QUETTA, PAKISTAN — For years, Nawab Mohammed Akbar Khan Bugti battled the Pakistan Army. The 80-year-old renegade hidden in the mountains of Balochistan became a legend in his fight for greater autonomy against what he saw as colonial brutality.
Bugti was both hated and revered. But as a former federal minister and governor, he symbolized a political as well as a violent struggle. And his death this weekend, during a fierce three-day battle that left more than 30 dead, could prove a serious blow to Pakistan's stability.
It could also close a door to a group seen as a counterweight to extremism represented in the region by a resurgent Taliban, analysts say.
"This is not a good sign," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia director of the International Crisis Group. "Just a few years ago [Nawab Bugti] was talking to the government. Keeping that door open was the way to go. Now that door has been slammed shut."
Bugti's death could also reverberate in the region, some analysts say. The Balochis are spread across several countries, with millions living in parts of Iran and Afghanistan that border Pakistan.
"They will provide sanctuary to Baloch militants. There will be a lot of sympathy," says Lt. Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood, a defense analyst in Islamabad.
In recent weeks, the volley of attacks in Balochistan had increased, pitting thousands of Pakistani troops – the number is not disclosed – against a loosely organized but formidable federation of separatist militants.
On Friday, the day before Bugti was killed, two car bombs exploded in Quetta, wounding 13 people and shattering windows. Smoking ruins are a regular sight in Quetta and its environs as militants target military installations and government gas pipelines.
The Army has responded with aerial bombings and helicopter gun ships, Baloch leaders say, a claim Islamabad denies.
But Mohammed Anwar, a poor tribesman from Dera Bugti, Bugti's home, says he recently fled because of the Army's bombardment. Now he lives in a squalid refugee camp on the outskirts of Quetta.
"Why is the government saying we should leave our homes? It's our property," says Mr. Anwar. "The Pakistani constitution gives us that right."
Violence paralyzed parts of Balochistan Sunday, and Baloch leaders vowed to launch a nationwide strike.
The consequences of this escalation for the broader battle against terrorism could be serious, analysts say.
"This is disastrous," says General Masood. "It will divert attention from the war on terror ... by engaging the Pakistan forces in Balochistan in a much bigger way."
The Taliban are said to be growing in influence in Balochistan, allegedly using the province's capital, Quetta, as a base for directing operations in southern Afghanistan.
But the Baloch people are widely recognized as fiercely opposed to the Taliban. With the killing of their most respected leader by government forces, the prospects for peace are dim for the foreseeable future, many here say.
At the root of the longrunning insurgency is a sense of inequity over the distribution of natural resources. Balochistan, Pakistan's largest but most impoverished province, is as rich in mineral wealth and natural gas as it is in bloodshed.
Natural gas was first discovered in Balochistan in the 1950s, but it has mostly been shipped to Islamabad and parts of Punjab; some regions of Balochistan are still without it.
With demands for greater political autonomy and control of resources consistently rejected by the state, Nawab Bugti and other Baloch leaders have fought a succession of wars against Islamabad since the 1970s.
Balochistan, cut off by rough terrain and political differences from the central government, has pockets of extremism that the Taliban have long exploited. The province also shares hundreds of miles of unmanned border with Afghanistan, giving the Taliban a sprawling front for their operations.
The solution, such as it exists, masks a potent irony. The most effective counterbalance to the Taliban, observers say, are the very people the Army is targeting in its military operations.
Baloch nationals have acted as a countervailing force to extremists, espousing democratic and liberal political values, observers say. In the arena of the provincial assembly, Baloch leaders argue, they regularly battle against measures that create an amenable atmosphere to the Taliban.
Their struggle for autonomy and greater political rights, they add, dovetails with the broader agenda of the war on terror. "We are fighting in the same atmosphere as the United States," says Akbar Mengal, a member of the provincial assembly from the Balochistan Nationalist Party.
But instead of encouraging the Baloch parties, leaders and analysts charge, the government has actively undermined them, targeting them – and not the Taliban – with their weapons.
"All those weapons and aid that the US has given to Pakistan to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban, [the Pakistan Army] is using against the nationalists in Balochistan," adds Mr. Mengal. US officials have conceded as much to the Western media in the recent past, saying it cannot always control how the Pakistani Army uses its weapons.
These are troubling realities often overlooked by Washington and other Western powers, Ms. Ahmed and others say.
"If the menace of the Taliban are to be dealt with in Balochistan, the Baloch are a credible ally. It is in everyone's interest – Afghanistan, the United States – to see that there is peace in Balochistan," she cautions.