Home Political History The Baloch and Pashtun nationalist movements in Pakistan – IV

The Baloch and Pashtun nationalist movements in Pakistan – IV

The Baloch and Pashtun nationalist movements in Pakistan – IV

While there have been multiple realignments in Balochistan over the last few years, these continue to be determined by strategic and economic priorities of the Pakistan military establishment

Through its network of militant Islamist groups, the Taliban relied on mosques in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to recruit youth.

By Kriti M. Shah

The Aftermath of 9/11

In 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban government that protected it. The war would bring monumental changes to Pakistan’s northwestern border. As the US battled the Taliban, thousands of militants fled across the border, settling in parts of Balochistan and FATA. As then president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf sought to support what the US called its “global war on terror”, the Pakistani army conducted operations in the tribal regions. Local militants joined the ranks of a new Taliban in FATA, which took the form of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP that established itself in the tribal areas as an alternative to the traditional tribal leadership system. The TTP killed hundreds of tribal elders in FATA who resisted their domination. Between 2004 and 2013, over a hundred Maliks were killed in the tribal region, dealing a blow to the Pashtun tribal structure.

Since the Soviet invasion of 1979, millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan, changing the pre-existing tribal society. Through its network of militant Islamist groups, the Taliban relied on mosques in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to recruit youth who had become isolated from their traditional tribal support networks. These were mostly in regions in the tribal belt where tribal structures have fallen through, areas with a high refugee population, and with little employment opportunities, if at all. Militants engaged in suicide bombings and ambushes, and used explosive devices across the tribal areas to target the army. Eventually, the “Talibanization” of the north began to assume a global character as tactics used by Iraqi and al-Qaeda fighters started to appear in Pakistan. President Musharraf also decided to facilitate the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or MMA, a conglomeration of religious parties that gave political cover to extremists at that time and became part of the coalition government in Balochistan and government in NWFP.

The failure of the Pakistan Army to bring FATA under military control, compelled Musharraf to change strategy and pursue talks with the tribal leaders—this inadvertently allowed the tribal leaders fronting for the Taliban to establish autonomy in certain areas. The Shakai agreement in 2004 and the 2006 Miranshah agreement in North Waziristan are only two examples of how the state gave in to the demands of the militants. These agreements saw the Army releasing all prisoners it had taken during fighting in the area; all seized weapons were returned, reparations for damages caused by the army were paid, and the army agreed to cease its patrols and dismantle temporary checkpoints within FATA. In exchange, militant religious leaders agreed to not shelter foreign militants. Within a year, the deal had collapsed and militants went back to fighting. Consequently, in 2006-2007, Afghanistan suffered an algebraic increase in violence.

While the TTP ruled the north, the Afghan Taliban leadership fled from Kandahar to Balochistan. Mullah Omar and his aides established their new base in Quetta, which was not only the closest safe haven geographically but also the “friendliest” owing to the cultural similarities between the Afghan south and Balochistan. This made the Baloch capital home to the Quetta Shura—the Taliban’s most important senior leadership council. While Pakistan would repeatedly deny that the Taliban had made Quetta their new base, it was the city where Mullah Omar would live before his mysterious death in 2013. His successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour would be killed by a US drone on a Balochistan highway in 2016, as he returned from Iran.

Military operations such as Zarb-e-Azb (launched in June 2014 and strengthened after the Peshawar school attack in December that year) and Radd-ul-Fassad (launched in February 2017 after a series of attacks in Sindh) have largely failed; after the military operations, the militants have also managed to simply find a new base in another part of Pakistan.

The inflow of refugees from Afghanistan as well has impacted the rise of religious extremism. Today, Quetta, given its location in the northern part of Balochistan—close to the tribal areas near the border, and with a rising Pashtun population—had become a focal point for Islamic terrorism. The mix of pent-up nationalism and inflow of militants has led to the creation of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other sectarian groups. As Saudi Arabia continues to finance Sunni Islam, and Iran promotes its brand of Shia Islam, given its territorial and social congruity with Balochistan this has played out in the systematic killing of Shia in the Baloch province.

The rise of religious extremism in Balochistan has been an excuse for the Pakistan army to target the Baloch population. The killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006 intensified the Baloch nationalists’ sentiments in launching a new rebellion against the state. His death brought about a generational shift in the authority structure of the Baloch nationalist movement—today a new leadership belonging to the middle-class Baloch has emerged. The movement has shifted from the traditional epicenter in the northeastern part of the province, to the rich urban south. Leaders such as Allah Nazar led the province’s fifth uprising, with the rebellion surpassing all previous ones in terms of its reach and sweeping sentiment against the state. Groups such as the Baloch Liberation Army, United Baloch Army and Baloch Liberation Force have threatened the province, displacing tens of thousands out of Baloch into nearby areas. Pakistan security forces used groups such as the LeJ and LeT to promote radical Islam and to balance and isolate the Baloch separatists. While Pakistan continues to blame India and Afghanistan for supporting Baloch nationalists, it allows the Taliban and other extremist groups to find sanctuary in the province and form alliances with various other jihadi groups.

