Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The Period of Ambiguity and the latest Insurgency
The split in the ranks of the resistance composed largely of the Marri tribe meant Mir Hazar went openly into the arms of the Pakistani state. That meant a person who could have helped the armed struggle that began later was neutralised. Things were not in a good shape on the other side as well because three sons of Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, the tribe’s sardar (chief), Jangez, Gazain and Hayrbiyar, despite his displeasure, became ministers in the Balochistan government headed by Zulfiqar Magsi. This came as a huge disappointment to a lot of Baloch who looked up to Khair Bakhsh as an uncompromising Baloch nationalist who put no faith in parliamentary politics. It was the lowest point in decades as people thought that even Khair Bakhsh had given up on the struggle for Baloch rights, which was contrary to the facts as he carried on study circles and nurtured and promoted those he felt could and would fight. Among others in this circle was his son Balach Marri.
On January 7, 2000, Justice Mohammad Nawaz Marri was killed. Khair Bakhsh was implicated in the case. He was arrested and remained incarcerated for 18 months. Eventually he was released on bail as the case was false. The arrest of Khair Bakhsh on trumped up charges created a lot of resentment among the people and it also meant the end of the wishful period during which the sons of Khair Bakhsh cooperated with the state. This was always and had to eventually be proved an exercise in futility that may have satisfied some egos but was always a zero-sum game.
Khair Bakhsh was released after 18 months incarceration and his fourth son, Balach Marri, was elected to a provincial Assembly seat from Kohlu in 2002. On his return from London he took the oath in the Assembly in Balochi and vowed loyalty to Balochistan instead of Pakistan. Finally realising the futility of parliamentary politics, he went into the mountains and the people there rallied around him. Now he was in direct opposition to the state. Hence confrontation was on the cards as being in the mountains was not only defiance but a loud and clear message that compromise was not on the cards.
Tensions simmered and the possibility of a flare-up increased as the state knew Balach had a lot of armed fighters under his command. They would therefore not only strongly resist any incursion into the Marri area but also feared a possible attack on some vulnerable post or place. It needs to be mentioned that without our decision to stay back in Afghanistan, the armed fighters would have long ago dispersed and would have been integrated in the feudal-like society that was slowly evolving in Balochistan. It should be mentioned that though a greater bulk of people were in Afghanistan, a camp of fighters was always simultaneously maintained in the Marri area all the while.
There was an unfortunate development in the Marri area in May 2004 when there was a confrontation between the fighters under Balach Marri’s command and the Marris who were part of the government Levies (paramilitary forces). The confrontation escalated and rockets were fired at the place where Mir Hazar Khan Ramkani’s family lived (the confrontation was not at Mir Hazar’s behest but some over-enthusiastic pro-government persons). The situation was an opportunity for the army and pro-government opportunists in the Kohlu Bijarani tribe to try and hit back at Balach and his fighters. They all came helter-skelter to Mir Hazar to instigate him into a confrontation. He showed sagacity and refused their overtures. I acted as the middleman exchanging messages with both sides, i.e. Khair Bakhsh and Mir Hazar, for defusing the situation. Fortunately things cooled down for had Mir Hazar at the army’s and pro-government Marris’ prompting begun a fight, it may have meant the end of the Marri tribe as we knew it for it would have escalated into a lifelong bitter internecine war among the Marris, with the government being the only winner.
Nawab Akbar Bugti was not happy with the way the government was arrogantly conducting itself in Balochistan and selling off precious assets like the Saindak copper and gold mine lease to China. Gwadar was being parcelled out between government favourites and foreign investors with absolutely no benefit for the Baloch. A flashpoint was all that was needed for the conflict to begin. The flashpoint was provided by the rape of Dr Shazia Khalid, a lady doctor from Sindh of the Sui Field Hospital. A person who she named as Captain Hammad of the Pakistan army entered her room on the night of January 1-2, 2005, and raped her. There was an official attempt at a cover-up. The local police was not allowed to investigate. Even Musharraf declared Captain Hammad innocent. The Bugtis resented the violation of honour of someone they considered as bahot (under their protection) and attacked some places and installations in Sui.
In response to these attacks, Musharraf on January 11 in a television interview “asked the so-called ‘nationalist’ elements to desist from subversive activities in the province”. He said: “Don’t push us. This is not the seventies,” referring to the insurgency in Balochistan in the 1970s. “They will not even know what has hit them,” he added. Little did he realise that if they had advanced, the Baloch too had not been sleeping.
Comparison of adversaries?
When General Pervez Musharraf in January 2005 warned the Baloch nationalists, reminding them that it wasn’t the 1970s, his words were in bad taste but not wrong. He got his answer when he visited Kohlu in December the same year and rockets were fired at his meeting. The Inspector General and Deputy Inspector General of the Frontier Corps (FC) were injured when they flew over the place from where the rockets were fired. Military technology has progressed rapidly because the oppressors, colonisers and imperialists have always tried to dominate the world through the barrel of the gun. Weapons development is a basic tenet of their faith. The period post-1970s has seen the emergence of smart bombs, the huge though not so smart bombs that have earned titles like the ‘mother of all bombs’, unmanned drones that hunt down adversaries, and mini-homing devices that guide bombs and missiles, etc. But weapons development, even when it is awesome, has not always ensured a definite victory. Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are cases in point.
