The Balochistan Insurgency: A major security issue for Pakistan and its impact on Chinese interests in the region


The Balochistan insurgency:

A major security issue for Pakistan and its impact on Chinese interests in the region



By Melvin Dionnet



Between economic interests, socio-political issues, and ethnic tensions, Balochistan has been a region subject to insecurity for more than 60 years, where insurgencies are continuous and in which a myriad of actors have diverging and often conflicting interests.

On January 10, 2020, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated at a mosque in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital, killing at least 13 people and wounding 20 others. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack.

The situation in the region showed no sign of improvement in these past months and the increase in the Islamic State’s activity in the region throughout 2019 suggests that the circumstances might deteriorate further. On the other hand, China who has a strong presence in the region might act as a middle-man between Islamabad and Baloch insurgents, and help resolve the situation even though Chinese presence could also contribute to making things worse.


Recent Events

  • March 31, 2019: With a statement published by its official channel on Sunday, March 31, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed an attack on Miri Oil & Gas Company killing 2 security forces and injuring several others in Ziren Duke, Balochistan province.
  • April 12: At least 20 people were killed and 48 wounded in a bomb blast in a market in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan.
  • April 18: 9 navy personnel among 14 bus passengers were shot dead in Quetta, Balochistan province, BRAS (Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar) claimed responsibility. Navy men were killed after being identified through their IDs and employee cards. The incident took place in the Ormara area of Balochistan province. BRAS is an alliance of 3 Balochi separatist organizations, including the Baloch Liberation Army, Balochistan Liberation Front and Baloch Republican Guard. Insurgent groups often perpetrate such attacks against buses, targeting police officers, military personnel or foreigners.
  • May 9: At least 14 people were shot dead on Thursday, May 9, by attackers after several buses were ambushed in the remote Ormara area of Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province. The travellers were removed from the buses and taken to a second location, where they were shot dead. "They were identified as non-Baloch by checking their identity cards and employee cards," said a witness.
  • May 11: At least 5 were killed when gunmen stormed a 5-star hotel in Pakistan's port city of Gwadar. The attack was claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), an ethnic Baloch separatist group fighting for independence for Balochistan province. BLA spread a poster on social media reading "We are everywhere, expect us".
  • May 13: Pakistani police said a powerful bomb attached to a motorcycle killed 4 policemen guarding a mosque in the southwestern city of Quetta, 10 people were also wounded in the bombing. The Pakistani Taliban quickly released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack.
  • May 14: With official statements released via Amaq, IS announced the establishment of "Wilayah Pakistan" and claimed killing one policeman and one Taliban in Quetta.
  • May 20: The Islamic State claimed an attack in Karachi that allegedly killed or injured 3 police officers. The statement could have been an attempt of the IS to prove that the group is not limited to activities in Balochistan.
  • May 21: IS claimed a targeted assassination of Pakistani intelligence member in Mastung Balochistan.
  • June 1: The Islamic State claimed the targeted assassination of a Pakistani policeman in Quetta, Balochistan.
  • June 6: 2 car-planted IED attacks targeted Shiite tourists in the southwestern town of Ziarat, Balochistan, killing 5 people and wounding several others.
  • July 2: United States added Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) to its Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) list. US Department of State accused Balochistan Liberation Army of "targeting Chinese engineers in Balochistan" and of being responsible for the Gwadar terrorist attack.
  • July 23: Via an official statement released on Amaq, IS claimed its second ever attack against Tehreek-e-Taliban Islami Pakistan (TTP), an IED blast at a TTP Gathering in Quetta, Balochistan.
  • August 6: The Islamic State claimed with an official statement an IED attack against Shiites in Quetta. At least 2 Shiites would have been killed in the blast.
  • September 2: With an official statement released on Amaq, IS claimed a targeted assassination of a member of Pakistani intelligence in Balochistan.
  • September 19: IS claimed a targeted assassination of a Pakistani policeman in Balochistan.
  • October 21: At least 5 officers were injured in an IED blast in Quetta.
  • November 18: 2 men were shot dead by unidentified assailants in Quetta's Jinnah town. BLA claimed the attack was a targeted assassination of its former commander Dauran Marri and his brother Abdul Azziz Marri.
  • January 6, 2020: An outpost of the Pakistani Army was attacked in Kech. Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) claimed the responsibility of the attack.
  • January 10: An improvised explosive device (IED) detonated at a mosque in Quetta killing at least 13 people and wounding 20 others. The Deputy Superintendent of Police was among the dead. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack, which reportedly targeted an Afghan Taliban seminary. The Taliban have denied that some of its members were killed in the incident
  • January 29: Security forces conducted an operation in Buleida area of Kech district and killed 5 insurgents inside a compound.
  • February 6: Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS) released a poster on social media announcing the launch of Operation Aas-Rech (No Mercy), in Balochistan.
  • February 9: Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed an IED attack on Pakistani army in Khost, Shahrag, killing 3 soldiers and wounding 3 others.



