Tribes and Rebels: The Players in the Balochistan Insurgency

Tribes and Rebels: The Players in the Balochistan Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 7

As the violence on Pakistan’s northwest frontier dominates the headlines, a lesser-known insurgency has gripped Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan. Bomb blasts and rocket attacks have become almost daily events in this region: A ten-week period in 2008 saw 76 insurgent-linked incidents reported, claiming the lives of 14 people and wounding 123 (South Asia Terrorism Portal: Balochistan Timeline 2008).

The troubled history of Balochistan dates back to the independence of Pakistan in 1947, beginning as a reaction to the annexation of the princely state of Qalat—later joined to three other states to form modern Balochistan—by Pakistani authorities in 1948. The annexation led to the first Baloch rebellion, which was swiftly put down. The security situation in the region remained fragile as rebellions erupted in 1958, 1973, and most recently in 2005.

Unlike previous anti-government insurrections, it is currently hard to pinpoint one person or group for orchestrating these incidents as there are today several groups in Balochistan potentially interested in challenging the government. The most immediate suspect is the Taliban, who are unhappy with Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States in its war on terror. The Taliban is active throughout Balochistan, particularly in Quetta and the Pashtun belt of the province, bordering with Afghanistan.

However, despite the Islamist presence, the prime motivators of the current insurgency remain Baloch nationalists, who live in the remote mountains of the province and believe they have been deprived of their rights and revenues from the considerable natural resources of their province. The nationalists believe these revenues are appropriated by the federal government with little return to the province (Ausaf, February 7, 2006).

The Baloch claim to have been native to the region since 1200 BC. Today, there are an estimated eight to nine million Baloch, living in Iran and Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. Their language consists of three main dialects: Balochi, Brahwi and Saraiki. The Balochistan province of Pakistan is one of the important Baloch settlements in the region, located at the eastern edge of the Iranian plateau and in the border region between southwest, central and south Asia. It is geographically the largest of the four provinces of Pakistan and composes 48 percent of the nation’s total territory.

Though the Baloch have a long history of mistrust of the central government of Pakistan, the federal government has its own interpretation of the current tensions, claiming that the hostile situation is provoked by Baloch nationalist leaders who consider large-scale initiatives to develop the region as a threat to their influence. President Pervez Musharraf even accused the leading tribal chiefs of the Baloch tribes of Bugti, Marri and Mingal of playing a direct role in the mounting insurgency (Daily Dunya, August 25, 2006; Dawn [Karachi], July 21, 2006).

The Baloch Tribes

• The Bugti tribe is one of approximately 130 Baloch tribes, with approximately 180,000 members dwelling mainly in the mountainous region of Dera Bugti. The tribe is divided into the sub-tribes of Rahija Bugti, Masori Bugti and Kalpar Bugti. For decades this tribe has been dominated by the Rahija Bugti family of Akbar Khan Bugti, a prominent Baloch nationalist. Before he took the chieftainship at 12 years of age in 1939, his father and grandfather were leaders of the tribe.

Unlike some other traditional Baloch tribal families, the Akbar Bugti’s family was considered moderate, as Akbar’s grandfather, Shahbaz Khan Bugti, was knighted by Britain, and Akbar Bugti himself was educated at Oxford and held several of the most powerful political positions in the country: governor, chief minister of Balochistan and federal interior minister. Until his death in 2006 in an air and ground assault by Pakistani security forces, Akbar Bugti was also chief of the Jamhuri Watan Party, established in 1990 (Bakhabar, August 27, 2006).

The issue of royalties and the ownership of gas fields—discovered in Akbar Bugti’s hometown of Dera Bugti and providing 39 percent of the country’s total requirement—remained the main cause of conflict between the tribal chief and the government. Pakistani officials claim that Akbar Bugti was paid around $4 million annually in royalties, but used these resources to blackmail the state and build a state-within-the-state (Khabrain, August 6, 2006). Islamabad’s response, such as supporting rival Kalpar Bugtis—who denounced Akbar Bugti’s chieftainship—and deploying troops in Dera Bugti, led Akbar Bugti and his followers to take arms against the government.

Akbar Bugti’s son, Nawabzada Talal Akbar Bugti, has rejected Prime Minister Gillani’s offer of negotiations conditional on laying down arms, saying that the Baloch people will only do so after they have achieved their rights and gained complete autonomy (ANI, April 3). Another son, Jamil Akbar Bugti, is currently fighting a freeze on his assets on the placement of his name on Pakistan’s exit control list (APP, March 28). A grandson, Nawab Sardar Brahamdagh Khan Bugti, is a major leader of Baloch militants.

