The Battle for Pakistan

Militancy and Conflict in Balochistan
  • By Munir Ahmad
September 27, 2011 |

The United States has continually argued that the Taliban insurgence in Afghanistan is helped by their support network across the border in Pakistan. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwest Pakistan have become a de facto operational theater of the Afghan war. The Taliban’s leadership in Pakistan is known as the Quetta Shura, named after the capital city of Balochistan in which it is believed to reside.

Just as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan caused Taliban groups such as the Haqqani network to relocate to the western regions of Pakistan, the Taliban’s strategic leadership had also settled in Balochistan. However, unlike the FATA, this province is not a region where the Taliban can establish its camps for operations across the border. Interrelationships between Taliban and other ethnic groups, mainly Pashtuns and Balochis, in Balochistan emphasize different cultural priorities, ideologies, mindsets and aspirations.

The material and ideological support the Taliban may be looking for is relatively hard to get in Balochistan, where the Pashtun population is deterred by the accounts of U.S. operations in the FATA. These Pashtuns have a lot to lose and not much to gain if they decide to extend their support to this movement. Even if they have any ideological sympathies with the Afghan fighters in Kandahar, and despite a few exceptions of Pashtuns who do join their struggle, the population as a whole sees a very low return in aligning their actions with the Taliban.

NATO supply lines through Balochistan are relatively stable. Although there are some attacks on truck convoys carrying fuel and supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan, the potential for such disruption is far greater. The general population seems to be frustrated with this foreign presence, but thus far only a limited number of individuals have carried out attacks. Any major operations in Balochistan by the United States would also decrease the popularity of the U.S. in Balochistan. Local desire to guard sources of income prevents many from engaging with the Taliban, but if these livelihoods are threatened by drone strikes, retaliation is more likely.

A lack of information about the Balochistan region has allowed some to view this province as a source of hostility to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, but in reality, it is a comfort-zone for military planners. Balochistan constitutes 43.6 percent of the total area of Pakistan, but its population is less than five percent of the total. Balochistan does not pose any existential threats to NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan, although it could prove a bloody theater of war. Of course, there are militant activities in Balochistan, but the nature of these low-level insurgencies is mostly ethno-nationalist.

For the rest of this 15-page policy paper, click here

Munir Ahmad is a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, with a master’s degree in Public Administration. Earlier he served in the Central Bank of Pakistan after he did his Masters of Business Administration from IBA Karachi. He speaks several local languages -- Pushto, Brahvi and Balochi -- and has spent extensive time in the region. He is currently a consultant on energy policy in a USAID-funded project.

The Pashtun belt on the whole is neither supportive nor welcoming of terrorist organizations; the Pashtuns of Balochistan prefer security to devastation.