The roots of the crisis


 The insurgency in Balochistan its rooted in several complex phenomena, ranging from local grievances to external actors’ influence in a geopolitically strategic region. Balochistan is the less developed province of Pakistan, locals lack even basic needs such as access to clean water, infrastructures, equal employment opportunities, and suffer from an inequitable distribution of the region’s resources. These problems are then intertwined with governance issues and contribute in creating a climate of mis-trust between the central government and most Balochis, who rather turn to independentist ideas. Adding to that recent Chinese investments in the region - casting even more doubts among locals and somehow feeding in the insurgents’ narrative - together with the appearance of the Islamic State, creates a fertile ground for insecurity.


- Economic interests in the region: CPEC and Gwadar Port

Balochistan, despite being the less developed province in Pakistan, is an extremely resource-rich region. Indeed, it possesses large amounts of natural gas, coal and minerals. That is, among other reasons, why China is investing massively in the region.

The $56 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one of the most important parts of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for a stronger trade connectivity in the world. CPEC is a collection of infrastructure projects that are currently under construction throughout Pakistan, and notably in Balochistan. CPEC is intended to rapidly modernize Pakistani infrastructure and strengthen its economy by the construction of modern transportation networks, numerous energy projects and special economic zones (Obortunity, 2019).

CPEC is believed to be China’s biggest-ever investment overseas to build a 3,218km route by 2030, consisting of highways, railways, airports and pipelines that will connect Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to Xinjiang province of China. Gwadar, where the huge international port is being constructed, is located in Balochistan and is at the center of the tensions in the region.

An international airport is also under construction in Gwadar and is reportedly to be completed within 3 years (2022) for a cost between US$230-250 million. Unlike other projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that are operating under concessional loans, the Airport is planned under a Chinese grant. It will be the biggest airport of Pakistan and is only one of several development projects in Gwadar worth $690 million financed by the Chinese government (Gulf News, 2019).

Gwadar's location could also offer China a military advantage in a potential conflict in the region by serving as a naval base - adding to the project's strategic significance.

Since the start of the recent insurgency in 2006, initiated by the assassination of Baloch leader Akbar Bugti, the insurgents consider China to be a “partner in crime” with Pakistan, and thus, are targeting Chinese interests in the region. Baloch nationalists allege that all these economic projects are just exploitation of the mineral resources of Balochistan by Chinese interests.

On November 23, 2018, insurgents of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi. The assault resulted in the deaths of 7 people, including 2 police officers and 3 of the attackers. In August 2018, the BLA carried out its first-ever suicide attack, targeting a bus carrying Chinese engineers; the bomber failed in the attempt, and only 6 people were wounded without any loss of life. Since then, there have been many other attacks targeting Chinese nationals in Balochistan, and several of them were successfully foiled. Nevertheless, this highlights the will of Baloch nationalists to hinder Chinese interests. The attacks mounted by the BLA and other Baloch insurgent organizations have significantly impacted Chinese economic projects—particularly, by inhibiting the free movement of Chinese persons in the region (Jamestown, 2019).

Moreover, the attacks by Baloch insurgents have increased the security costs of CPEC. In order to protect Chinese personnel working on CPEC projects, Pakistan has raised a special security division comprised of more than 15,000 personnel. This division is entrusted with the task of protecting Chinese personnel so that they can work on CPEC projects without being harmed. In addition to this security division, Chinese firms working in Pakistan have also hired private security guards. 


