Rising violence by separatists adds to Pakistan’s lethal instability

Rising violence by separatists adds to Pakistan’s lethal instability

World News

Shari Baluch was a 30-year-old mother of two children and a schoolteacher. Late last month, on a university campus in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, she detonated a suicide bomb, killing herself and four others, including three Chinese teachers.

Releasing a photo of her wearing fatigues and flashing a victory sign, the Baluchistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility, extending a recent wave of deadly attacks by Baluch separatists.

Baluch separatism is just one of the forces threatening the nation’s already tenuous unity and stability, including violent insurgencies by the Islamic State group affiliate known as ISIS-K and the resurgent Pakistani Taliban.

An ethnically fragmented nation of more than 200 million people, Pakistan has long suffered from lack of economic development, corruption and volatile politics. The nuclear-armed military and its feared intelligence service exert significant influence over governments and in the past have overthrown them.

Baluchistan is a large, arid province in southwestern Pakistan, bordering Iran and Afghanistan. It has rich mineral resources and a long coastline but only about 12 million people across an area roughly the size of Germany. Since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, it has faced five insurgencies in the region, the most recent and persistent one underway since 2003.

Insurgent groups have fought repeatedly against political centralization and resource exploitation, in return facing heavy state repression and human rights abuses.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is developing a Chinese-operated deepwater port in Gwadar, Baluchistan, and a transportation network linking Gwadar to China. Pakistan’s government views such foreign investment as vital and is eager to strengthen ties with China as a counterweight to Pakistan’s archrival, India.

But to the separatists, the development projects put Beijing squarely on the side of the exploiters and oppressors, so in recent years, many targets of insurgent violence have been Chinese.

In 2018, BLA militants killed four people in an attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, and the next year the group mounted an assault on the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi, which is 40% owned by Chinese investors, killing three people. In both cases, the assailants were also killed. Last August, a BLA suicide bomber killed two children in an attack on Chinese nationals in Gwadar.

Baluch blew herself up last week near a van transporting Chinese language teachers for the Confucius Institute, a worldwide network of cultural centers financed by the Chinese government. The BLA called the institute a “symbol of Chinese economic, cultural and political expansionism.” Chinese development work must stop, it threatened, “otherwise our future attacks will be even harsher.”

Pakistan has long complained that Baluch separatists operated out of hideouts in Afghanistan, while the former Afghan government often accused the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, of aiding the Taliban. After the Chinese consulate attack in 2018, a suicide bomber killed the BLA commander and several associates — not in Pakistan, but in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Afghan officials blamed the ISI for that bombing.

By 2020, the Baluch insurgency had been greatly weakened by years of counterinsurgency operations, rifts among separatist groups, fatigue and government incentives for the militants to lay down their weapons.

Pakistani officials hoped that the Taliban takeover last year would end Afghanistan’s use as a haven for Baluch insurgents. After the Gwadar attack, the Taliban detained and expelled a large number of families of separatists, according to Baluch insurgent groups.

But the intensity and frequency of attacks started rising sharply last year, demonstrating the militants’ growing sophistication and aggressiveness. The number of terrorist attacks in Baluchistan nearly doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, according to the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, and the pace has kept rising this year. Insurgents have started resorting to suicide attacks, and the April 26 bombing in Karachi showed a new willingness to use women as assailants.

In February, BLA militants staged twin assaults on two military posts in Baluchistan. Pakistan’s military said that 20 attackers and nine military personnel were killed.

Days earlier, an attack on another military post by a different group, the Baluch Liberation Front, killed 10 soldiers.

The major separatist groups’ leadership has shifted in recent years from traditional tribal chieftains living in self-exile in Europe to more militant former student leaders. The groups have also formed an operational alliance to pool resources — one major reason the insurgency has intensified, security experts and officials said.

They also link the insurgency’s upswing to its recruitment of youth, mainly students. The heads of two separatist groups formerly led a banned student group, the Baluch Students Organization-Azad, which operates clandestinely and, according to law enforcement officials, is a major source of insurgents. As a student, Baluch, the suicide bomber, was associated with the group, according to her family.

Separatist attacks have been concentrated in the sparsely populated Makran region of Baluchistan, where residents depend on illegal cross-border trade with Iran in fuel and other commodities. In a desert area that has few job opportunities, smuggling can be a matter of survival. But the official border crossings were closed in March 2021, making the trade harder and worsening the misery of the local population.

“If the government set up industries for us, the youth would not be involved in dangerous business,” said Sakhi Dad, 28, who said he took up smuggling after graduating from a university and failing to find other work.

In November, a protest movement led by a Gwadar-based cleric, Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, mobilized thousands of people, calling on the government to address the plight of people in Makran. They demanded relaxation of border trade, easing of security checkpoints created to protect Chinese workers at the Gwadar port, and an end to illegal trawling that is devastating the livelihood of local fishermen.

The government has responded with vows to improve conditions. On April 23, the new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, in a visit to Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, cited neglect of the region as a cause of violence and promised to “raise the issue of forced disappearances with powerful quarters.”

Pakistan’s military leadership has broadened its public interactions in Baluchistan, trying to present a friendlier face, particularly in Makran. After the February attacks, the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, and other military leaders visited Baluchistan to meet political leaders and university students and asked the local administration to open the border to trade. He also encouraged the youth to join law enforcement agencies.

“For the first time, local leaders expressed their grievances and anger openly to the military’s leadership,” said a local political leader who attended the meeting with Bajwa in Turbat in March. He requested anonymity to speak freely. “But without a political solution to bring an end to the long-running conflict, the insurgency will remain a challenge for Islamabad.”

Less than two months after Bajwa’s visit, Baluch carried out her suicide attack.

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