• The Marri is another major Baloch tribe, based in the Kohlo district of Balochistan. Their chief, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, was branded by President Musharraf as the “troublemaker Sardar” (tribal chief). The Marri are also divided into sub-tribes: the Gazni Marri, Bejarani Marri and Zarkon Marri, with Khair Bakhsh Marri belonging to the Gazni faction. The total population of the Marri tribe in Balochistan is reportedly around 98,000 and the nature of their relationship with the government is historically hostile—they have integrated little into the political structure of the country.

Unlike the leader of the Bugti tribe, the chieftain of the Marri is said to be closer to the communists, his sons graduating from schools in Moscow. Unable to withstand the Pakistani military, he and dozens of his followers took refuge in Kabul in 1979, remaining there until Russia withdrew. Khair Bakhsh Marri remains committed to an armed struggle for no less than full independence for Balochistan despite losing dozens of followers and relatives, most recently his son Balach Marri, who reportedly led a rebel group of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) (Balochistan Express, November 22, 2007).

• Ataullah Khan Mingal, leader of the Mingal tribe and another trouble-maker in Musharraf’s eyes, has played a dominant role in the political history of Baloch in the region. Unlike the other tribes, the Mingals have given little military resistance, although Ataullah never denounced the anti-government armed resistance.

The party in which he began his political career was the National Awami Party (NAP), led by Pashtun nationalist Wali Khan. Following the elections of May 1972, in which the party swept Balochistan, Atualla Mingal took power as the first chief minister of Balochistan. His role in the NAP-led London Plan—a secret meeting of Pashtun and Baloch nationalists in London, allegedly to prepare ground for declaring the independence of the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan—is the peak of his nationalistic political career, which led to his imprisonment in 1973. Subsequently the federal government began large-scale military operations in Balochistan to crush the nationalists (BBC Urdu, February 11, 2005).

Following his release from prison in the late 1970s, Atualla Mingal went into exile in London, returning in the mid-1990s to establish the Balochistan National Party (BNP), which brought his son Akhtar Mingal to power as chief minister of Balochistan. Mingal junior was jailed by Musharraf in September 2006 on charges of terrorism, due to his alleged involvement with the recent Baloch insurgency against the Pakistan government.

Tribal Leaders and Insurgent Groups

Since Musharraf came to power in 1999 there have been other goals besides independence that have drawn Baloch nationalists together. The most influential Baloch leaders—Akbar Khan Bugti, Khair Bakhsh Marri and Ataulla Khan Mingal—have had a variety of reasons to be suspicious of the government’s involvement in the area, which they viewed as an attempt to de-seat them from tribal chieftainship. Government moves have included state support to rival factions within the tribe and the deployment of military forces into the region (Bakhabar, August 27, 2006). Nevertheless, no tribal chief is ready to tie himself to insurgent groups publicly, though military sources remain skeptical that the authoritarian tribal chiefs are ignorant of who is firing rockets in their territory.

Currently at least five insurgent groups are publicly known in Balochistan, including the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), Baloch People’s Liberation Front (BPLF), Popular Front for Armed Resistance (PFAR), Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), the last two being the largest and most widely-known.

Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA)

The BLA’s political stance is unequivocal: They stand for the sole goal of establishing an independent state for Baloch in the Balochistan province of Pakistan. The roots of the BLA date back to 1973, during the period of resistance against military operations in Balochistan and the discovery of the secret NAP-led London Plan.

Though the movement did not become public until 2000, some sources claim that the BLA was a Russian creation and came into being during the Afghan war, propped up as a reaction to Pakistan’s anti-Soviet involvement in Afghanistan (Dawn, July 15, 2006). Those supporting this claim point to the Moscow education of the alleged leader of BLA, Balach Marri, and the time he spent in Russia and Afghanistan.

The number of BLA activists is not known, but Pakistani military sources suggest that there are currently 10,000 Baloch insurgents involved in separatist activities, of which 3,000 are active in the insurgency. The government implicates India and Afghanistan in supporting the movement. President Musharraf reportedly presented a damning file regarding these allegations to President Karzai during his visit to Afghanistan in late February 2006 (The News [Islamabad], April 16, 2006). Despite these allegations and regardless of any possible outside support, the nature of the BLA’s activities has a local focus, with no foreign nationals being arrested with proven involvement in the Baloch insurgency.

