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Pakistan Reader# 214, 25 September 2021

Dialogue with Baloch Insurgents: Will Imran Khan Succeed where others have failed



Baloch nationalist opinion that the current initiative lacks seriousness

Among the Baloch nationalist, there is a unanimous opinion that the current initiative lacks seriousness and government neither has the authority to make offers nor the capability to fulfil them

Rishabh Yadav
Independent Scholar

The Baloch insurgency is as old as the Pakistani state with its intermittent periods of calm in which Baloch nationalists have tried to negotiate their demands through the political process. The continuous interference from Islamabad and Rawalpindi has always acted as a constraint in reconciling with their demands for provincial autonomy. The current insurgency, which is the fifth insurgency, has not only been the longest but also more brutal, covering a greater geographical expanse and actors. The return of democracy in 2008 and implementation of the 18th amendment, which grants provinces more autonomy, have not successfully addressed the grievances of the people. The establishment continues to command the policies of the province.

Successive elected governments since 2008 have tried to initiate talks with the Baloch insurgents but have failed in building trust and cooperation that could nudge them towards negotiating table. Imran Khan’s latest announcement to hold discussions with ‘angry’ Baloch and appointment of Shahzain Bugti as special assistant to Prime Minister for reconciliation and harmony is in continuation to the traditions of his predecessors (“PM Imran says he is considering ‘talking’ to insurgents in Balochistan,” Dawn, 5th July 2021). However, it is pertinent to evaluate the current initiative with the past offers and ask, if the initiative by the current government is just empty rhetoric or it offers something different. 

History of Dialogues

While dialogues are important instruments of conflict resolution, it is astonishing to notice that no significant negotiations have taken place between Baloch insurgents and the Pakistani state. The attitude of the state towards the insurgents is apparent from the fact that it has entered into negotiations and deals with the sectarian and extremist groups of Waziristan and Swat but not with the Baloch nationalists. Though at times the government has tried to initiate the reconciliation process, however, there has not been enough confidence building measures to push the insurgents into the dialogue process.

The first and second insurgencies, led by Prince Abdul Karim and Nawab Nauroz Khan respectively came to end after they agreed to surrender in exchange for the amnesty offered by the army. However, the army went back on their promises, arrested them and even sentenced to death some of Nauroz Khan’s comrades, which also included his sons. These initial interactions of the state with the insurgents inform the collective memory of Baloch as of deception and broken promises (Tilak Devasher, “Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum,” HarperCollins, 2019; Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, “The politics of ethnicity Pakistan: The Baloch, Sindhi, and Mohajir ethnic movements,” Routledge, 2012)

The third insurgency occurred in the wake of one unit and basic democracy scheme during Ayub Khan’s presidency. His interference with the internal affairs of sardars by removing prominent Baloch nationalists from holding sardari titles and nominating his loyal sardars became the triggering point for the third insurgency. This led to a hostile reaction and a series of assassinations against government appointed sardars. The guerrilla movement during this time became more militarily organised and built structures that would later aid the successive insurgencies. The state responded with heavy military repression. The insurgency ended when Yahya Khan dismantled one unit, created a Balochistan province and released Akhtar Mengal and Akbar Bugti from the prison. (Tilak Devasher, “Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum,” HarperCollins, 2019; Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, “The politics of ethnicity Pakistan: The Baloch, Sindhi, and Mohajir ethnic movements,” Routledge, 2012)

Ironically, the fourth insurgency emerged with the dismissal of Balochistan’s government led by the National Awami Party (NAP) by the first elected government of Pakistan led by Zulfikar Bhutto (Feroz Ahmed, “Ethnicity and politics in Pakistan,” Oxford University Press, 1998). The counter-insurgency operations saw tremendous use of state repression and violence. Air force conducted combat operations in the insurgency-affected areas (Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, “Balochistan versus Pakistan,” Economic and Political Weekly, 2007). Paradoxically, the insurgency ended after Zia-ul-Haq’s coup overthrew the democratic regime of Bhutto and released the Baloch leadership to make conciliatory overtures and appease a section of Baloch elites (Paul Titus and Nina Swidler, “Knights, not pawns: Ethno-nationalism and regional dynamics in Balochistan,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2000; Christophe Jaffrelot, “The Pakistan paradox: Instability and resilience,” Oxford University Press, 2015).  

The termination of the first four insurgencies shows that the negotiations between insurgents and the state remained a blank slate. Three insurgencies had already occurred in the region before the civil war between West and East Pakistan. In hindsight, one can argue that the breakup of Pakistan could have been avoided, if the state had shown political foresightedness in negotiating on the questions of nationality and provincial autonomy. 

The current insurgency or the fifth insurgency began during Musharraf’s period against the background of tense provincial-federal relationships on the issues of provincial autonomy, military cantonments, and royalties on the natural resources (Yunus Samad, “Understanding insurgency in Balochistan,” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 2014). The rape of a lady doctor belonging to the Bugti tribe by the army personnel and government’s attempt to save the officer, and the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti by the military added spark to these simmering tensions which led to a new wave of insurgency (Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, “Balochistan versus Pakistan,” Economic and Political Weekly, 2007).

