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Insurgency in Balochistan: from ethnonationalism to counterinsurgency

1. L’ethnonationalism

Dictionary, Treccani: ethnonationalism (ethnonationalism), noun, Ethnic Nationalism takes hold of the traditions of an ethnic group or a people.

According to this definition, "ethnonationalism" – an essential word to grasp the complexity of the phenomenon matter of this paper – is a form of nationalism rooted in the idea of the existence of ethnic homogeneity. The shared sense of unity and ethnic pride, and the sense of collective identity do not stem from a concept of political-geographical homogeneity; they derive from the rooted belief in the existence of a shared bloodline, perceived as unique, which gives rise to a sense of geographical, linguistic and cultural identity.

Ethnonationalist movements are becoming increasingly significant due to the growing risk linked to this phenomenon, and they often are considered as one of the biggest threats to national security coming from inside the borders of a country since their ultimate goal is destroying the geographical and political continuity of the territory and therefore achieving territorial division in the area hit by secessionist movements.

In the severity scale of risk profiles, Baloch ethnonationalism ranks among the top positions in terms of the severity of the threat to the national stability of the countries concerned. This is due to the warlike and militias actions that several groups carry out towards the national entities they are fighting.

2. Balochistan: strategic gem

Balochistan is a vast mountainous region located in the southeasternmost portion of the Iranian plateau, between the Pakistanian region of Balochistan, the Iranian Sistan and Balochistan Province and Afghanistan southern regions, the provinces of Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar.

Figure 1. Balochistan as seen by Baloch

It covers an area of 530,000 km² and has a population of almost 14 million people. It has the lowest population density among the neighbouring regions, with 25 people per square kilometre. Balochs constitute 3% of the population of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2.5 million people out of 80 million Iranians, and almost a quarter of the Pakistanian population, 60 million out of the 220 million inhabitants of Pakistan, though only 12 million people still live in the original region.

Balochistan coastline stretching between the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabic sea is located in one of the most strategic sea areas of the world, welcoming 1/3 of the global crude oil and liquid gas trade. The coastline stretching over 2,000km hosts strategic infrastructures, crucial for Iran and Pakistan, such as the Pakistani deep seaport of Gwadar and the Iranian deep seaport of Chahbahar, bridgeheads for trade routes coming from Central Asia and Eastern Asia, and national oil companies. The Pakistani port of Gwadar, currently undergoing development, will encompass termination points for the TAPI pipeline (the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline, a project worth $11 billion), for the GUSA (the Gulf South Asia Gas Project) and will be a crucial step for the CPEC (the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a project worth $87 billion), the Pakistani leg of the larger BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).

Figure 2. Geographical distribution of the Baluchis ethnic group

On the other hand, in 2012, before the restoration of sanctions in 2018 due to the withdrawal from the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – Iran Nuclear Deal), India had invested $500 billion in the Iranian Chabahar Port. Despite trade restrictions, in the first quarter alone, this port got $85 billion of investments. The final project of the “Shahid Beheshti” port aims at incrementing port infrastructures to increase handling capacity up to 86 billion tons by 2024. The strategic geographical position derives even from the large energy capacity and the abundance of raw material in the soil. Balochistan uncharted fields alone may contain up to 310 billion barrels of oil located offshore or onshore, 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves and 2.2 billion tons of coal, with a daily mining rate of 15 thousand tons.

Besides the vast reserves of fossil fuels, Balochistan is rich in mineral deposits. The Reko Diq gold and copper Mine alone is worth an estimated $260 billion, having estimated reserves of 6 billion tonnes of mining resources, making it the 4th largest deposit on the planet. .

3. The reasons behind the insurgency

Despite the high economic development potential and the large availability of mineral resources, Balochistan is largely underdeveloped. The extreme weather conditions, the social fabric structured in tribal hierarchies, the extremely low population density in the Iranian part of Balochistan, the weak organizational structure and the lacking of faith in the local population in the central government makes it difficult for state authorities to govern this impervious territory. For decades, the local population has denounced unfair treatment, complaining about injustices, lack of gains on natural resources, violation of fundamental rights, lack of social policies such as education and healthcare, lack of political representation in governing bodies. Child mortality, poverty and illiteracy are very high in Iran and Pakistan's Balochistan provinces.

