For the past months, there has been a continuous stream of reports of massive troop movement and ‘anti-terrorist’ operations in Balochistan, and a parallel flow of denials by Government authorities.
On November 17, 2005, Federal Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao declared that the "Federal Government has no plans for another military operation in Balochistan." The claim was reiterated by Balochistan Chief Secretary, K.B. Rind, on December 5, 2005, when he asserted that no Army operation was being conducted anywhere in the province. The same message has been communicated by officials of the Frontier Corps (FC), but assertions to the contrary remain as insistent.
Political commentators in Pakistan clarify that, "When the Pakistani Government says that there is no military operation in Balochistan, it only means that the regular Army is not involved."
Nawab Akbar Bugti, chief of the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), and Sardar Attaullah Mengal, chief of the National Party, the most prominent of the sardars (feudal chieftains) who are leading the campaign for radical Constitutional amendments, including ‘equal representation to the four Provinces’ and a resolution to Balochistan’s long-standing grievances, insist that there has been a major build-up of Forces in the Province, and that ‘limited operations’ were already being executed in Turbat, Nushki and Kalat. They cited specific operations in Nushki, Kharan, Mustung and Mungochar as links in this chain. Bugti, in an interview on December 12, 2005, claimed that 15,000 FC personnel had been deployed for these operations. FC officials counter that the presence of the Force in Nushki and Kalat was ‘not for military purposes’, but for ‘security surveys’. On November 23, Interior Minister Sherpao had promised an ‘additional 2,000 troops’ to the FC, and had earlier, on November 17, indicated that a new Force, the Balochistan Constabulary was shortly to be established, with an initial strength of 6,000 men.
There is a blackout on reports on operations – both Governmental and anti-Governmental – in Balochistan, but news trickles through. Among the most significant were unconfirmed reports regarding an unprecedented operation involving more than 200 armed insurgents who overran the Bolan Mining Enterprise, jointly owned by the Balochistan Government and Pakistan Petroleum Limited, in November. The armed group was reported to be part of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), and is said to have taken over the mining area, held workers and technicians hostage, and destroyed office and mining equipment. The operation is said to have resulted in disruption of steel production in Karachi as a result of a break in supplies from the mines, and is unique in the insurgency that has been revived in the Province over the past two years. It is significant that Mustung is among the areas in which Baloch leaders insist military operations are currently under way.
There has also been a continuous series of bomb and rocket attacks on gas pipelines, railway tracks, power transmission lines, bridges, and communications infrastructure, as well as on military establishments and governmental structures and enterprises. Official data indicated that there had been 261 bomb blasts and 167 rocket firings in the province in year 2005, till November 30. According to open source information monitored by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 111 civilians and 23 security force personnel have been killed in the Province this year (till December 15).
The top police and military leadership has also come under sustained attack, and in the most recent incident, on December 16, a helicopter carrying the FC Inspector General, Major General Shujaat Zameer Dar, was attacked at Kohlu, injuring Dar and his Deputy Inspector General, Brigadier Salim Nawaz, while the officials were en route to Quetta. Just a day earlier, a paramilitary camp at Kohlu had been targeted with at least eight rockets during a visit by President General Pervez Musharraf, while he was addressing tribal elders.
In the meanwhile, the Government has disclosed that it has detected the existence of ‘five to six terrorist camps’ in Balochistan, where cadres were being trained to carry out ‘terrorist activities’. The presence of these camps, known as ‘Ferari camps’, was discussed at an inter-provincial conference on law and order during an examination of the situation in Balochistan. Sources indicate that delegates to the conference were informed that the camps were operating ‘under the supervision’ of some tribal chiefs, and that terrorists were being generously paid to carry out ‘assignments’.
In the same vein, the authorities have sought to implicate Sardar Barhamad Khan, the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti, in the November 15, 2005, car bombing in Karachi, in which four persons were killed and 17 injured. Two persons, Aziz Khan and Mangla Khan, have reportedly been arrested in this case, and Barhamad Khan and another man, Abdul Majeed, have been declared ‘fugitives’. Earlier, an anonymous caller had claimed that the BLA had engineered the attack; a subsequent call denied all BLA involvement. Police claimed that the arrested persons were BLA activists, and that their confessional statements confirmed that they were operating under instructions from Barhamad Khan.
It is useful to recall, in this context, that the authorities had sought to implicate Sardar Akhtar Mengal and his brother in an earlier case, which came to judgement on November 29, 2005. An anti-terrorist court sentenced five tribal militants to death for an attack on a military vehicle near Khuzdar, in which six persons, including five soldiers, were killed. The First Information Report had named Akhtar Mengal and his brother, but their names were subsequently withdrawn for lack of evidence.
The stepping up of military activity in Balochistan appears to herald the collapse of processes initiated to push for a ‘political solution’, including the implementation of the recommendation of the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Balochistan, headed by Mushahid Hussain, which had completed its work in May 2005, and had made sweeping proposals for the enhancement of gas royalties to the Province and clearance of arrears, amendments to the Concurrent List, changes in the National Finance Commission award, provincial autonomy, and the development of gas-rich areas. A second Committee, headed by Senator Wasim Sajjad and intended to address Constitutional issues with regard to the administration of the Province, has apparently failed to carry out its task, and no report has been forthcoming.
Even as rights activists complain about "an unspecified number of students" having "disappeared from Balochistan" and reports of widespread arrests and detentions continue to filter in, there are indications of a continuous augmentation of Forces in the Province, of a massing of Punjab Rangers and the FC troops outside the province, in readiness for deployment there, and of sustained low profile military operations across wide areas. A simmering war has been ongoing in Balochistan for the past two years and, with no signs of resolution, recourse to the ‘military option’ is beginning to look increasingly likely.
This is the fourth rebellion in Balochistan since the creation of Pakistan, and time has historically favoured the state in earlier confrontations. This time around, however, Pakistani observers increasingly warn that Balochistan could turn into an unaffordable quagmire, bringing humiliation on the Army. The truth is, a powershift has occurred in Pakistan, and the state now appears far more fragile and vulnerable to the array of threats currently confronting it.