A wild goose chase
By Malik Siraj Akbar
While the government has banned the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the action has had no impact on the frequency of militant attacks on government installations and security forces, which has only increased.
On the ban itself, analysts and observers express bemusement. Which BLA has the government banned? Indeed, what is this BLA? These questions are not entirely of the mark since BLA remains a shadowy outfit and no one really has a lowdown on it: who are its sponsors, how it is funded, what is its command and control structure and so on.
However, the establishment is convinced that the current mess in Balochistan is directly owed to the activities of this underground outfit and that is supposedly headed by Nawabzada Balach Marri, the Moscow-educated son of veteran Baloch nationalist leader, Khair Baksh Marri.
The government has also held the BLA responsible for the continuing cycle of violence in the province while the BLA itself has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in recent months, including the one in February 2006 in which three Chinese engineers were killed.
Though not much is known about BLA’s organisational and financial hierarchy, Islamabad believes that “all terrorist activities” in Balochistan, including rocket attacks on national installations, the civilian population and security forces, bomb blasts at railway tracks and the laying down of landmines, are perpetrated by the same outfit.
Ironically, confusion over the very existence of BLA continues to riddle the big guns in the provincial and the federal governments. “No organisation named the Baloch Liberation Army exists,” insists Balochistan home minister Shoaib Nausherwani, adding that this is “just a group of dispersed outlaws creating instability in Balochistan by using the organisation’s name as an excuse” to invoke fear and the image of a formalised structure. On the other hand, Syed Kamal Shah, federal interior secretary, not only believes that BLA exists but also that it is being financed by “certain foreign sources”.
In Balochistan, no nationalist leader, including sardars Marri, Bugti and Mengal, accepts responsibility for leading BLA; at the same time, no leader will deny that he is backing the outfit’s activities. “Why should we oppose BLA when it is fighting for Baloch rights?” says Sardar Akhtar Mengal, former Balochistan chief minister. “My party, Balochistan National Party (BNP), will back anyone who fights for Baloch rights.”
The organisation also enjoys tremendous moral support of the common, disillusioned Baloch. “We believe BLA is the result of Islamabad’s injustices against the common Baloch,” says one activist of the Baloch Students’ Organization (BSO), adding that “the political struggle for Baloch rights has failed to bear fruit for the marginalised Baloch people. Now, it is time the Baloch snatched their rights from the central government”.
To recap, BLA came under the spotlight following the outbreak of province-wide violence in Balochistan after the alleged rape of Dr Shazia Khalid, an employee of Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL), by an army captain last year. Since then, the organisation, through its three different spokespersons, Azad Baloch, Merak Baloch and Colonel Doda Khan, has been accepting responsibility via satellite phones for various activities.
As BLA activities gained momentum and the situation in Balochistan began to worsen, the federal government, while exercising its powers under Section 11(b) of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, banned BLA on April 9, 2006. This move did not, however, catch the attention of BLA’s well-wishers in Balochistan. In fact, most of them do not take the ban seriously.
“Banning BLA makes no sense,” said Nawabzada Balach Marri, the alleged chief of the outfit, who denies his affiliations with the outfit but refuses to condemn its operations either. “Since the government of Pakistan did not register BLA, how can it ban this organisation now?” he asked.
Marri argues that Balochistan’s problems are not intertwined with BLA alone. “The Baloch are fighting a legitimate battle for their rights which they must be granted. The situation is unlikely to improve if I am labelled the head of some militant organisation or another. This trouble will continue unless the government begins to treat the Baloch with honour and dignity,” he said.
In fact, the political and security situation in Balochistan, in the aftermath of the ban on BLA, has made almost no headway. Attacks on various official installations still continue in various parts of the province, with the government standing around as a hapless onlooker.
The situation that has emerged after the ban on BLA implicitly demonstrates the fact that the government has no control. “The official ban on BLA was merely aimed at pleasing some sections of society and pretending that the government was strictly cracking down the militants. The announcement of this or that ban will do nothing for this situation,” said a Quetta-based commentator.
A majority of Baloch politicians and media maintains that a ban on BLA is unlikely to remedy the existing crisis in Balochistan. It is the right to ownership of natural resources and provision of maximum provincial autonomy to Balochistan which will settle the dispute, say most analysts.
“The way Islamabad wants to settle this crisis – through military might – will only result in violence from the other side also. Political problems need political solutions not military operations,” said political commentator Tariq Baloch.
Another danger of banning a shadowy outfit without firm knowledge of it is that it gives license to the security forces to shoot at will in the name of sorting out the BLA. “When shadows elude them, frustrated agencies will link genuine nationalist political parties to the shadows. The aim should be to end acts of sabotage, not merely to create an illusory organisation and then ban it,” added another analyst.
As far as hopes of an armistice are concerned, Baloch historians discount the possibility. “In the 60s, the Pakistani rulers promised general amnesty to the Baloch,” recalls one historian, “But when they gave up their weapons, they were hoodwinked and hanged. History has created an atmosphere of distrust between Balochistan and Islamabad. I see no possibility now of BLA’s surrender before the state,” he added.