- Governance issues, lack of development as drivers of the insurgency

As said earlier, Balochistan despite being a resource-rich region is the less developed state in Pakistan. For years, natural gas from Sui region in Balochistan fuelled power plants, factories and stoves in homes across Pakistan. However, the federal government gave the province a minuscule share of the national budget. 

Around 90 percent of the settlements in the province don’t have access to clean drinking water and people there earn less than the national average, according to a 2017 study (Manzoor, Akhtar, 2017). In Balochistan there is intense poverty, water scarcity, lack of equal employment opportunities, an inequitable distribution of resources, little political access, lack of infrastructure development in addition to a myriad of grievances. Economic discrimination by the state and the non-inclusion of the Balochis in the profits accrued from natural resources exploitation are also at the root of the grievances causing the insurgency. The Baloch have always felt that the central government has exploited the people of the region by not giving them a fair share in the revenues garnered from the natural resources within Balochistan.

Balochis feel also marginalized in the development of the Gwadar port. The CPEC, while bringing in a much-needed investment and possibility of future development, has also created fears within the local population. Indeed, most locals do not have the required technical or knowledge skills to benefit from the project. Hence, the growing concerns among Balochis that foreigners will benefit from the jobs and opportunities in Gwadar instead of locals, contributes to a climate of tension and to the spread of nationalist feeling, feeding the insurgency.

Besides, Balochistan faces rising ethnic tensions between Balochs and non-Balochs with separatist extremist groups such as the BLA waging attacks against certain ethnic minorities such as Punjabis.

Nevertheless, the majority of the population does not support the hardliners and continues to back local political parties, which want to address day-to-day grievances within the legal framework, rather than taking up arms. Experts say most of the nationalists had come to believe that they could fight for political rights within Pakistan. “It was the state’s repressive response that radicalised most elements of the ‘nationalist’ movement,” Frederic Grare, a South Asia security expert, wrote in a report (Grare, 2013). A heavy-handed approach by the state, including the Pakistan army’s crackdown, is often blamed for pushing young Baloch towards the separatist groups. Indeed, security forces are accused of killing and dumping the bodies of suspected insurgents without fair trial (ESISC, 2019). For years, the dead bodies of missing Baloch activists have surfaced in different parts of the province.  

In January 2020, following the arrest of a its leader Manzoor Pashteen, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) announced nation-wide protests, including in Balochistan. Occupying the north-western territory of the country, Pashtuns are the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan, representing approximately 15.42% of the population. Just like Balochis, they complain having consistently suffered discrimination at the hands of the authorities. Further protests are planned in early February (ESISC, 2020). On Tuesday, February 11, 2020, the Loralai police in Balochistan registered a case against 13 activists of the PTM for allegedly making hate speeches.

Since independence, state authorities have tried to impose unity within the country by ignoring the diverse voices demanding to be heard. The weak economy, underdevelopment, non-inclusive political system, and the poor quality of governance in Pakistan have led the state to use indiscriminate force to quell dissent in the relatively weaker provinces like Balochistan. This has in turn pushed the Baloch insurgents to resort to violence as a bargaining tool for more provincial political and economic autonomy.

Foreign interference, shifting tribal loyalties and the presence of religious extremists have compounded the problem.


- External actors’ influence in the region

The myriad of actors involved in the Balochistan insurgency adds even more complexity to the issue. Around 200.000 Baloch live in south and southwestern Afghanistan, while an important Baloch community of about 2 million people is living in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province, bordering Pakistan.


IRAN: Relations between Iran and Pakistan have been strained in recent months, with both sides accusing each other of not doing enough to stamp out insurgents allegedly sheltering across the border. The Iranian regime is also facing a low-level insurgency in the bordering region with Pakistan. Pakistani Baloch separatist groups are allied with Iranian Baloch groups and they often use the porous border to establish safe havens and perpetrate attacks on both sides of it.

Iran and Pakistan historically have a strategic alliance fighting these groups, however Tehran has been recently concerned with the economic ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamabad’s alleged support to Sunni groups targeting Shia minorities. Iran has in the past accused “elements” within the Pakistani military and Intelligence agencies of supporting or going easy on insurgents infiltrating the Iran-Pakistan border.

