Over the past month, Pakistan’s long-term, slow-burning Balochistan conflict has seen both continued violence and new rhetoric about possible peace deals.
The newly elected provincial chief, Abdul Malik, a Baloch nationalist leader, called on insurgents to engage in dialogue with the national government. This step could lead to a breakthrough, but only if various disparate insurgent groups heed the call. Thus far, most seem resistant. At the same time, a Baloch insurgency and unrelated sectarian violence have continued to simmer in the province.
The Balochistan conflict can be traced to 1947, when some in the semi-autonomous princely state rejected the decision to join the newly-formed nation of Pakistan. The conflict gained momentum in the 1960s, and today Baloch nationalists tend to focus on distribution of natural resources in addition to the long-term conflict over autonomy. In recent years, a second, unconnected conflict has emerged in Balochistan, as Sunni extremists attempt to rid the province of its Shi’a minority. While sectarian conflict has raged across Pakistan, Balochistan has been particularly hard-hit because the massive province is home to both a large population of Hazara Shi’a people and several Sunni extremist groups, who claim al-Qaeda affiliation.
Abdul Malik, who was elected unopposed in June of this year, hopes to use talks between insurgents and the national government to broker a peace agreement on issues on Baloch autonomy. To do so, he will have to overcome a number of major obstacles. First, many Baloch nationalists are reluctant to interact with the Pakistani government due to the reported human rights abuses by security forces. Over the past several years, hundreds of Baloch nationalists have gone missing, only to turn up bullet-strewn by the roadside.
Furthermore, while many Baloch nationalists blame the brutality on the security forces, tribal tensions are the cause of much of the violence in the region. In fact, it seems that intelligence forces may merely “prop up” tribal groups who are ultimately responsible for the disappearances. According to Human Rights Watch, police then simply neglect to investigate the disappearances and murders. Suspicion between ethnic groups, as well as between various groups of Baloch insurgents, is further intensified when groups accuse each other of colluding with Pakistani forces or differ in their reactions to “settlers” from other parts of Pakistan.
However, if various Baloch nationalist insurgent groups are willing to come to the table to discuss questions of autonomy with the Pakistani government, the payoff could be high. While unlikely to receive the desired level of autonomy, the province could see a major increase in wealth if the Baloch and Pakistani government officials reach a deal that puts increased control over natural resources in the hands of local leaders. Indeed, Adbul Malik’s interactions with the federal government have thus far mostly shied away from questions of political autonomy, focusing rather on rehabilitation of insurgents and economic issues like control of natural resources.
Despite the opportunity for increased economic independence and local control over resources, at present it seems like Adbul Malik’s call for talks may be doomed to failure. Not only has violence by Baloch nationalist insurgents continued apace, but the rising sectarian violence of Balochistan’s second conflict has set the province on edge. Indeed, even if there is a breakthrough in discussions regarding the Baloch insurgency, the almost daily violence in Quetta and throughout the province is unlikely to end, due to the Pakistani government’s inability to protect Shi’a citizens from attacks by extremists.