Despite the return of democracy following the end of the Musharraf regime, no elected government has been successful in ending the insurgency and bringing peace to the region. In 2008, the PPP government released a roadmap under Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Reconciliatory Committee on Balochistan, calling for reconciliation, rebuilding of national institutions and a new formula for redistribution of resources to resolve the outstanding issues of Balochistan (“3-pronged strategy to resolve issues of Balochistan,” The Nation, 27 October 2008). At the same time, Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s outreach to Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Liberation Force (BLF), and Balochistan Revolutionary Army (BRA) established a ceasefire. Insurgents agreed not to attack the Pakistan military in exchange for the government’s promise of keeping the military to a restricted location. However, the ceasefire ended in January 2009 after frequent violations and renewed tensions in the gas-rich areas (“Pakistan Political Roundup,” Wikileaks, 9 January 2009).

In November 2009, the PPP government introduced the Aghaaz-e-Huqook Balochistan package, aiming to address various political and economic grievances of the region. The Balochistan package addressed various concerns relating to the return of political exiles, investigation into missing persons, judicial inquiry on targeted killings, reviewing the role of federal agencies, building of cantonments and rationalisation of royalty formula for oil and gas production (“Aghaaz-e-Huqook Balochistan,” South Asia Terrorism Portal). Baloch nationalists rejected the plan as they expected more provincial autonomy and a halt to military operations (Christophe Jaffrelot, “The Pakistan paradox: Instability and resilience,” Oxford University Press, 2015). The package, which was merely suggestive about constitutional reforms, also lacked institutional guarantees (read as from military establishment). A former senator from Balochistan described it as “fancy promises lacking potential action” (Sanaullah Baloch, “The Balochistan Package,” Dawn, 21 December 2009). In the end, implementation of the package never happened. 

The government also tried to reach out to the leadership of insurgent groups to convince them to give up armed struggle. However, at best these contacts remained half-hearted, lacked seriousness and institutional guarantees of accommodation and compensation. In 2012, the Balochistan government as a policy of reconciliation withdrew cases against Brahamdagh Bugti, Hyrbyair Marri, and other Baloch leaders living abroad (“Balochistan government decides to quash cases againt Brahmadagh,” Dawn, 16th March 2012). It also tried to reach out to Khan of Kalat, Mir Agha Suleman Daud to convince him to end his self-exile but talks failed due to lack of trust (Qaiser Butt, “Balochistan conundrum: Khan of Kalat’s return is a distant future,” The Express Tribune, 26th May 2013). In 2015, Dr Abdul Malik Baloch met with exiled insurgents to bring them to the negotiating table but the talks failed as the insurgents felt that the chief minister did not have the authority to discuss all the matters (“Brahamdagh met Dr. Malik Baloch, discussed Balochistan issue: BBC report,” Dawn, 11 November 2015).

There is a unanimous understanding among all sections of Baloch nationalists that the establishment remains the main actor in the region and any talks without them on the negotiating table will not yield any tangible results. In the subsequent contacts made by the Pakistan government to the exiled leadership, the insurgents stand has been that it will be impossible to have peace talks without ending military operations, withdrawing the army from the province, and investigating enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. The federal and provincial government not having the mandate to initiate these processes and its inability to rein army into the negotiating process that is the final ‘authority’ has led these talks to nowhere. 

A brief history of negotiations between the state and insurgents shows that there have been no serious efforts to deal with the problem through dialogue mechanisms. Second, the state continues to rely on a military solution to solve the crises. Third, the state’s policies have been to exploit the tribal differences to coerce and co-opt them. Fourth, the absence of establishment in the negotiating process makes it not credible. Fifth, the government has tried to sidestep the issues of insurgencies through the discursive process of ‘development’ and ‘reform packages’ to give credence to the view that the economic incentives and development will ultimately solve all the political grievances of the people. Sixth, the government has failed to shrink the trust deficit that remains between the insurgents and the state by introducing confidence building measures that shows their seriousness towards the negotiations. 

For any dialogue to succeed, the state needs to go beyond the above framework. Therefore, it is instructive to analyse Imran Khan’s latest offer for dialogue under this framework. Is Imran Khan’s latest offer different from the earlier processes or is it the same old wine in the new bottle?

Imran Khan’s offer

The historical understanding of failed negotiations by the government raises important factors that are necessary for starting negotiations with the Baloch insurgents. It is imperative to situate the current offer within these factors to analyse if Imran Khan’s offer is different from the previous one. First, the presence of establishment in the negotiating process is necessary. Second, there need to be strong confidence building measures by the government before initiating the peace dialogue. At various points, Baloch nationalists have called for ending military actions, withdrawal of troops, investigations into missing persons and extra-judicial killings as confidence building exercises. Third, the insurgent demands that there needs to be an understanding within Islamabad that the conflict is not about financial packages but democratic political control and autonomy over the region and its resources. In addition to situating Imran Khan’s offer within this framework, one should also ask, why does the government want to talk now and with whom?