3.1 The motives of Iranian Balochis

A careful analysis of the issues concerning the Iranian Sistan and Balochistan Province shows that locals have been complaining about the government's lack of engagement to integrate Balochs into the Iranian society for decades.

According to the 2019 US State Department report on human rights, "Areas inhabited by Balochis are extremely underdeveloped and have limited access to education, jobs, healthcare and housing". In 2018, life expectancy in the Sistan and Balochistan Province was the lowest among all Iranian provinces. According to the latest census, Balochistan recorded a literacy rate of 76%, compared to 93% in the Province of Teheran.

The government has repeatedly tried to cancel Balochs cultural identity: sending missionaries to convert the local population, predominantly Sunni, to Shi'ism, launching closures campaigns and seldomly dismantling Sunni mosques and exploiting education to promote Iranian national identity at the expense of Balochs' ethnic identity. As regards the unequal treatment in courts, as shown by data released byAmnesty International, the Islamic Republic from 2004 to 2009 has executed at least 1.481 people, almost 55% were Balochi.

3.2 The motives of Pakistan Balochis

Pakistan Balochistan is affected by the same issues as the Iranian Sistan Balochistan. However, these issues are made worse by the higher population density in the area and the fact that it represents a larger share of the Pakistani population, up to 13 million people. Social exclusion, lack of earnings from natural resources, and difficulty accessing essential services are the main problems affecting Pakistan Balochs.

50% of the Pakistan Baloch population lives below the poverty line, a larger share than neighbouring regions of Pakistan. Unemployment, widely spread across the area, mainly affects young, educated people, causing frustration and hardship.

The inhabitants of the region often find it hard to access primary healthcare and education. As in Sistan Balochistan, child and infant mortality rates are very high; especially in this region, it is higher than in South Asia, reaching 44 deaths per 1.000 births.

Unlike Sistan Balochistan, where natural resources haven’t been exploited yet, one of the main complaints of Pakistan Balochis is the unequal distribution of the proceeds coming from the natural resources of the region: annual consumption of natural gas in Pakistan stands at 1 trillion cubic feet, 80% of which comes from the Balochistan Province, which however receives only 25% of the gains.

4. The insurgency

AAP-06 2019 EF NATO glossary defines “insurgency/insurrection: Actions of an organized, often ideologically motivated, group or movement that seeks to effect or prevent political change or to overthrow a governing authority within a country or a region, focused on persuading or coercing the population through the use of violence and subversion.”

In other terms, an insurgency is the organized use of violence to overthrow, annihilate or challenge the political control of an area. It is indeed a form of national conflict; insurgents may use multiple methods such as terrorism, subversion, sabotage and political, economic and military activities to reach predefined goals. Poor social and economic conditions, stemming from years of bad administration of the crisis, worsened ethnic tensions, pushing Balochs to use armed insurgency as a means of asymmetric confrontation with Pakistani and Iranian governing bodies.

The presence of several armed cartels with different ideologies undermines Pakistan national security. Jihadist subversive groups and secular ethnonationalist movements create a common front in the conflict, carrying out warfare operations against Pakistani state authorities and Shiite groups active in Pakistani Balochistan, even though they have different agendas and goals.

Different terrorist groups carry out subversive actions in Balochistan, i.e. separatists Baloch groups, small Sunnite organizations linked to international Salafist terrorism and smaller sectarian Shiite or Sunni groups. Some national, religious groups – such as Jundullah and Jaish-ul Adl – operate along the border between Pakistan and Iran and carry out a cross-border operation against Iranian targets.

4.1 Pakistani insurgency

The Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), the United Baloch Army (UBA), the Baloch Republican Guards (BRG) and the Lashkar-e Jhangvi are some of the prominent groups and movements claiming Pakistan Balochs' rights. The high number of Pakistani groups - higher than Iranian Baloch armed groups - is the consequence of the long warfare culture of the Pakistan inhabitants of the region in the country's recent history. The conflict between this ethnic group and the government has been going on intermittently since 1948, the foundation of Pakistan. Since then, this conflict developed over five different timeframes (1948; 1958-1959; 1963-1969; 1973-1977); the last stage began in 2004, and it is the longest one so far.

