In late December last year, Pakistan’s Balochistan province, which covers 45% of the country’s desert and sparsely populated area, suffered three terrorist attacks in less than two days. The most damaging of these was an improvised explosive device that blew up an army convoy in the eastern Kohlu district of the province on December 25. As a result, five servicemen, including the convoy commander, were killed and six wounded.
This brings the death toll of Pakistani servicemen in these three terrorist attacks alone to ten. And just three weeks earlier, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to a truck carrying Interior Ministry police in the capital of the same Balochistan province, Quetta. Three died instantly and about 30 people (half of whom were police officers) were injured in various ways. Another three weeks earlier, a former judge was killed in a mosque in that Quetta while praying.
Such terrorist attacks have been occurring in this province regularly and for years. This is why the expression “the war in Balochistan, which has been waged since the independence of Pakistan in 1948” is sometimes used. The Balochs associate the loss of their quasi-statehood with this “moment”, the restoration of which is at the heart of the struggle of the nation’s diverse political as well as paramilitary insurgent organizations.
It should be noted, however, that Pakistan is home to a majority of Balochs (about 70%), whose total global population is estimated at 10-12 million. Incidentally, in this province too, the Balochs make up not all but just over half of its population. The other part is the Pashtuns, with whom the Balochs seem to “coexist” quite peacefully. And not only in Pakistan, but also in neighboring Afghanistan, where about 17% of the total Baloch population lives. Another 6.5% of these people are located in Iran. That is, like the Pashtuns (and also, for example, the Kurds), the Balochs are a so-called “divided people”.
But while in Afghanistan this Baloch status is not (at least explicitly) a source of problems for the authorities in that country, which represents mainly the same Pashtuns, in Iran Baloch paramilitary groups are no less frequent than in Pakistan in carrying out attacks on various local authorities. One significant motive for such sorties (in addition to the “division” mentioned above) is that the Persians and Balochs belonged to different branches of Islam. The former are predominantly Shia, the latter Sunni.
It is not uncommon for such sorties to be carried out in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan and to move into neighboring Pakistan’s Balochistan. The largest such attack occurred on October 1, 2022, when Baloch militants attacked a police station in that Iranian province. 19 people were killed, including an IRGC colonel. On December 19, four more members of the same IRGC were killed in the same Iranian province. The attackers then fled into neighboring Pakistan.
The presence of the “Baloch factor” has also been noted recently in the newly aggravated situation on the Afghan-Pakistan border. So far, the main participants in the “blow-up” there have been the same Pashtuns of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were divided more than a century ago (at a ratio of approximately 1:2) by the so-called “Durand Line”, named after an official of the former “British India” administration. Neither the previous nor the current Afghan leadership of the victorious Taliban (organization banned in Russia) in August 2021 has ever recognized it as a border with Pakistan.
This is not surprising since, again, it is the “divided” Pashtuns as a whole who are the main ethnic group in Afghanistan. They also form the core of the country’s power structures, whatever their “partisanship”. While in Pakistan, the Pashtuns, though the second largest ethnic group, are three times smaller than the Punjabis, who constitute 45% of the population. So far, it is the Pashtuns living both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces that have proved to be as much of a headache for the Pakistani leadership as the Balochs. In the area adjacent to the “Durand Line”, there is virtually uninterrupted, almost full-scale fighting.
The factor of unacceptability for Kabul of the current “border” with Islamabad explains the outwardly weird fact of poor relations between the former and the latter’s co-religionists (also Sunnis, by the way). And, conversely, any (i.e. the current) Afghan leadership maintains good relations (especially in terms of economic cooperation) with “pagan” India.
No positive “dividend” for Pakistan comes from the fact that much of the current leadership of Afghanistan has in the past been closely associated with Pakistan’s “all-powerful” Inter-Services Intelligence. It is sometimes argued that in terms of specific personalities, the Afghan leadership was created by the ISI.
Apparently in this case the universal rule of principled difference in the behavior of certain politicians when they are in opposition to the incumbent government and when they themselves are in charge of it has been triggered. In this second period, the recent opposition finds itself confronted with the need to address the country’s real and critical problems, which often have their origins in already distant history.
Be that as it may, the “Pashtun factor” has not disappeared from Islamabad’s list of problems even under the Taliban (banned in Russia) leadership in Afghanistan. Again, November and December last year were filled with reports of almost full-scale fighting by the Pakistani army and police against Pakistan’s Taliban (banned in Russia) offshoot in the “Durand Line” area.
The Taliban’s proposal, announced on December 7, to ensure the safe operation of the long-planned North-South Transport Corridor, which is to begin in Russia, pass through Iran and end in India, fits perfectly with the aforementioned external “weirdness” of the foreign policy positioning of the current Afghan leadership. At the same time, ensuring the specified security of the Chabahar port area in Iran is of critical importance. The latter is intended to act as a transshipment hub for the final maritime section of the said “corridor”.
It is important to note that so far it is expected to bypass Pakistan. In this regard, Pakistan’s inclusion in the project would be a strong signal of dramatic improvement across the vast region encompassing Central and South Asia.
But until now, mutual accusations of attempts to destabilize the situation on the neighbor’s territory through support for various separatist movements continue to be voiced from India and Pakistan. The former points to the situation in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. On the part of the latter there are accusations of India supporting the same Balochs.
As for the persistent domestic political turbulence in Pakistan as a whole, other negative factors have not disappeared. Of these, the main one remains that which stems from the ongoing confrontation between the two main political factions led by the incumbent and the previous prime ministers. However, this is a topic for another special commentary.
Finally, it is worth pointing out once again that all these different kinds of troubles are taking place on the territory of a country that is a de facto nuclear power. Mainly for this reason, Pakistan’s domestic political situation is being watched with particular vigilance by the world’s leading players.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”