Eye on Pakistan’s Baluchistan as violence mounts

January 5, 2009

While the firepower and consequently all the media attention has been focused on Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province, violence in Baluchistan province to the south has worsened.
The year gone by was the bloodiest in a decade for Baluchistan, the country’s largest but most impoverished province where a low key insurgency has raged for decades, the Daily Times said. Official data showed a steadily rising level of violence, up from 303 people killed in 2005 to 433 in 2008, the first time killings crossed the 400-mark.

There were 120 bomb blasts, 208 rocket attacks, 141 landmine blasts and 32 hand grenade attacks in the past year, and it could have been worse if the three main Baluch nationalist insurgent groups operating in the area – the BLA, the Baloch Republic Army and Baloch Liberation Front – had not declared ceasefire, the newspaper said. One of them, the BRA, has announced the end of the ceasefire from the New Year accusing the government of  of kiling tribesmen.The other two groups may well follow suit, the Daily Times said, warning of a difficult year ahead in the vast sparsely populated desert region that straddles Afghanistan and Iran.

According to this piece by The Jameston Foundation, the prime motivators of the insurgency remain the Baluch nationalists who live in the remote mountains of the province and believe they have been deprived of their rights and revenues from the considerable natural resources of their province. But the Islamists led by the Taliban   are also active throughout the rugged and harsh terrain, particularly in state capital Quetta and the Pashtun belt of the province bordering Afghanistan.
Mullah Mohammad Omar has long been rumoured to be based in Quetta  from where the one-eyed leader and his council dubbed the “Quetta shura” have directed the Taliban’s broad military and political strategies and arranged arms and other supplies for their fighters in southern Afghanistan,  according to this report by McClatchy Newspapers, citing U.S. officials. The “:Quetta shura” presides over military, intelligence, political, and religious committees, and also oversees a fund-raising operation in the Pakistani port city of Karachi that raises money across the Muslim world,  the report quoted  a Pentagon adviser on the region as saying. Baluchistan also is a major corridor through which Afghan opium, which is refined into heroin, is smuggled to the outside world, providing the Taliban with $60-$80 million a year.

But the U.S. drone campaign has focused almost entirely on the al Qaeda belt in the tribal agencies further up the Pakistani northwest and the North West Frontier Province leaving out the Taliban leadership in Baluchistan.  Is it because of military limitations in extending the theatre of conflict or is there a longer term logic to spare the Afghan Taliban while going after al Qaeda first?
There is another dimension to the troubles in Baluchistan. Pakistan suspects India of trying to create trouble in the region by instigating the insurgents. New Delhi denies this, but in the light of the Mumbai attacks some people are advocating India launch its version of bleeding Pakistan by a thousand cuts by waging a covert war.
Is Baluchistan the next battleground then?

(Reuters photo: Pakistani soldier stands guard on the Khyber Pass)


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