Osman Softić || 12 September 2023
Pakistan is faced with multiple challenges of separatism and terrorism that threaten the disintegration of the only muslim nuclear power. The synergy of secular separatist rebels in balochistan with the Islamic militants of the Pakistani Taliban and their common focus on “the chinese enemy”, in addition to opposing the central authority, could have the stamp of external influence whose objective is to destabilize and disrupt Pakistan.
In recent times, the only Muslim nuclear power and the second most populous Muslim country in the world, Pakistan, has been shaken by multiple crises. Political, constitutional and financial, in addition to the natural disaster (floods that last year caused enormous damage to the Pakistani economy and citizens’ wellbeing and especially to the natural environment) are only the tip of the iceberg when compared to continuous security crisis. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, arguably the most popular political leader in Pakistan’s recent history, whose political party, Pakistan’s Tehreek-e- Insaf – (PTI – Pakistan Movement for Change), has been ousted from power under suspicious and still unclear circumstances, before his term expired.
The Khan government was overthrown as a result of synchronized action of the military and a parliamentary coalition of a number of parties in collusion with the judiciary. Imran Khan has since been arrested and released several times and is being prosecuted for a series of alleged abuse of power offences. It is obvious, according to some analysts, that Pakistan’s military establishment wanted to get rid of Imran Khan because he had become too much of a threat to the entrenched interests of the military, which in Pakistan is considered “a state within state”. Without the support and blessing of the military establishment, no political option, regardless of its popularity and democratic legitimacy, can be elected to power in Pakistan, and if by any chance it passes, it cannot rule independently, if it comes into conflict with the interests of the military establishment. Even former Prime Minister Khan himself came to power with the blessing of the General Staff. However, the moment he came into conflict with the then Chief of General Staff of the Pakistan Army, General Qamar Javid Bajwa, Khan had to step down.
The political option of the former prime minister, who became famous as the best cricketer in the world, and who as an oppositionist fought for democratic changes in Pakistan for more than two decades, became too threatening, both for the army and for the traditional political options that ruled Pakistan for decades (long-established Sherifs and Bhuttos-Zardaris families) as well as for the ultra-conservative conservative Islamic political establishment led by the Jamaat Islami Party and Jamaat Ulema Islami, none of which has much political influence, but as a rule align themselves with the army and the traditional parties of the feudal Pakistani establishment. Sharifs and Zardaris political options, the Muslim League Nawaz (MLN) was established by former PM Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), once founded by the slain former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later led by his daughter Benazir, who was also killed in a terrorist attack is led by her son Bilawal. Benazir’s death is believed to have been orchestrated by the military along with extreme Islamist terrorist elements. PPP today is led by Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, the most recent foreign minister, son of Benazir Bhutto.
What is particularly characteristic of Imran Khan and his former government is the speculation that, as he himself tried to prove, he had to be removed at the request of Washington, because he crossed the so-called “red line” of permissible moves when it comes to the domain of foreign policy and security. Allegedly, Washington was not happy that Khan visited Moscow and met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin before Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and that he agreed with the Russian leader to buy Russian energy at reduced prices as well as grain, which was an attempt by Khan’s former government to resolve the issue of food shortages in a country threatened by famine.
Pakistan’s military and other elements of the deep state and entrenched political establishment have cultivated close relations with Washington for decades, and those relations have never been broken, regardless of Pakistan’s diminished strategic value to American policy, which during the Cold War with the Soviet Union was crucial in South Asia, due to the fact that India as a non-aligned country had close relations with Moscow.
Over the past decade and more, global geopolitical relations have changed and so have America’s enemies. Today, India is Washington’s most important strategic partner in South Asia and in the future India’s value and price to America will increase. Pakistan therefore is no longer as strategically important to America as it once was. In other words, the Americans are determined to let Pakistan down the drain, especially because of Pakistan’s strategic relations with China, Pakistan’s border neighbor. Therefore, the Pakistani establishment, led by the military, rushed to get rid of Imran Khan and his government in order to improve its standing in the eyes of the Americans. Pakistani military generals wanted to preserve what little reputation and Cold War ties it still has left in Washington. Of course, we should not forget the domestic circumstances, rivalries and a series of issues that also determined the fate of Imran Khan.
However, the new Pakistani government, which has been operating for some time and is made up of a complex coalition of ideologically irreconcilable political options, simply could not be formed and could not exist without the pressure and support of the military operating behind the scenes. Therefore, the political processes against Imran Khan and his associates are clearly motivated by the efforts of the authorities to eliminate from the political race the most popular political democratic force, that of PTI, in a way to discredit its leader Imran Khan and his closest associates. It is difficult to predict with certainty how this will affect the upcoming parliamentary elections. In Pakistan, everything is possible and the possibility of Khan’s return to the political scene should not be ruled out, but this will depend on the outcome of the court proceedings against him. It is even possible for the military to take over power directly through a coup d’état, but, for the military it is not opportune at this moment and it is easier for the generals to act from the background, provided that the civilian authorities do not threaten the interests of the military.
