After more than 10 years as a failed nationalist movement, the now fragmented Baloch insurgency in Pakistan is likely to be taken over by Sunni militias. Supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in an effort to further antagonize Iran’s eastern front, skirmishes among Baloch insurgents, Islamist extremists and the Iranian and Pakistani governments have increased in the last year.
Predominantly Sunni, Balochistan is a region roughly the size of France that is part of three countries, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iran annexed its portion in 1928 and dubbed it “Sistan-e-Balochistan.” On the Pakistan side, Balochistan is resource-rich and most famous for housing and training the Taliban for many years before 9/11. Pakistan forcibly annexed the province in 1947, which resulted in four insurgencies - 1948, 1958-59, 1962-63 and 1973-77. Nevertheless, the separatist movement has survived to the present.
In Afghanistan, according to unofficial estimates, there are around 600,000 Baloch. The majority are settled in Nimroz, in southwest Afghanistan. The war in Pakistani Balochistan has resulted in an influx of Baloch refugees into Afghanistan, with many living in Helmand and Farah also. The majority are unofficial refugees and remain mostly ignored by the Afghan government. As the number of refugees increases, however, it is likely to increase tensions between the Afghan and Pakistan governments.
Both Iran and Pakistan have also attempted to force integration of the Baloch through their respective cultural and political policies.
The secular Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) has accused Islamabad and its intelligence agency, the ISI, of encouraging religious militancy in an effort to dominate the separatist groups in Balochistan. Moreover, as Sunni extremist groups overlap regionally and in terms of ideology, training and funding, several Pakistan Taliban commanders have declared their loyalty to ISIS. There are also reports of ISIS establishing an affiliate, Ansar-ul Daulat-e Islamia fil Pakistan, and luring recruits from two other Sunni militant groups, Lashkar-e Jhangvi and Ahl-e Sunnat Wai Jamat.
Typically, the Pakistani and Iranian governments contained their respective reactions to Baloch insurgents targeting Iran from the Pakistani side of the border. Due to the increase in the number and scope of incidents, however, Iran may take a more aggressive approach to limit attacks on its sovereignty in its Sistan-e-Balochistan province. For example, in October 2014, about 30 Iranian security personnel crossed the Pakistani border in pursuit of anti-Iranian militants. The Iranian raid resulted in the death of a Pakistani Frontier Corps soldier.
Jundullah may have been responsible for the latest incidents. An anti-Iranian Sunni-Baloch militia group, Jundullah is an example of a Baloch nationalist group evolving into an Islamist extremist organization. In 2008, it was reported that the US was funding Jundullah as part of its anti-Iranian policies. Last year, a spokesperson for Jundullah confirmed that leaders of the organization had met with ISIS in Balochistan. Jundullah also has ties to al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in Pakistan.
Iran’s response to Jundullah activities remains unclear. An Iranian member of Parliament, Hussain Ali Sheryari, recently strongly warned Iran that ISIS could capture Sistan-Balochistan if peace is not restored there. Sheryari cited the growing number of clashes between yet another Sunni extremist group operating in the area, Jaesh-ul-Adl, and Iranian Border Security Forces. Whether or not Iran is taking Sheryari’s concerns seriously and will act on them remains to be seen.
What is clear is that the dream of the Baloch for a homeland is slipping farther away all the time.