Pakistan's Balochistan: Minerals, militants, and meddling

Five points to understand about Pakistan's restive Balochistan Province. 

Balochistan is a key province in Pakistan that is filled with natural resources as well as a volatile mix of Afghan Taliban leaders, anti-Shiite militants, and ethnic separatists.

Why is Balochistan important?

Balochistan is Pakistan's largest province in terms of size, and its smallest in terms of population. The province has always been seen as occupying a geo-strategic position. It has the country's longest coastline, with a lucrative deep-sea port at Gwadar in the south, and a shared border with Afghanistan and Iran. Balochistan also has extensive tapped and untapped resources, including copper, gold, oil, lead, and zinc.

The province has always been seen as a strategic asset, first by the British colonial power who saw it as a buffer zone holding off Afghan and Russian forces. Today, it is a key source of gas and minerals for Pakistanis across the country, and seen as a strategic transport route.

An on-going separatist uprising and the continued presence of Islamist groups in the north has made this strategic province especially restive.

Who are Balochistan's separatists?

A section of the province's ethnic Baloch are calling for the outright independence of Balochistan, after the 2007 assassination of Akbar Bugti, the head of the Bugti tribe and a former Interior Minister in the provincial government. The demands of the separatist Baloch have prompted the deployment of thousands of Pakistani troops across the province, who have been accused of extra-judicial kidnappings, torture, and killings of Baloch activists. Baloch separatists have also been accused of carrying out attacks against members of Pakistan's powerful Punjabi ethnicity as well as Baloch who take a more pro-Pakistan line.

Who are Balochistan's Islamists?

Islamist groups hold sway in areas close to the Afghan border. The province's capital, Quetta, was once known for the notorious Quetta Shura – a congregation of top leaders within the Afghan Taliban. Sources say that the Shura disbanded in 2010, but many suspect that members of the Taliban live among Afghan refugees close to the provincial capital. Other Sunni militant groups also operate with impunity, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outfit that has taken public responsibility for deadly attacks against Balochistan's Hazaras – a primarily Shiite Muslim minority group easily identifiable because of their distinct Mongolian features. Almost 1,000 Hazaras have been killed over the last five years.

What recent political developments are important to watch?

A protest held by the Hazara community in January prompted the federal government to dismiss its provincial counterpart. After two bombs killed 130 people on Jan. 10 – most of them Hazaras – thousands sat in protest for four days, refusing to bury their dead until the government guaranteed that their community would receive necessary security. According to Islamic tradition, the dead must be buried as soon as possible – the protests were a powerful message to a provincial government that had been accused of gross negligence. The imposition of a form of direct rule in the province has, however, been met with criticism from the province's majority Baloch, who believe it is a sign of a central government once again meddling in the province's autonomy. 

What international players are involved?

The Chinese are mining in various locations throughout the province. The Arabs are known to use parts of the province for recreational hunting. Indians are accused of providing support for Baloch separatists, but there is no evidence supporting this claim. Various Western countries have provided Baloch political activists asylum, in light of the heavy hand exercised by the Pakistani security forces. This prompted US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to introduce a bill in Congress, calling for US support for the outright independence of Balochistan. The prospect of the bill caused an uproar in Pakistan, prompting politicians to accuse the US of meddling in the country's internal affairs, but it did not go far. And the State Department has made it clear that the US respects Pakistani sovereignty when it comes to the question of Balochistan.

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