Pakistan openly admits that it uses “religious militancy” as a foreign policy instrument, such as radical Islamist groups committing terrorist acts in India or deploying the Taliban to control, influence or, as presently demonstrated, destabilize Afghanistan.
There are over forty-five domestic or transnational terrorist and extremist groups who have been operating in Pakistan.
To quell domestic unrest, Pakistan uses Islam as a tool to replace ethnic identity with religious identity. Likewise, Pakistan supports select religious militant groups to suppress autonomy or nationalism among its disaffected minorities.
One such minority is the Baloch, a people with their own language, tribal structure and culture, whose homeland spans southwestern Pakistan, eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan.
The Baloch, who have a reputation for secularism and tolerance, are the majority in Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan, a region rich in minerals and other natural resources, including gold, copper, chromite, and gas. Balochistan has also been the home of a festering ethnic insurgency since the partition of India in 1947, when the Baloch were promised autonomy and briefly gained independence from August 1947 to March 1948, but were then forcibly incorporated into Pakistan.
Despite its mineral wealth, the Baloch have been intentionally kept underdeveloped by the Pakistan government, which has been a cause for sporadic uprisings, along with oppression and alleged killings by the Pakistani military.
Due to Pakistan’s support of radical Islamic groups, Balochistan is the primary hub for the Afghan Taliban and, similar to Taliban Afghanistan of the 1990s, it has become a magnet for international terrorist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS).
ISIS initiated major terrorist operations in Balochistan on August 8, 2016 when a suicide bomber killed 93 and wounded scores of others during an assault on the Civil Hospital in Quetta, Balochistan’s provincial capital. That attack was followed by two others, one on the Police Training Academy in Quetta, and the second on a Sufi shrine near Lasbela known as Shah Noorani. In these three attacks, over a four-month period, approximately 250 people were killed and more than 300 were injured.
Like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Taiba, ISIS views Balochistan as a safe haven and a fertile area for recruitment because, according to The Diplomat, Pakistan has set up a network of Islamic schools known as madrassas in Balochistan, which were:
established to counter Baloch nationalists who fought the original annexation of Balochistan into Pakistan and the non-secular government that they have had to live under. Most of those religious schools in remote areas of Balochistan are already under the control of jihadi networks, and are also recruiting people.
Pakistan has lost control of its radical Islamic surrogates and its strategy of supporting the Taliban and other Islamist elements lessens, not enhances its security.
The success of the ongoing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative that aims to connect Asia through land-based and maritime economic zones, depends on the stability of Balochistan because it provides a major section of the transportation route from China to the Arabian Sea and a deep water port at Gwadar.
It is an opportunity for the U.S. to exert leverage.
As noted by Julie Lenarz in her article “Balochistan: Oppressed in All Their Lands, Dreaming of a Secular State of Their Own”:
The West may find an important ally in the Baloch nationalist movement, whose dream of an independent, secular state converges with our goal of fighting religious fanaticism in the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalism, sectarianism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism are ideologies that have not yet taken root in Balochistan.
Pakistan has proven itself to be an unreliable ally in Afghanistan and in the battle against Islamic extremism. The time is long overdue for alternative courses of action. And as a bonus, U.S. support for Baloch nationalism, like Kurdish nationalism, will give Iran fits.