The only remarkable thing about Imran Khan’s government is the civil-military relationship that has remained on the same page. The civilian authorities have not antagonised the military leadership. The swift process from intending to have dialogue, to the appointment of Shahzain Bugti, and the federal cabinet giving go-ahead for the discussions, creates a strong assumption of the establishment’s support for the dialogue. The current government at least displays the ability to have the establishment through its side that the previous governments lacked.

Second, the current provincial and the federal government have lacked in showing sincerity to solve the Baloch crisis. With three years in power, the federal government has failed to put out any roadmap in solving grievances of the people, especially related to the enforced disappearances. Last year, Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) headed by moderate Baloch nationalist Akhtar Mengal resigned from Imran Khan’s coalition after the federal government failed to implement his six-point formula. Mengal’s six points plan included recovery of missing persons, implementation of NAP, six per cent quota for Balochistan in the federal department, repatriation of Afghan refugees and construction of dams to solve the water crisis (Amir Wasim, “Setback for PTI as BNP-M quits ruling alliance,” Dawn, 18 June 2020).

Among the Baloch nationalist, there is a unanimous opinion that the current initiative lacks seriousness and government neither has the authority to make offers nor the capability to fulfil them (Riazul Haq, “Baloch leaders sceptical of govt’s plan for dialogue with insurgents,” Dawn, 9 July 2021). The appointment of Shahzain Bugti has also furthered the views that the initiative remains disingenuous. Akhtar Mengal said that the government does not have any powers to hold talks with the insurgents (Muhammad Saleh Zaafir, “Dialogue with Baloch insurgents: Akhtar Mengal casts aspersions on govt’s authority,” The News, 10 July 2021). Dr Allah Nazar, who heads the BLF claimed that any peace negotiations with Pakistan can only take place after the withdrawal of troops and acceptance of the sovereignty of the Baloch nation (“Baloch nation categorically rejects any dialogue with Pakistan, Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch,” Zrumbesh, 7 July 2021). Baloch leaders have called the appointment of Shahzain Bugti as the non-serious attitude of the government in resolving the crisis. Sher Mohammad Bugti, spokesperson of the Baloch Republican Party termed the appointment as the “inexperience and non-seriousness of state authorities” (Twitter, 7 July 2021). Good civil-military relations have not translated into any tangible actions in addressing the grievances of the population. The government’s lack of seriousness, doubts on its capacity to fulfil the demands and no confidence building measures only emboldens insurgents’ view of the futility of dialogue with Islamabad.

Third, the condition by the government that it will not talk with insurgents having links with India limits its outreach. At various times, Pakistan has linked every armed group of having links with India and has accused its eastern neighbour of fuelling separatist actions in the region. No evidences have been presented against these accusations in the public domain. While the previous governments were open to talks with groups across the spectrum, Imran Khan’s offer remains limited. Such discourse also lends credence to the view that the state does not view the conflict arising out of its policies in the region but because of foreign involvement. 

This makes the latest offer tick all the checkboxes of being a non-starter. It also raises an important question; if this offer remains limited and a non-starter, why offer it in the first place and with whom does the government want to talk.

Two factors, geopolitics and the state’s policy of co-opting elites are instructive to understand the current offer if it remains limited. First, the evolving geopolitical situation in Afghanistan and the possibility of a Taliban takeover shrinks the space for the Baloch insurgents to carry out attacks. The government might be of the view that it is the right opportunity to extract compromises from the Baloch insurgents. Therefore, their tactic is to wait and watch how the insurgents respond to its offer. Second, continuing with its earlier strategy of co-optation of political elites, it is a possibility that government want to bring some of the political exiles into the political mainstream and backchannel talks may have already started. In this view, dialogue offer remains tactical rhetoric to show that the government is willing to solve the crisis. 

Balochistan nationalist movement over the years has evolved in both social structure and its demands. The root causes of its grievances remain the same –political repression and control over the territory-, which the Pakistani state has failed to resolve. Baloch remains marginal to the political functioning of the state. The 18th amendment was an opportune moment to redress many of the political grievances relating the autonomy but the continuing interference of establishment in governance and lack of free and fair elections have acted as a barrier for the benefits to trickle. Today, the establishment engages in the region not only as an institution claiming a monopoly over violence but also as an entity with significant business interest in the region. This dual role of the establishment will make it difficult for any negotiations to take place in which control over resources remains the central demand of the Baloch nationalist. It is unlikely that the co-option of Baloch elites will end the insurgency as the new middle class is taking over the nationalist movement moving away from tribal loyalties. At best, the current initiative remains a failed offer. For any serious efforts for reconciliation, the state will have to make efforts in confidence building measures by initiating investigations into enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Finally, Pakistan’s Baloch problem remains Pakistan’s institutional problem. Until and unless it addresses its institutional problems, the insurgency in Balochistan is likely to continue in near future. 

About the author

Rishabh Yadav is enrolled in a Contemporary Pakistan programme at National Institute of Advanced Studies. He has completed his MA Politics (International and Area Studies) from Jamia Millia Islamia.

 

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