The internal conflicts in Pakistan are getting more pronounced with time with Baloch and Pashtuns vying for their identity and power
British colonists had deployed a formula to deal with the restive swathes that constitute modern Pakistan i.e., ‘Rule the Punjabis, intimidate the Sindhis, buy the Pashtun, and honour the Baloch’. It is an instructive insight that occasionally plays out, as Syed Ahmad Khan’s ‘two-nation theory’ gets routinely punctured with regional insurgencies that refuse to accept the amalgamation of ethnicities into Pakistan, just on co-religiosity. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 was the most definitive rebuttal to nationhood based on a singular religion. The historical and lingering ‘Pashtunistan’ movement or the Baluch separatist movement are direct byproducts of the shaky bind of the ‘two-nation theory’ that seeks to rationalise the foundational idea of Pakistan.
While Mortimer Durand’s cartographical flourish to fix the limits of the British Raj and the Emirate of Afghanistan as part of ‘Great Game’ was largely ignored by local Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line – even the latter-day creation of the State of Pakistan was met with resistance by the Khudai Khidmatgar movement. Reasonable leniency of movement across borders, retention of local laws, and integration of Pashtuns into Pakistani governance (especially into the ‘establishment’ or the Pakistani Armed Forces) ensured a gradual waning of sentiment, till Pakistan soured relations with Afghanistan and murmurs of ‘Pashtunistan’ resurfaced. The willful creation of the Afghan Mujaheddins in the ’80s and support to amoral warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and later to the creation of its Frankensteinian monster i.e., Taliban – Pakistan has inadvertently reignited and weaponised the Pashtunistan sentiments with its metastasized, Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), on the rebound.
Whereas formal insurgency in the equally lawless Baluchistan harks back to the stormy signing of the Instrument of Accession by the Sardar of Kalat in 1948. The continued economic marginalisation, forcible control, human right violations, and lack of relative participation in the affairs of Pakistan has led to recurring waves of violent insurgent movements. Even Pakistan’s economy-sustaining $50 billion punt i.e., the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) with its nerve centre in the Gwadar port of Baluchistan is perceived to be anathema and discriminatory towards local Baluch interests. Fronted by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and a few other militant groups based on tribal affiliations, attacks on the Pakistan Armed Forces and its assets have been relentless, in recent times. While support for Pashtun groups from Afghanistan can be expected based on parochial sentiments across both sides of the Durand Line – Afghanistan has also been known to support and offer bases to Baluch insurgent groups as a payback to Pakistani machinations in Afghanistan. With the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2021, it was expected that the Pakistan-beholden Taliban would rein in the Pakistan-centric insurgent groups, but the escalating tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan itself have led to a very different dynamic. The fact that Baluch majority areas, as well as Pashtun dominated areas, are simultaneously ‘live’ in attacking the Pakistani State, with eerily similar tactics and impact – Islamabad senses to doomsday scenario of the otherwise oblivious-of-each-other Pashtuns and Baluch insurgents joining hands. Pakistan’s yet another flawed experiment of ‘good and bad terrorists’ could implode within, when its own creation of so-called ‘good terrorists’ i.e., Taliban (and its ideological offspring Tehrik-i-Taliban) joins hands against the ‘bad terrorists’ of the BLA. Therefore, even the audacious ‘Strategic Depth’ in Afghanistan, as sought and nurtured by the Pakistani ‘establishment’ is boomeranging, badly. In a stunning reversal of narrative, the Pakistani Foreign Office was seen beseeching the Afghan Taliban on “all issues including border management, upgrading the security of diplomats, and curbing terrorism”!
Baluchistan’s capital city of Quetta (with 70% Pashtun populace) exemplifies the contiguity of the Baluch and Pashtun sensibilities with only the Pashtun-Baluch War (1757) as the leitmotif of any historical bad blood, else their mutual tensions have only been political (contesting the fair ethnic representation in the State Assemblies of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, respectively) and not societal, as such. Co-sectarian (Sunni supremacist) organisations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jundullah operating in Quetta are natural bridges to find common ideological ground with the likes of Tehrik-i-Pakistan. In the religiously charged tinderbox of Pakistan – there is a coalescing of ‘like-minded’ forces (even if differing in ultimate objectives) to take on the Pakistani ‘establishment’. The conflation of the clergy via Maulana Hidayatur Rehman of the ongoing ‘Haq Do Tehreek’ movement which has brought Gwadar to a standstill, is yet another manifestation of the situation going out of hand. The efficacy of the Pakistani ‘establishments’ blunt tactics via Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (since 2017) against the Pashtun and Baluch insurgents is highly questionable, and local support for insurgent movements is only gaining traction. The Durand Line along Baluch and Pashtun areas is more troublesome for Pakistan now than the LOC.
(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are personal)