As weapons have become more destructive, people too have devised new methods and tactics to counter them. Various people’s wars in the past three decades – from the Intifada in Palestine to the conflict in Northern Ireland to struggles by the Kashmiris and the Tamil Tigers in South Asia (though the Tigers were eventually defeated because of population alienation combined with the brute force of the Sri Lankan state supported by Pakistan) – have proved this.
Pakistan has one of the most formidable armies in the world. It has the latest weapons including nuclear bombs. Its soldiers are well trained. It has a very high officer-top soldier ratio and is not lacking in command structure. Pakistan also has one of the largest defence budgets in the region. The army itself produces some of the weapons and their components. There are also other advantages it enjoys. But guerrilla warfare is a different cup of tea.
Unlike the 1970s, the army wouldn’t have to depend this time on Iranian gunships to fight the Baloch insurgents. Not only is it better equipped than it was in the 1970s, today it also enjoys the support and blessings of the US and China. By linking it to CPEC security, Pakistan would expect – and probably get – direct China support against any indigenous uprising. But this is only one side of the picture; we should also consider the other. Let’s see if the Baloch fighter has kept up with the modern times and developments. In the 1970s, he was dedicated, resilient, adept and elusive. In spite of the lack of weapons and despite the numerical disadvantage, he survived the state’s onslaught. Today he is better equipped and more resolute. He has been exposed to more struggles in the world since the 1970s and has seen more injustices. He has learnt his lesson well. The Baloch fighter can still survive on rudimentary logistics. The command structure includes the experienced cadre that had its baptism of fire during the 1970s insurgency and in Afghanistan. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Baloch fighter today is more than ready to shoulder the task imposed on him. If the state weaponry is more modern now, he too has evolved.
In on-ground fighting, the Pakistan Army soldier will be encumbered by the terrain in spite of improved means of transport. Conventional armies are dependent on logistical support to supply basics like food, water and sleeping tents. This entails long supply lines that are always vulnerable. Keeping outposts at very short distances is never feasible. The soldier needs a regular supply of clean drinking water and healthy rations. An army, they say, marches on its stomach. A soldier on an empty stomach is a low-morale soldier. Regular soldiers cannot survive on the scarce water and food available in their areas of operation.
The Baloch fighter on the other hand is not encumbered by these factors. He knows the terrain and is mobile. He knows where to find water and its quality does not matter. As far as food is concerned, he can survive on a kilo of flour for a couple of days, which he carries himself. He survives on very little. The tribesmen have a fantastic sense of orientation. I have seen these people lead through areas in the darkest of nights, which they had traversed years earlier. They do not need instruments to find their way. The Baloch survives on the bare minimum. He doesn’t lose heart easily as he is inured to hardships. The Baloch resolve is the product of the hardships and injustices they have seen and suffered. They fight for honour and their motherland. Admittedly the numerical, technological and training advantage lies in favour of the Pakistan armed forces. Another factor that could favour the government is its relentless effort to pit the Baloch against each other by co-opting those who can stand up to the nationalist forces. These they found in the likes of Shafiq Mengal, investing heavily in creating, promoting and protecting the ‘death squads’ they unleashed on the people. The death squads, being indigenous, did harm the nationalists but despite the heavy investments and physical support from the army, they weren’t particularly successful. The Baloch fighter fights for an ideal and a dream; the regular soldier of an army anywhere in the world fights for money, and though some may feel they have a stake in the fight, the rest fight because they are ordered to.
Collateral damage in this conflict, like in the past, has been mostly on the Baloch side. The people had suffered in the past and they will suffer again. Unjustified and illegal, such actions increase antagonism and the resolve of the affected people. Victory for the government is certainly not a guaranteed outcome. Conflicts tend to linger on because not all people can be pacified by either colonisation as in Gwadar or by military actions elsewhere. Also, because of modern communications and weapons, the theatre of operations may extend beyond Balochistan into Sindh and Punjab.
The suicide attacker, the newest tactic in urban warfare, which the Baloch were loath to use, also entered the conflict. The weaker force, which launches a struggle against a formidable and superior force, is now psychologically prepared for this eventuality at the very start. The suicide bomber is the product of collective decision-making that finds its expression in individual acts.
The armed forces of Pakistan have all the required weaponry and the training to carry out operations against the Baloch or elsewhere. The political atmosphere is conducive to such operations because the politicians prefer to remain quiet for fear of being sidelined and a tacit and sometimes active approval by mainstream political parties surely helps the state. They got the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from 2008 to 2013 and then Dr Malik and company from 2013 onwards to play this role, but the establishment was not satisfied and were forced to create a new entity, the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) at the end of March 2018 with all the turncoats who are always there to serve the establishment. However, the political parties that support the government in its adventures pave the way for their own destruction. The Baloch are unforgiving towards betrayals.
(To be continued)