Every group follows its agenda, fighting for different goals: secular Baloch organizations ask for the separation of politics from religion; religious groups instead have sectarian targets and want to annihilate Shia; in turn, Shia groups gather in clandestine armed groups to protect Iranian interests in the religion.

4.2 Pakistani groups

Born in 1973, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) aims at reaching complete independence of the area and its liberation from Iranian and Pakistani rule. The BLA leads approximately 25 training camps in the regions and comprises several members conducting warfare operations in the province. The BLA stated that its target is going to be Chinese working at the CPEC. In 2019, the group claimed responsibility for 27 violent actions targeting mainly strategic sites for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) is mainly active in the southern coastal region, but it can cross borders and carry out border-cross operations in Iran and Afghanistan. In 2019 alone, this group has committed 11 terrorist attacks. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS): “the BLF has remained focused on its goals linked to the CPEC not disdaining any foreign presence in the province”. The BLF was outlawed in September 2010. The Balochistan Republican Army (BRA) is the para-military wing of the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP), a separatist party led by Brahmdagh Bugti, nephew of the former Balochistan prime minister. The BRA committed six attacks in 2019 and participated in operations against Chinese targets and infrastructures linked to the CPEC. The largest BRA operation took place in January 2015, targeting the national electric grid, causing a blackout in 80 % of Pakistan.

Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS) is an alliance of three different separatist movements founded in 2018. Under BLA commander Aslam Achu's initiative, an operational organization was founded targeting only Chinese interests in Pakistan and the CPEC. Later, Pakistani security forces became another target. The BLA, the BLF and the BRG are the main groups forming the BRAS, but probably even the UBA and the Lashkar and Balochistan are essential members.

Figure 3. Insurgent Pakistani Groups, agenda, and area of action.

Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) is a former political party – following the Deobandi school – founded in the 1980s by Sunnite cleric Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi in Jhang, which became an armed movement attacking the Shiite influence in Pakistan. Probably, the organizations hold strong ties with the jihadist movement Jaish-e Muhammad (JeM) and the Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP), and it is part of the Taliban network in Punjab. In the early 2000s, it killed Shiite militants and citizens and attacked several Shiite mosques. In recent years, a part of the SSP formed a new group named Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ), operating even in Iran. Madrasas are a breeding terrain for recruits for the SSP. In 2002, Former president Musharraf outlawed the group, and the United States classified it as a terrorist organization in 2005.

The Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) is a Deobandi terrorist group founded in 1996, in response to the creation in 1995 of the Sipah-e Mohammed Pakistan (SMP) – subsidized by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the conflict between Shiite groups and Sunni radical groups funded by Saudi Arabia – targeting the leaders of the SSP. Once, Daesh openly supported the LeJ, exploiting it to counter Shiite militant groups. Since its foundation, it has been responsible for 350 violent and terrorist attacks against Shiite mosques. Although the LeJ violence targets mainly Shi'ism, the organization also has radical positions against Christians, Ahmadis and Sufi Muslims. The US included LeJ in the list of terrorist organizations in 2003, and president Musharraf outlawed it in 2001. To face the growing military pressure, nationalist groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Balochistan Republican Army (BRA), the United Baloch Army (UBA) and the Lashkar-e Balochistan (LeB) developed cooperation strategies in terrorist operations targeting public economic interests. Indeed, in 2018, the insurgent groups changed their strategy targeting Chinese interests in Balochistan. Therefore, the groups have been targeting CPEC sites and landmarks of the Chinese cooperation with greater frequency, i.e. the Chinese consulate in Karachi (23.11.2018), the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar (11.5.2019), a popular destination among Chinese entrepreneurs involved in China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

4.3 Iranian Insurgency

The ongoing clash between armed groups and movements and Pakistani security forces has been going on intermittently since 1948, while in Iran, the conflict reached worrying stages, with the introduction of arms, only in 2002. In particular, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been fighting against the Jundullah group since 2002, Jaish-ul Adl since 2012 and the smaller group Ansar al Furqan since 2013. These are the three deadlier militant organizations operating in the Sistan and Balochistan Province, carrying out attacks against Iranian interests, inciting sectarian violence.