The backbone of the post Khan government is a broad coalition, among which the two leading parties of the Pakistani establishment represent the feudal interests of the two richest and most influential families, aided by Islamist forces, are faced with serious challenges facing Pakistan. Analysts believe that Pakistan has never before faced such a complex crisis that is reflected in multiple domains. In addition to the political struggle, the constitutional crisis, which was eventually overcome and the economic or financial crisis was alleviated in some way by reaching an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the allocation of additional funds for debt refinancing, the authorities in Islamabad still have to face the serious issue of terrorism and separatism, which threaten to make Pakistan a dysfunctional or even a “failed state”.
Namely, the separatist movement of Pakistan’s ethnic Baloch minority, in the geographically largest province of Balochistan, the Baluch separatists have recently begun to form an alliance with the Pashtun movement (Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan) – TTP), a terrorist organization that advocates for the formation of a separate state of Islamist emirate or (Pashtunistan) in the north of Pakistan. They see as part of Pashtun areas in neighboring Afghanistan. In recent months, according to analysis from the field in Balochistan, the connection of the Pakistani Taliban with the separatists of Balochistan is becoming more and more noticeable. It should be noted that these are two different movements. TTP is strongly Islamist in ideology while Balochistan separatists are secularist in orientation. The joint action of these two movements in recent months represents a serious threat to the central Pakistani state and the army, but it also threatens the Chinese economic interests in Pakistan, especially in the province of Baluchistan, where China is modernizing the Gwadar port. In addition, a good part of the infrastructure projects that China and Pakistan are implementing within the framework of the CPEC project, pass through Balochistan.
On July 12, 2023, the Pakistan Army lost 12 of its soldiers in two terrorist attacks in Balochistan, claimed by the Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan, an offshoot of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a faction of the Afghan Taliban. It is the biggest troop loss in 2023 so far. In addition to this, dozens of other attacks by Baloch separatist rebels have been recorded in recent times. According to the ‘Pakistan Security Report 2022’ published by the Pakistan Institutes of Peace Studies in Islamabad, insurgent groups Balochistan Liberation Front and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) carried out 71 attacks in 2022 alone. The said attacks were mostly directed against security forces and military personnel. These include incidents inside and outside Balochistan, such as the suicide attack carried out by the BLA in April 2022. This attack was directed against Chinese academic staff at the University of Karachi. Meanwhile, Pakistani military forces stationed in Balochistan claim to be fighting “foreign-funded conspiracies”. The arrest of a certain Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged Indian intelligence agent in Balochistan, in 2016 is cited as evidence that these are credible claims by the Pakistani authorities.
The Pakistani army has been involved in intensive counter-insurgency operations in Balochistan since 2006, and the separatist insurgency in Balochistan itself dates back to 1948, when a number of ethnic Baluch opposed the unification of their province with the newly independent state of Pakistan. Over the past decade, Pakistan’s anti-secessionist operations in Balochistan have intensified. Critics of the Pakistani government’s approach complain that the government in Islamabad failed to seriously address the root causes of the separatist insurgency, that is, the demands of the Baloch people to be granted greater control over the exploitation of their province’s rich natural resources and a greater share of power, as well as due to the state’s alleged over-reliance on the use of armed force in efforts to crush the ethnic Baloch insurgency.
This situation has led to an increase in the militarization of the overall life in Balochistan. For example, in 2016, the Pakistani military formed a special security formation of 15,000 soldiers to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. A large number of them are stationed precisely in Balochistan, including units that protect the works on the development of the port in Gwadar. The growing military presence is deployed in addition to private militias led by pro-state local militias who tend to control and repress the Baloch population, especially those suspected of favoring separatist causes.
Pakistani state, as is the duty of every state, is struggling to control separatist violence despite massive militarization, but such a strategy, at least for now, is proving to be ineffective in this country’s largest province by territory, which is prone to population fragmentation, because of the desert, the smallest in terms of population.
The Pakistani state is currently faced with three separate wars in the province, a long-running quiet separatist insurgency, rising Islamist militancy and military operations against insurgents.
What is particularly problematic for Pakistan is the fact that in recent times there has been increasing synergy and convergence of interests and even alliances between the Baloch rebels and Islamist militant groups (mainly Pashtuns) that do not share the same ideology with them.
The Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UN Security Council in a February 2023 report states that the TTP announced last summer the decision to join its brigades with the BLA. Namely, the Majeed Brigade is an elite unit of the BLA, responsible for carrying out suicide attacks. Pakistan’s invisible war in Balochistan has intensified not only because the state failed to adequately address, let alone solve, the root causes of the separatist rebellion, but also because of the state’s exclusive reliance on the excessive use of force, according to human rights activists.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban in 2001, Balochistan became their refuge. Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, became the headquarters of the so-called “Quetta Shura” of the Taliban leadership in exile. The Afghan Taliban are no longer based in this city, as they returned to Kabul after the US withdrawal in 2021. Despite this, the TTP is resurgent in Pakistan, following the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Kabul. The TTP has also expanded its influence in Balochistan, from its traditional stronghold in northwestern Pakistan in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, an area formerly known as the Northwestern Frontier province. It seems that the TTP skillfully manages to capitalize on the widespread discontent of the ethnic Baloch, a marginalized minority in Pakistan, and uses the opportunity to intensify the war against Pakistan, with the aim of creating a miniature so-called of the Islamic Emirate, according to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. One of the effects of this growing Islamist militancy could certainly be recognized in the sudden increase in violence against Shia Muslims in Balochistan, as well as other religious minorities.