Moreover, Pakistani-Iranian relations could deteriorate further because of growing economic competition in the Arabian Sea. Indeed, the same way China is funding the expansion of Gwadar port in Pakistan, India pledged to invest $500 million in Chabahar port's development in Iran, roughly 160km away from Gwadar. In the coming years, the Iranian port will only become more important for India, as New Delhi works to counter China's strategy in Pakistan.

Thus, Iran and Pakistan might find themselves in the middle of a proxy economic conflict between India and China, making unclear the perspectives on their relationships.

Both Iran and Pakistan are difficult economic and social situations. Both are confronting US attempts to isolate them. Pakistan is prone to insurgency, terrorist attacks and ethnic tensions. Iran is facing renewed draconian sanctions and rising domestic discontent. More than ever, they need stable relations, but external players may make that harder than ever to achieve.


AFGHANISTAN: In 2012, Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik stated that Baloch insurgents were operating training camps in Afghanistan and blamed Kabul for tolerating these insurgents. Malik Siraj Akbar, a Washington based analyst claim that Afghanistan has always been a relatively safe hideout for the Baloch nationalist insurgents (Akbar, 2009).

On Christmas Day 2018, BLA commander Aslam Baloch called a meeting of his lieutenants in the Aino Mina neighbourhood of Kandahar, in order to decide upon their future courses of action. A suicide bomber disguised as a beggar exploded himself near Aslam Baloch, killing both the BLA leader and his deputies. The assassination of Aslam Baloch in Kandahar appears to support Pakistan’s long-time claim that Afghan territory is being used by Baloch insurgents to launch attacks inside Pakistan. 

Moreover, Afghan news channel, Tolo News reported that Aslam Baloch has been residing in Afghanistan since 2005.

In a similar manner, reports show that Balochistan is often used as a safe haven by Taliban.


INDIA: India is also allegedly involved in Balochistan. Some Indian Intelligence operatives openly admitted that India was supporting Baloch separatists with “money, guns, everything they needed” during the 1970s.

Nowadays, Pakistan often claims that India is supporting the insurgency in Balochistan. In order to hinder Chinese projects in Pakistan, India might and would have reasons to support Baloch armed groups who target CPEC infrastructures or Chinese nationals. Yet Islamabad never had sufficient elements to prove its allegations as the Indian government denies any implication.


- The Islamic State and other Jihadist groups’ presence

In the last few years, the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Balochistan, including one on an election rally in Mastung that left at least 149 people dead and hundreds injured on July 13, 2018.

Lately, the IS has been quite active in Balochistan with several recorded attacks against Shiites, Pakistani security forces or rival armed groups. In recent months, IS claimed mostly sporadic targeted assassinations of Pakistani security operatives.

On January 10, 2020 IS claimed responsibility for an IED attack at a mosque in Quetta killing at least 15 people and wounding 20 others. IS claimed the blast targeted a gathering of Taliban, but the Taliban never confirmed this information (ESISC, 2020).

As IS in Afghanistan is facing continuous crackdown by security forces and massive surrender of its own fighters, the focus of ISKP might rather turn towards Pakistan. However, a ‘ Wilayah Pakistan’ does not seem to be a priority for the IS, as operations in the country are not very often quoted in the group’s magazine Al-Naba. Indeed, IS operations in Pakistan are mostly mentioned in the magazine’s infographic, which reviews operations in all Wilayahs, and were never mentioned in a full article unlike actions carried out by the Islamic State in the Central African Province (ISCAP), the Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP) or others. Moreover, when mentioned in the infographic, the Wilayah Pakistan is often among the less active branches of the IS. Recently, ISKP has resurged in Afghanistan, staging several deadly attacks, and it seems to be focused there. Pakistan is likely to remain a safe-haven or a convenient logistic hub for IS fighters returning from Afghanistan, however, sporadic attacks in Pakistan are not to be excluded.

An official of the Balochistan counter-terrorism department explained that local terrorist groups Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-ul-Adl had pledged their allegiance to IS. “That’s how IS emerged in Balochistan,” he added. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an offshoot of the proscribed Sipah-e-Sahaba, is an armed group that has been targeting Shia Muslims in Pakistan, including Hazaras in Balochistan. At least 509 Hazaras have been killed in attacks against the community between 2012 and 2017, according to a 2018 National Commission for Human Rights report (NCHR, 2018).