Baloch Liberation Front (BLF)

The BLF, like the other Baloch insurgent groups, recently re-emerged as a potential threat in the region, claiming responsibility for deadly and frequent attacks on government installations. The BLF has so far escaped state accusations of organized terrorism, although its operations seem far bigger than those of other factions. The seventh article of its charter—from the pro-Marri nationalist website—describes the struggle as a holy duty of all Baloch and asks for moral and financial, if not military, participation. The tenth article says: “The independent state is a matter of life and death for Baloch.” This organization, describing itself as an army of volunteers, also offers a complete program for a post-independence state, ranging from education and health policies to issues of foreign policy and internal and external security.

Some reports suggest that the BLF was established in Damascus in 1964 by Baloch nationalist Juma Khan Marri, who in the 1970s and 1980s was seen actively meeting with the communist regime in Moscow and Kabul. The BLF played an active role in the resistance against military operations in 1973, which continued until the collapse of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime. These clashes reportedly took the lives of 3,000 soldiers and around 5,000 Baloch rebels.

It is not clear on what scale the BLF currently operates and who leads it, though Akbar Bugti once described it as an autonomous organization that operated independently of tribal chiefs (Newsline, February 2005).


Regardless of the number of Baloch insurgents, the nature and scale of their activities since 2000 have marked their emergence as a major threat toward regional security, with Pakistan’s new government—elected on February 18—apparently recognizing this threat. Soon after the election, the victorious politicians began signalling the adoption of a softer approach to ease tension in Balochistan. The election was boycotted by the Baloch nationalist parties in response to ongoing military operations in Balochistan that began in 2005.

As a first step to change the tense atmosphere, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has hinted at accommodating some Baloch nationalists under its political umbrella and has accepted their demand to stop military operations in the region. The nomination of Aslam Raisani, an independently elected Baloch member of parliament, for the post of provisional chief minister in Balochistan by the PPP is another signal directed at winning hearts and minds in the province.

It is unclear whether these policies and the appointment of Raisani as a chief minister may bring a major breakthrough, but soon after his nomination, Raisani hinted at taking a completely different approach toward the crisis from the military-based policies of the Musharraf regime. Recently he was quoted by local media saying that the so-called rebel Baloch are his own brothers and if he could not make them agree to lay down their arms, he will step down (Daily Zamana, March 9).

The question of an independent state remains a tricky issue, but some moderate Baloch voices say that independence is no longer a priority for the Baloch majority, as they are struggling to survive due to the devastating effect of hostilities on the local economy. The economic structure of Balochistan is where the future of the region begins. Involving local Baloch in the large-scale economic projects proposed for the province will be a major step in winning their confidence; otherwise there is no reason to believe that the tense political situation in Balochistan will not deteriorate further


The sardars of Balochistan

DAWN – the Internet Edition

17 April 2005 Sunday 07 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1426

EXCERPTS: The sardars of Balochistan

By Taj Mohammad Breseeg

Taj Mohammad Breseeg explains the Baloch tribal set-up. 

James Bill wrote that in the Middle East “the politics of development and modernization is profoundly influenced by the patterns and process that mark group and class relationships”. Even in the late 19th century when modernization and urbanization had reduced the importance of tribes and tribal organizations, the influence of tribal patterns was not destroyed. The existing tribal patterns and processes continued to influence development and modernization in the rural areas in the Middle East. The same has been the case with Balochistan where the informal, paternalistic patterns of control through family networks (the tribes) have continued to have relevance – particularly since tribal support or lack of it has been crucial to the success or failure of nationalist movements. 

Dr Nek Buzdar, a specialist in international economic development, is of the view that the Baloch society, by and large, adheres to a traditional way of life. He believes that despite the emergence of political parties in Balochistan, tribal organization and political leadership still play a dominant role in the local and provincial administration. The tribes in Balochistan are divided into the shahri (sedentary) and the nomadic. The shahris have been the backbone of the feudal order predominant in central and southern Balochistan (Makran), while the nomads have been the cornerstones of the tribal order in the northern tribal areas. 

Both groups, however, were bound together by a set of historically evolved relationships based on economic, social, political, military and lingual interactions. Possibly, this separation of the tribes between the nomad (warrior nobility) and the sedentary shahris (peasants) had led many to conclude that the sedentary population may have been the original inhabitants of the land who were conquered by nomads who arrived later. 

The Baloch tribal system is segmentary. Describing this system, Salzman wrote, “By the ‘segmentary system’ we mean a set of equal lineages allied relatively and contingently for political action, decisions being made by assemblies and councils, with no offices and hierarchy of authority, and thus no top.” 

