The killing of six Hazara youth in Quetta followed by an ambush on a Frontier Corps patrol in Kohlu last week clearly shows that the conflict in Balochistan continues unabated. The violence that erupted in Balochistan during the run up to the elections has continued since. The symbols of government authority are targeted daily and rebels have fought pitched battles with the security forces in Kohlu and Dera Bugti districts.
The prevailing atmosphere in Pakistan, where the new government has initiated reconciliation and signed peace deals with militants in Swat Valley and FATA, had rekindled hope of peace returning to Balochistan. However, the recent statement by Brahamdagh Bugti, the grandson of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and the head of recently formed Baloch Republican Party, terming the government's offer of talks as rhetoric and "an attempt to deceive the Baloch", have dashed all hopes of peace. Bugti, in his first statement after the assassination of his grandfather in August 2006, refused to hold talks with the government within the framework of federation and asserted that he seeks full independence for Balochistan and has the support of all Baloch. He also claimed that the operations by the security forces have continued unabated while the government has been talking of reconciliation. Incidentally Brahamdagh Bugti is the most well known face of the underground Baloch nationalists after the assassination of Nawabzada Ballach Marri, the commander of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), in November 2007.
It is not that the PPP-led government in Islamabad is against reconciliation or the provincial government in Quetta is not sincere about negotiations. The government has initiated steps to withdraw cases against many Baloch leaders who had been incarcerated on various charges. This resulted in the release of Sardar Akhtar Mengal, former chief minister and head of Balochistan National Party (Mengal), charged for kidnapping security personnel, who spent nearly two years in jail without a proper trial. Mengal after his release expressed willingness for holding negotiations with the government and termed the outlook of PPP government towards Balochistan as positive. However, he subsequently added a caveat that the talks were not feasible without 'Confidence Building Measures', thereby hinting at Army's withdrawal as a precondition. It appears that there are two major impediments to peace in Balochistan.
Firstly, notwithstanding the recent democratic transformation in Islamabad, the most powerful institution in Pakistan - the army - continues to adopt a hawkish posture vis-a-vis Balochistan. Unlike FATA and the Swat valley, where it faced serious dissensions within its ranks, there is complete unanimity within the army regarding the significance of operations in Balochistan for upholding Pakistan's integrity. As a result, while the army was extremely keen that the new political dispensation in Islamabad and Peshawar bails them out from the quagmire in FATA, it has refused to stop operations in Balochistan. In fact, after the ceasefire in FATA, the intensity of operations in Balochistan has only increased.
Secondly, unlike the governments in other provinces and Islamabad, the government in Quetta does not represent popular aspirations, as the last elections were boycotted by most of the Baloch nationalist parties including the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Pakhtoonkhwa Mili Awami Party, the predominant Pakhtoon nationalist party of the province. Consequently, the polling was very low in Balochistan. Moreover, after the elections, all the legislators, with the exception of one, who were elected on a PML(Q) ticket that emerged as the single largest party, defected, thereby facilitating a PPP-led government. Thus the government in Balochistan lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the Baloch.
Although the new democratic dispensation has offered provincial autonomy and has earned some respect from the Baloch, it has failed to prevent Baloch nationalists from targeting the police posts, pipelines and electricity pylons. There is a misconception that the insurgency has withered away in Balochistan after Nawab Bugti's assassination, but the statistics present a different picture. In 2007, 536 violent attacks were carried out by various outfits in Balochistan; in comparison there were only 460 attacks in NWFP and 435 in FATA, which hogged the headlines. The attacks in Balochistan increased in 2007, as compared to 2006, when there were only 403 attacks. In the first five months of 2008, there have already been more than 200 violent incidents in the province. However, the media gaze on violence in FATA, owing to its centrality in the War on Terror, and the restrictions put by the government on media reports from Balochistan have pushed the Balochistan issue to the backburner.
Peace in Balochistan is essential for economic development of Pakistan as Balochistan, with its enormous resources is expected to be the driver of Pakistan's future economic growth. If Islamabad is serious about peace in Balochistan, it must withdraw the army, negotiate with the rebels and go in for fresh elections in the province to usher in a more representative government.