Strategic Realignments in Recent Years

In the last few years, geopolitical developments and subsequent domestic changes have impacted Pakistan’s northwestern border. Balochistan’s geostrategic importance and its energy reservoirs have been its curse. Just as the British made special policies in order to control and extend their power in Balochistan, the Pakistan state has been no different. The development of Gwadar, a port city in Balochistan, as a flagship project for the multi-billion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has increased government and military authority in the province. Nationalists are opposed to the development of the port; they believe that they are the subject for subjugation and exploitation by the central authority. The influx of foreign workers has reinforced their claim that they will be reduced to a minority in their homeland. The establishment of army cantonments in Gwadar and across the state are seen by nationalists as the occupation of their homeland. While the Pakistan state says these developments will help modernize Balochistan and strengthen the country, nationalists see it as “internal colonialism”.

While there have been multiple realignments in Balochistan over the last few years, these continue to be determined by strategic and economic priorities of the Pakistan military establishment, rather than a consequence of broader political compact for peace in the province. In 2018 the Baloch Chief Minister from the PMLN was forced to resign after dissidents for within his own party (and others, including the JUI-F and ANP) voted against him. This led to the establishment of a new party, Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) which absorbed dissidents from rival parties, just a few months before the general election. The victory of BAP in the elections, demonstrates the military strength in political engineering and cobbling together of alliances that will work alongside them.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts by governments to address Balochistan’s grievances. Some notable measures include the raising of provincial states within a federal structure defined in the 1973 Constitution, greater autonomy according to the 18th amendment to the Constitution (which also made Pakistan a parliamentary republic), and a larger percentage share of the National Finance Commission Award in 2009. While such measures may have provided short-term assurances, the nature of the state-province relationship has meant that the only change that has truly happened is that a new set of client-patron relationships has emerged.

The situation is similar in the north, where the state has tried to make amends but offering too little, too late. After decades of political lobbying and maneuvering, Pakistan passed the 25th constitutional amendment in May 2018, which proposed the merging of FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While the merging of political, administrative and security structures will be long-drawn, predictably because of party affiliations with local groups and vested interests—the lack of political will amongst the provinces to finance the development of the tribal regions will ensure that the region remains underdeveloped. For decades, Pakistan has exerted military and “religious pressure” on the tribal regions, in the hope of using the region for their own security reasons, similar to how the British treated it as a frontier region to protect India. This policy has caused the breakdown of traditional, self-governing tribal structures. The support for mullahs as decision- and policymakers has not only harmed the Pashtun belt but has given rise to militants that target Pakistan; the result is a vicious cycle of killing and deceit.

For years, the people of Pakistan’s tribal region have not been treated equally like other citizens of the country. While Pashtuns enjoy representation in the army and in the government, the Pashtuns of the tribal region have long been discriminated against. Draconian laws such as FCR, drone strikes, and military operations have killed and displaced huge numbers, rekindling a new form of Pashtun identity.

These grievances have been best expressed by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM, which began in the early months of 2018. The movement is a spontaneous reaction to the abduction and killing of a young Pashtun man, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in Karachi by the police. His killing sparked national outrage, with activists from his hometown of South Waziristan launching protest actions across the country to call for justice. While Mehsud is one such casualty, the movement brought to light the thousands of other Pashtuns and Baloch families who have been at the receiving end of the state’s repressive methods.

The demands of the movement are straightforward: an end to military abuse of power, restrictions on fundamental freedoms, enforced kidnappings and disappearances, and justice for those who have been victimized. Social media platforms have been awash with tweets, stories, photographs and videos of large rallies and sit-ins across the country. Manzoor Pashteen, the figurehead of the movement, organized protests in major cities such as Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Quetta and throughout the tribal belt (in Peshawar, Swat, Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu). The Pakistan media have been instructed to ignore the protest actions and have propagated the narrative that these activities are “anti-state”. By disregarding tribal divisions and sharing their stories of discrimination, torture and other forms of injustice, Pashtuns have united against the state in a non-violent manner. By coming together and speaking out against terrorism, they have distanced themselves from the idea that all Pashtuns are terrorists, calling an end to the militarization of their land and the injustices being done to their communities. Their narrative is gaining popularity and is shaping the public discourse in the tribal belt as well as other minority-population areas across Pakistan.


About the Author

Kriti M. Shah is an Associate Fellow in the Department of Strategic Studies at the Observer Research Foundation. Her research primarily focuses on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where she studies their domestic politics as well as their relationship with each other, the Taliban, the United States and the larger South Asian neighborhood. Her other areas of interest include the role of technology in fighting terrorism in Kashmir and the ongoing Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and its dynamic and tumultuous relationship with the Pakistani state. Prior to joining ORF, she worked as reporter for NDTV. She is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Courtesy: Observer Research Foundation