4.4 Iranian Groups

Jundallah (“Soldiers of God”, also known in Persian as the “Jonbesh-e Moqavemat-eMardom-e Iran” the People's Resistance Movement of Iran) is a movement founded to protect the rights of the Balochi minority of the Sistan and Balochistan Province. Since its foundation in 2002, it has attacked several Shiite officials, security forces and religious institutions. Jundullah showed advanced tactical skills and ability to penetrate the territory since autumn 2005 when they hit the motorcade of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a tour in the Sistan and Balochistan Province.

Figure 4. Jaish-ul Adl flag

Jundullah relies on roughly 2 thousand well-trained militants, and since 2005, it has killed 154 Iranians and injured 320 citizens. Although, the commanders of the armed group state that the group has killed up to 400 Iranian soldiers.

The recruiting basin of Jundullah is Sunni religious seminaries taking place in the mosques of the region. Founded in 2002, by Abdolmalek Rigi (arrested and executed in Tehran in 2010), in the beginning, Jundullah wasn't explicitly ideologically linked to Jihadism. However, in 2008 it became closer to it, cooperating with the Pakistani armed groups Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Al-Qaeda, openly anti-Shi'a and jihadists.

Alongside Jundullah, Jaish-ul Adl is the other prominent group of Balochi terrorism active on Iranian borders. Born from a branch of Jundullah, Jaish-ul Adl (“Army of Justice”) is a militant group founded in 2012, openly a Salafi jihadist organization. This group too has stood out for its advanced tactical and operational skills within Iranian territory, completing operations against security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stationed in Sistan and Baluchistan, including the IED blast against IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami) vehicles and convoys, attacks targeting military sites in the province and kidnapping of Iranian border guards. The group has stated that it has killed dozens of members of the IRGCduring these operations: the last one they claimed responsibility for took place on February 13, 2019, when a suicide bomber killed 27 Pasdaran by blowing himself near a military convoy.

Jaish al-Adl even counters the Iranian government's active support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the Islamic State. Indeed, the leader of this armed group, Salaheddin Farooqi, believe it is an open attack on Sunni Muslims.

5. Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency: comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes. Also called COIN." (Department Of Defense Dictionary, Source Joint Publication 3-24). "Counterinsurgency” is the outcome of civil and military shared efforts to limit and calm an uprising and the reasons behind it. The crucial goals set are reducing violence, establishing political control over the territory by legitimizing the government. Therefore, counterinsurgencystrategies need to be implemented in all governing bodies (Diplomatic corps, economic, judiciary, military officers, the police and intelligence services) to reinstate control and peace.

5.1 Law enforcement

To this end, Pakistan seems to have obtained great successes implementing political, military, social and economic countermeasures to prevent these groups from drafting recruits.

In the military and law enforcement field, since 2005, the beginning of the last wave of violence in Balochistan, Pakistani armed forces, led by President Pervez Musharraf, have managed to inflict substantial casualties on the armed wings of extremist nationalist movements. The first step was outlawing the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) in April 2006 and freezing most of the bank accounts belonging to the movement's leaders. In the following months, some of the prominent leaders of the secular nationalist group were killed, giving rise to public discontent.

In 2013, Pakistani regular forces stroke a violent blow on Jihadism and nationalist groups, wiping out senior leaders through sophisticated military operations with the support of the notorious Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).

At the same time, the jihadist threat was being hard-fought: in 2014, the Pakistan government launched the Zarb-e Azb operation against jihadist groups Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), al-Qaeda e Jundallah.

The Balochistan Peace Program, presented in August 2015, proposes amnesty for all ethnonationalist militants who lay down their arms, abandoning their fight against the government, giving them money to reinstate their civil rights.More than 3 thousand militants have surrendered over the last three years.

5.2 Political measures

The political section of the strategy against insurgency was a crucial turning point in April 2010: granting more autonomy to Balochistan under the enactment of the 18th amendment of the Pakistan Constitution. This measure envisaged giving more financial independence concerning the National Finance Commission Award of 2009, authorizing a fairer distribution of revenues for Balochistan.

Even social and political measures put in place against insurgency have proved effective. All the projects presented by the government since 2008 under the name Aqaz-e Haqooq-e Balochistan (Rights for Balochistan) aim at completely rehabilitate the region. One of the leading engagements of the Aqaz-e Haqooq-e Balochistan pack is promoting access to education for all age groups to keep young people away from radical, nationalist and religious ideologies and encouraging communication among students coming from different regions of the country.

