, who is in self-exile in London. Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri is the guiding force of the group and resides in Karachi.
The Baloch Liberation Front, with an ever-changing list of offshoots, BLUF, BLNF, Baloch Warna, etc, is largely the militant arm of the Balochistan Students Organisation (Azad).
According to a security official, “overall there are about 1,000 terrorists (sic) of which the high-quality ones are around 250.” The official added: “BLA has maybe 200 hardcore fighters, BLF 300-400 and the Bugti camps around 400.”
The IGFC Maj-Gen Obaidullah Khan also claimed that the insurgents “were not in the thousands, probably less than a thousand”. But there is a caveat, as pointed out by Gen Khan: “There are also sympathisers that need to be taken into account.”
Given tribal linkages, an armed insurgent can often rely on support from fellow tribesmen. Another security official mentioned the case of ‘Pahari Bugti’, an insurgent who recently surrendered along with 15 of his fighters after succumbing to inducements by officials. The official claimed that “around 400 others who support and owe loyalty” to Pahari Bugti had also been sidelined as a result.
Another, indirect, way of gauging the strength of the insurgency is the missing persons issue — Baloch men allegedly linked to the insurgency and illegally held by the security forces without charges.
Abdul Qadir Baloch, vice chairman of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, claimed that there are “12,000 to 14,000” missing persons across the province. But the Balochistan High Court, which has more forcefully taken up the missing persons issue in the last couple of years, has only
34 petitions pending before it. Eighty persons have been recovered so far and 55 cases have been disposed of.
A new phenomenon
While the latest armed insurgency may be relatively small, it has given rise to a new phenomenon: the educated, middle-class, non-tribal insurgent.
Forming the core of the BLF, this new breed of insurgent is epitomised by Dr Allah Nazar. The insurgent from Mashkey in the south of the province has increasingly become the face of the Baloch insurgency, in part, according to Ayub Tarin, a local journalist who interviewed Nazar last year, because of the departure of his rivals.
“Brahmdagh Bugti is in Geneva, Hyarbyar Marri in London, the people see that Allah Nazar is still here, still fighting himself. That has an impact,” Tarin said.
The details of Nazar’s life are murky. He appears to have embraced separatist politics as a member of the BSO during his days as a student at Bolan Medical College before taking up arms alongside the Marris and the Bugtis in the early to mid-2000s.Reportedly detained and released several times by the Pakistani security forces, he was again released some three years ago. Journalists claim that Nazar had been tortured so badly that he was on the verge of death at the time of his release and spent several months in hospital. When he recovered, he ‘left for the hills’ — a term used to describe Baloch insurgents.
A soft-spoken man, Allah Nazar’s views are uncompromising. In the interview with Tarin, Nazar repeatedly justified the killing of Punjabi settlers, describing them variously as “a fifth column”, “a brigade of the state”, “members of the army” and “spies”. He also rejected non-violent, democratic means for attaining Baloch independence, citing the example of East Pakistan.
But those hard-line views appear to have gained traction with a number of degree-holding Baloch men. Tarin, the journalist who interviewed Nazar last summer, claims that of the fighters who were with Nazar, “many were doctors and engineers”.
Siddiq Baloch, incarcerated during much of the last insurgency and now editor of the Balochistan Express, suggested there has always been a streak of resistance among Baloch ‘commoners’: “They tell the sardars to shut up. They all think they are sardars.”
Outwardly, security officials are dismissive of the influence of Allah Nazar and his fighters. One mocked him: “Allah Nazar found the insurgent lifestyle irresistible. He’s a lower-class guy. He thought he’d get money and fame through rejecting Pakistan.”
But local analysts suggest the real reason for the rise of Allah Nazar and his fighters is the policies of the state itself. “They saw the security situation, they saw the oppression, they’ve seen how the Baloch are treated,” said a local journalist.
And with the state’s response to separatist sentiment still mired in lethality, the potential for more educated, middle-class, non-tribal Baloch men to embrace violence would appear to be high.
“Go around the province, visit the different Baloch belts and you’ll see that the insurgency does not have much support,” said Nawab Aslam Raisani, chief minister of Balochistan.
Aslam Bhootani, speaker of the provincial assembly, also tried to down play the strength of the insurgents: “...When diplomats visit here, they urge us to tell the world more about the realities of Balochistan. Balochistan is more normal than people expect.”
A soft-spoken man, Allah Nazar’s views are uncompromising. In the interview with Tarin, Nazar repeatedly justified the killing of Punjabi settlers, describing them variously as “a fifth column”, “a brigade of the state”, “members of the army” and “spies”. He also rejected non-violent, democratic means for attaining Baloch independence, citing the example of East Pakistan. But those hard-line views appear to have gained traction with a number of degree-holding Baloch men.
Tarin, the journalist who interviewed Nazar last summer, claims that of the fighters who were with Nazar, “many were doctors and engineers”.