Balochistan being a region prone to insurgency, a rapprochement between Baloch insurgents and jihadist groups is certainly not desirable for Islamabad since a bigger and better-organized insurgency could hinder even more the CPEC projects and the economic development of the region. It is thus in Pakistan's interest to find a suitable outcome for all parties in the Baloch insurgency and avoid further escalation.



Future perspectives


Considering that the insurgency is not as strong as it used to be in the past, and that most Balochis do not support armed separatist groups, State authorities, instead of trying to repress the movement should implement socio-political measures to address the genuine grievances of the people of Balochistan and find an integrative political solution.

If, on the contrary, Pakistan maintains this strategy of repression, it might strengthen insurgent groups by justifying their narrative and pushing locals to join their ranks or those of other regional armed groups, notably IS-related ones. Moreover, if state authorities continue the repression without implementing structural reforms in Balochistan, this might feed nationalist narratives and could eventually lead to more ethnic violence between communities, especially in cosmopolitan areas such as Gwadar.

Some form of popular participation would need to emerge that would give the Baloch political access, security, and power. Trust-building between the state and leaders of the Baloch movements needs to be strengthened in the country by listening to the concerns of the different regions and giving them a say in the provincial and national decision-making. The trust deficit between the center and the province appears to be a priority issue.

The state needs to address the structural problems in the province by reforming areas of concern such as education, health, security, infrastructure, and importantly, giving equal opportunities for employment.

Recently, there have been reports (denied by the Pakistani government) of dialogue between the Chinese and the Baloch dissident leaders to try to ensure peace in Balochistan (Beg, 2019). The Chinese want to safeguard the huge investment they have made in CPEC. It seems probable that the Chinese might indeed already be involved in such a process. A peaceful resolution of the conflict in Balochistan would be in the interests of both Pakistan and China as insurgent groups are still strong enough to harm both countries' interests.





The Baloch insurgency, despite being a low-level one, remains a threat for CPEC projects and for Pakistan’s domestic security. Moreover, with the Islamic State currently resurging in Afghanistan, Pakistani authorities should make sure to prevent Baloch armed groups from merging with the IS, as they could become much more threatening.

As socio-economic and governance factors are at the heart of the insurgency, Balochistan’s situation will not be solved by force and weapons, but rather through structural political measures and development.

The ongoing health crisis due to the COVID-19 will be another challenge for Balochistan as it is yet still unclear how the pandemic will affect all actors in the region. China could benefit from this situation by investing and aiding Balochistan to face this crisis, as it is doing with African countries, in a bid to gain some local support and ease the situation with insurgent groups. Similarly, Islamabad could seize the opportunity to at last invest in the province’s development and pave the way for a potential conflict resolution.








-       Analysis of the Impact of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on the insurgency in Balochistan and Options for Conflict Resolution, Saadia Beg, Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences (PJSS) Vol. 39, No. 2 (2019), pp. 459 – 471

-       What’s behind the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan? TRT World, April 2019,

-       The Balochistan insurgency and the threat to Chinese interests in Pakistan, Adnan Aamir, China Brief Volume 19, February 2019, 

-       Pakistan’s Gwadar International Airport will be the largest in the country, Gulf News, March 2019,

-       Regional rivalries threaten Iran-Pakistan relations, Fatemeh Aman, Atlantico Council, November 2018,

-       Between tribe and country: the crisis of Balochistan, Massoud Ansari, March 2007,

-       Balochistan in a state of despair, Sanaullah Baloch, January 2020

-       What is CPEC? Obortunity, 2019,

-       The Political Economy of Development: A Critical Assessment of Balochistan, Ahmed, Manzoor and Baloch, Akhtar, Lasbela University, University of Karachi, June 2017,

-       Balochistan: The State Versus the Nation, Frederic Grare, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 2013,

-       A home-grown conflict, Malik Siraj Akbar, Times of India, August 2009,

-       Understanding the Agonies of Ethnic Hazaras, National Commission for Human Rights, 2018

-       ESISC’s World Terror Watch database, 2019 and 2020.


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