Ethnic Baloch separatist militants attacked a Pakistani military convoy on Friday, killing 14 soldiers. The incident took place on a highway that runs along the Arabian Sea coast connecting Karachi, home to the country’s largest port, with the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar.
The attack, claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), underscores the security threats posed not just to the Belt and Road Initiative-linked China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but also to the Reko Diq project, one of the world’s largest untapped copper mines.
What is the BLF?
The BLF is a leftist secessionist militant group that seeks to create a separate country for the Baloch, an ethnic group divided by the modern nation-states of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. They are, in many ways, similar to the Kurds.
Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has seen several Baloch separatist insurgencies. Typically, these insurgencies have been led by tribal chieftains known as sardars. But the most recent insurgent wave, which began in 2006 after the assassination of a Baloch notable Akbar Bugti, is increasingly led by militants from the lower and middle classes.
Led by Allah Nazar Baloch, a militant who hails from humble origins, the BLF reflects this trend. The student group the Baloch Students Organization-Azad (BSO-Azad) serves as a feeder for the leadership of the BLF and related groups.
These days, the BLF targets not only the Pakistani state, but also Chinese interests, given Beijing's investment in the Balochistan province.
China constructed the deepwater Gwadar port in Balochistan in the early 2000s and took over its operations in 2013. Chinese state-owned companies are also involved in extractive projects in the mineral-rich province, including the Saindak Copper-Gold Mine.
The Pakistani state has responded to Baloch militancy with a brutal counterinsurgency campaign marked by enforced disappearances. The BLF too is guilty of war crimes, engaging in terrorist violence against civilians from Pakistan's provinces.
Some of the BLF's worst attacks have been on migrant workers from Pakistan's other provinces. In 2017, the BLF kidnapped and killed at least 15 migrants from Punjab who were being trafficked to Europe via Iran.
In 2018, Allah Nazar Baloch threatened Chinese "tourists, fishermen, and laborers," stating that his group would "make no distinction between the so-called soft and hard targets."
There have been suggestions of links to India and Iran by Pakistani officials. Iran and Pakistan countries have traded accusations that each supports ethnic Baloch militants. Iran has accused Pakistan of providing an enabling environment for Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni Baloch jihadist group.
India has supported Baloch separatist militants in Pakistan going back at least to the 1970s. While there is no publicly available evidence substantiating Pakistan's claims of New Delhi's support for the BLF, its leader has welcomed Indian support and is frequently interviewed by Indian media outlets. India also opposes China's BRI projects in Pakistan. The two countries are New Delhi's rivals.
A Political Solution to the Great Game
Friday's attack took place east of Gwadar, between Pasni and Ormara, each home to Pakistani naval bases. This area of the Makran Coastal Highway runs along the rugged sand-colored cliffs of Balochistan — Pakistan's largest province by size and smallest by population.
Pakistan envisions the Gwadar port as a gateway port providing access to sea for landlocked states in Central Asia and potentially even China's Xinjiang region. But China is not the only player in the region.
Barrick Gold is moving forward with plans to develop the Reko Diq Copper-Gold Mine. The company says in the second half of this decade, it will transport copper concentrate from Reko Diq, located near the border with Iran, to the Gwadar port.
Adding to the geopolitical intrigue: the Saudis are mulling investment in the project. Though Riyadh and Tehran have assiduously worked to ratchet down their tensions this year — Beijing helped broker a resumption of their diplomatic relations earlier this year — the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes clear the regional order is quite volatile.
What is also clear is that militant organizations like the BLF have secured a veto power over the future of transformational economic projects like Gwadar and the Reko Diq mine.
Last week's attack on the Makran Coastal Highway was not the first. While the road abuts rugged terrain in a sparsely populated area, it is not situated in the country's remote interior. The Pakistani military has failed to develop the necessary force protection measures to prevent attacks like the one that occurred on Friday.
Above all, the Pakistani state must recognize that its own sledgehammer approach to addressing the Baloch insurgency only deepens its appeal among disaffected, young Baloch — especially from the middle class.
What Pakistan faces is an idea — an idea based on the grim reality that is the lives of ordinary Baloch. A lasting solution requires listening to the population and realizing their legitimate demands. It requires a political settlement that puts their interests first, while retaining the sovereignty of the Pakistani state. That is a solution that ultimately only a politician can deliver.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.