Thus a centralized authority is absent in such a system. The tribes are constituted from a number of kindred groups. There are many sub-divisions or clans who claim to have blood relations with one another through common ancestors. Kinship, which has its characteristic form in clan and family structure, provides the basic ordering mechanism for society. Thus it is a major factor in regulating and systemizing individual behaviour, which in turn influences the formation and sustenance of the socio-political organization of the entire tribe. 

While the colonial government exercised control over the Baloch tribes, the British themselves were light on the ground, and in return for the chieftains’ loyalty gave them a free hand to keep the tribal way of life largely unchanged. But the position began to change in the last decades of the Raj. The creation of Pakistan and the annexation of the western part of Balochistan by Iran changed the situation. Furthermore, the growth of education, market forces and electoral politics drew the Baloch into regional and national networks both in Iran and in Pakistan. However, the tribal power structure is still very important in Baloch rural society. Selig Harrison counted 17 major tribal groupings in Balochistan in 1981. Each of them was headed by a sardar (chieftain), selected usually from the male lineage of the ruling clan in each tribe. Harrison mentions some 400 tribal sub-groupings headed by lesser sardars. 

Probably the most widely known and generally loathed features of Baloch society are the sardari and the jirga institutions of tribal organization and leadership. Under the traditional administrative set-up of Baloch tribes, every tribe had its separate jirga (council of elders), which acted as a court of law. Then this system presented itself at all the administrative tiers of the tribe. The jirga at the tribe’s level operated under the leadership of the sardar. 

All other personalities of the tribe’s administration like muqaddam, wadera and motaber were its members. Besides, at all the administrative tiers of the tribe, the jirga functioned above the tribal head. The jirga dealt with important matters concerning the tribes and disputes arising among them, the election of a new khan or the inevitable external threats. The head of the confederacy himself was the head of this jirga. 

Providing the Baloch society a historical, social and political structure, the jirga remained intact for a long period and helped the Baloch cope with anarchy, chaos and an emergency situation. However, under the British rule in the 19th century, the traditional pattern of the Baloch jirga began to change. Having masterminded the political set-up of the Baloch country, Sir Robert Sandeman introduced a new kind of jirga, the “shahi jirga” (Grand Council or the council of the main tribal sardars) where only sardars and aristocrats could sit. The shahi jirga was held at Quetta, Sibi and Fort Munro once or twice a year. The new jirga could impose taxes on property and labour; while only the Political Agent could review its decisions. As described by Janmahmad, the shahi jirga was a shrewd mechanism of indirect rule with powers vested in a few carefully selected tribal elders loyal to the British and ready to act against their own people. 

The other well-established and widely known institution in Baloch society is the sardari system. This system appears to have had its origins in the Mughal period of Indian history, but is believed to have assumed its present shape rather late, during the period of British colonial rule. In contrast to the marked egalitarianism that pervades tribal organizations among the neighbouring Pakhtoons, the sardari system is highly centralized and hierarchical. At the apex of the system is the sardar, the hereditary central chief from whom power flows downward to waderas, the section chiefs, and beyond them to the subordinate clan and sub-clan leaders of the lesser tribal units. The sardar’s extraordinary authority within this structure probably stems from the essentially military character of early Baloch tribal society. This authority may also have originated in the requirements of the Baloch pastoral economy. The tribesmen’s seasonal migrations and isolation in scattered small camps would seem to have justified the emergence of a powerful and respected central figure who could obtain pasture lands and water, arrange safe passage through hostile territory for herdsmen and their flocks, and in other ways provide a shield against an unusually harsh environment. 

Modernization has changed much of the tribal system. It was first challenged by the demarcation of international boundaries at the end of the 19th century. The new frontiers partitioned Balochistan between three states, dividing some of the large tribes between countries and prohibiting the traditional summer and winter migrations of nomads and semi-nomads. The Naruis, the Sanjaranis, the Rikis and the Brahuis were divided among Iran, Afghanistan and British Balochistan. The second challenge occurred between the world wars, when the British and the Persians largely pacified Balochistan. From 1928, Tehran used its army to forcibly subdue the Baloch, often exterminating whole tribes in the process. 

The termination of the traditional nomadic economic system devastated the tribes. In the case of Iranian Balochistan, to force sedentarization, Reza Shah introduced land registration. Land which had previously been considered the property of the tribe as a whole, became the sole property of the tribal chief in whose name the land was registered. The chiefs, with income from rents, could now move into cities and towns. This increased their distance from the tribe.