5.3 Economic measures

Alongside the initiatives above mentioned, the social and economic development of Balochistan relies on increasing infrastructures. Apart from the CPEC megaprojects, the government wants to improve the motorway network, expand the port of Gwadar, complete the Mirani Dam, and exploit the Chamalang, the second-biggest coal seam in Asia. The agriculture industry will grow too: in 2017, the government opened the Kachin canal system that should generate profits up to 10 billion rupees annually, irrigating 372 thousand hectares of land, which will become fertile..

5.4 Border security

Border security still is a crucial issue to curb the activities of armed groups and stop illegal actions. The age-old problem related to Pakistan porous borders was brought to the attention of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime due to the widespread illicit trafficking of drugs, explosive material and chemical precursors. In particular, the porous borders of Balochistan and the ability of armed groups to cross the borders unnoticed after an offensive operation hurdle the implementation of any political or military response to this cross-border threat.

To solve the issue, the international cooperation of military and intelligence services put in place by Iran and Pakistan has proven effective, and since 2014, the two countries have worked together to sign agreements concerning security on the borders they share. The hotline between the Pakistan Border Security Forces and the Border Guard Command of Iran (Farmandehi-e Marzani-e Jomhuri-e Eslami-e Iran), the interagency intelligence cooperation, the exchange of information, and the fence built along the entire border (900km) are just some of the joint security actions implemented by the two countries. However, there are some tensions between the two countries: both suspect reciprocally the manipulation of the armed conflict to interfere with national issues. Regular forces were responsible for military incidents and illegal violations of international borders, and the firing of rockets and mortars is very common.

6. Conclusion

Initiatives implemented to calm down the insurgency in Pakistan are proving effective. The enactment of the 18th amendment, the Aqaz-e Haqooq-e Balochistan Pack, the social and economic measures concerning access to education and promotion of agriculture, the projects of essential infrastructures and the international cooperation for the security of the borders between Iran and Afghanistan have led to great results. Indeed, the civilian population is more and more distant from extremist positions of insurgents. The departure from separatist agendas must be the cornerstone of the counterinsurgency strategy to curb the drafting of violent cartels and implement state legitimacy and territory control.

Figure 5. Annual comparison of violent actions

As shown by the PIPS (Pak Institute for Peace Studies), the trend of terrorist attacks and violent actions has been declining since 2015, when 1097 violent actions took place, killing 3503 people. Even though in 2019 the death toll reached 433 (an alarming figure), the downward trend of casualties is confirmed (588 victims in 2019). However, despite the extensive engagement on multiple fronts, the insurgents' recruitment campaign can still rely on the incitement of the population on rooted problems. Poverty is still a core issue; Balochistan is the least developed region in Pakistan, with a poverty rate of 57%. 45% of the population do not have access to safe food even due to the severe droughts that hit the region.

It is difficult to access primary healthcare: there are around 6 thousand doctors for 12 million inhabitants. The under-five mortality rate is 97 per 1000 individuals. Population literacy reaches 40%. The country has not even tackled the issue concerning economic gains yet: even though Balochistan alone produces 2 thousand MegaWatt (1 MegaWatt = 1 million Watts) of electricity, it only receives 700 of it, with 62% of the population in the region not having direct access to the electricity. The area lacks in water pipes: 7.6 million people do not have access to drinking water, representing more than 50% of the total population of Balochistan.

The government has to solve these severe social issues immediately if it wants to reinstate peace and stop the recruitment of nationalist, religious cartels. The central government must focus on improving the social and economic conditions of the local population. To reduce poverty, the government must rapidly implement a strategy to accelerate economic growth, giving funds to very-low-income people, encouraging investments, entrepreneurship and local employment. The issue concerning disappeared people is an existential scourge negatively affecting intelligence services and para-military forces involved in the fight against armed forces. The government must identify the exact number of people who disappeared, promote more transparency on governing responsibility and incentivize the liberation of Baloch prisoners illegally held, encouraging their return. Controlling Balochistan is a prerequisite for the development of the CEPC. Ensuring security in the region, eradicating religious and nationalist terrorism through correct military and political measures must be prioritized. The government should enact further social and economic improvements for the Balochistan population. Higher living standards and access to fundamental rights will lower the attractiveness of terrorist groups and raise awareness of the irrationality of fighting for independence from a state implementing sound social policies.

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