Although the Baloch insurgency is secular in nature and the TTP is a distinctly Islamist group, the possibility of their convergence cannot be ruled out. Baloch separatists have been operating from Afghanistan for years and have found a convenient haven across the border. The TTP has recently tried to gain more traction in Baloch society by supporting an emotional Balochistan narrative, using videos to raise the issue of “missing persons” believed to have forcibly disappeared at the hands of Pakistani forces as collateral damage of security forces’ clashes with Balochistan separatists. Since both TTP and Balochistan insurgents are fighting the same enemy, their alliance is perceived as justified.
The common enemy of the aforementioned two renegade groups in Pakistan, which are violently fighting for their goals, is not only Pakistan but also the People’s Republic of China.
For the Balochistan rebels, China represents a kind of modern version of the “British colonial East India Company”, which today allegedly exploits the resources of Balochistan, without any benefit to the local population. Chinese companies are exploiting the mineral resources of Balochistan (this province is known for its gold mines and other precious metals) and the expanded Gwadar port is the cornerstone of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The Gwadar Rights Movement, which emerged in 2021, organized a series of popular protests in the port city. The movement specifically targets Chinese companies that are allegedly fishing illegally in waters that traditionally belong to the local Baloch people. On the other hand, according to the narrative spread by the TTP (Movement of the Pakistani Taliban), China is a state that represses Muslims within its territories.
According to the simplified and extreme rationale of this terrorist group, “jihad against China is therefore justified”. In targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan, TTP rebels and secular Baloch separatists are directly or indirectly supported by a third terrorist organization, the so-called The Islamic State of Khorasan province, which also perceives China as an enemy of Islam and thus as its rival. The very fact that the Pakistani state is struggling to control separatist violence, despite the massive militarization of Balochistan and Pakistan in general, indicates the limits of its capabilities in Balochistan.
Multiple national, transnational and regional players are today fighting for control, influence and resources in Balochistan, further threatening peace in this province. In 2010, Pakistan introduced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, transferring most administrative, legislative and financial powers from the federal government to the provinces, making the country quite decentralized, at least on paper. However, some serious academic critics of Pakistani politics maintain that nowhere has this predominance been less effective in practice than in Balochistan.
This constitutional decision was allegedly invalidated by the constant dominance of the military in this province. The military has such power that it even plays a decisive role in the formation of the provincial government, promoting and supporting selected political groups. As an example of such influence, they cite the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), which was formed just before the 2018 general elections, and which won the regional elections in Balochistan and established its government in the province, marginalizing all other nationalist parties.
This method has allegedly been used for decades as a well-tried pattern of domination and manipulation by the central authorities and the establishment to maintain control over Balochistan. Critics believe that such practices must be changed in order to allow free elections that would generate the emergence of a truly authentic democratic leadership. Only the democratically elected leadership of the province could take real responsibility and deal with the separatists.
Analysts believe that the upcoming general elections in Pakistan offer a chance for such a change, but at the same time they are pessimistic that it will be used. Another proposal to stabilize Balochistan proposed by some academics in Pakistan is demilitarization, which they believe is necessary, not only in the sense of ending military operations to pave the way for peace negotiations, but also ending the involvement of the armed forces in economic projects in Balochistan.
In addition, in order to eradicate Islamist militancy, the Pakistani state, according to critics of the Pakistani establishment, would have to fundamentally change its policy of flirting with the Taliban, criticizing the habit of the Pakistani authorities, especially the military, which persistently insists on distinguishing between the “good Taliban”, who, ostensibly, can be an advantage, and the “bad Taliban”, which must be eradicated.
The TTP and its various branches draw support and inspiration from the Afghan Taliban. Therefore, critics of this dual policy towards the Taliban phenomenon insist that Pakistan should put more pressure on the Taliban government in Kabul, both directly and through other countries, especially China and Russia, so that Kabul finally stops supporting these Taliban groups. The question, however, is whether the Pakistani government will be willing to do this, because the military establishment continues to dominate the country’s security policy through the National Security Council and control of economic resources.
It is hard to believe that even the multidimensional crises affecting Pakistan in recent times will succeed in changing the modus operandi and ideology of the Pakistani deep state and its strategy of relying on force and political manipulation, in the interest of solving complex political issues, including the problem of separatism in Balochistan.
Given that the Pakistan Army is deeply embedded in the political and economic processes in Pakistan that it controls, its influence on political, economic and security policy is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Osman Softić is a Research Fellow at the Islamic Renaissance Front. He holds a BA degree in Islamic Studies from the Faculty of Islamic Studies of the University of Sarajevo and has a Master degree in International Relations from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). He contributed commentaries on Middle Eastern and Islamic Affairs for the web portal Al Jazeera Balkans, Online Opinion, Engage and Open Democracy. Osman holds dual Bosnian and Australian citizenship.