The sedentary farmers, tied to the land through debts and contracts, could no longer align themselves with rival chieftains. This increased the landlord’s control over the peasant, but the peasant’s loyalty to the landlord decreased as monetary ties replaced ties of sanguinity or of mutual self-interest. Baloch society lost its cohesiveness, and both landlord and rentier turned to the central government for protection of their “rights”. 

Simultaneously with the decline and disintegration of tribalism in Iranian Balochistan, the sardars also lost their base of power and influence there. This has been the case particularly during the 1960s and the 1970s, as the rapid growth in urbanization, expansion of modern means of communications, spread of modern education, and economic modernization in the province began to drastically undermine the tribal socioeconomic structure. These changes in turn brought with them a new Baloch elite identified with the middle class. It must be borne in mind that the cooperation of the sardars with the Shah’s regime representing “Shiite Gajars”, also served to undermine their traditional legitimacy among their peasant and nomadic followers politically. 

Over the course of time, therefore, the traditional social organization of the Baloch to a great extent has changed. There is now a widespread Baloch national consciousness that cuts across tribal divisions. Islamabad and Tehran, however, ignoring this emergence of nationalism, tend to think of Baloch society solely in terms of its traditional tribal character and organizational patterns. Most sardars have attempted to safeguard their privileges by avoiding direct identification with the nationalist movement, while keeping the door open for supporting the nationalist cause in times of confrontation between the Baloch and the central government, as in the case of the 1973-7 insurgency. Similarly, the Iranian revolution of 1979 inflicted the most significant blow to the influence of the sardars in western Balochistan. 

However, in a traditional tribal society a political ideology such as Baloch nationalism would be unable to gain support, because loyalties of tribal members do not extend to entities rather than individual tribes. The failure of the tribes to unite for the cause of Baloch nationalism is a replay of tribal behaviour in both the Pakistani and Iranian Baloch revolts. Within the tribes, an individual’s identity is based on his belonging to a larger group. This larger group is not the nation but the tribe. However, the importance of the rise of a non-tribal movement over more tribal structures should not be underestimated. In this respect the Baloch movements of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s provide us a good example. 

In the post-colonial period a visible change in Baloch society was the rise of the urban population mainly due to the detribalization and to some extent the land reforms under Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The differentiation and specialization in urban economies introduced new social strata. A small Baloch working class formed in the mine industry, construction, and a few factories. Small workshops required auto mechanics, electricians, mechanics, plumbers and painters, while services and transport employed many others. A modern bourgeoisie emerged, comprising mainly professionals rather than entrepreneurs – doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, bank managers, lawyers and journalists. Migrant labour travelled as far as the Gulf States. 

Thus, with the appearance of the Baloch middle class, even though small, and the decrease of the traditional role of the sardars, the modern Baloch intelligentsia seems to be more eager to assume a political role of its own. Highlighting the new changes in Baloch society, in 1993, Mahmud Ali, a specialist on South Asian politics, wrote, “In the absence of traditional leaders, the dynamic of socio-economic change has precipitated a new kind of leader – younger men of ‘common’, i.e. non-sardari, descent”. The Baloch have devised a nationalist ideology, but realize that tribal support remains a crucial ingredient to any potential success of a national movement. By accepting the support of the tribes, the nationalists fall vulnerable to tribal rivalries. 

Economic development 

In 1892, Lord Curzon stated that in the greater part of Balochistan, the Baloch were sedentary and pastoral. Despite the passage of almost one hundred years and the increase in urbanization, Curzon’s view is still fairly accurate (although there are more farmers and fewer shepherds). Describing the Baloch economy in the early 1980s, a prominent authority on the subject of Baloch nationalism, Selig S. Harrison wrote, “Instead of relying solely on either nomadic pastoralism or on settled agriculture, most Baloch practise a mixture of the two in order to survive.” 

The economic grievances of the Baloch are dated from the British era. As the British developed industries and agriculture in Sindh, Punjab, and the NWFP, they ignored Balochistan. Thus there is a widely held view that the British rulers neglected the economic development of Balochistan. Perhaps it was not merely a case of neglect, but what might be called purposeful sidetracking, even suppression. Of course the British had their own imperial interests to protect. 

This is a case study in nationalism which focuses on the Baloch. It probes into the question of whether the Baloch have a national consciousness and if it is expressed as their will to maintain their national identity. 

Excerpted with permission from Baloch Nationalism: its Origin and Development 

By Taj Mohammad Breseeg 

Royal Book Company BG-5, Rex Centre Basement, Zaibunnisa Street, Karachi-74400 

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ISBN 969-407-309-X 

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