Sunday November 28, 2021

Security strategy for Balochistan should be rebooted

June 25, 2021

"Hybrid warfare is the tool and technique of the 21st Century: a mixture of conventional and non-conventional means, considered to be more varied and covert than conventional warfare wherein the international community does not yet have the corresponding rules to restrict or regulate it", said Russian Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov (Denisov) in an interview with Global Times.

This hybrid war is being waged in Balochistan, claiming lives and creating a sense of instability at a time when the second phase of CPEC has been inaugurated in the province – economic zone and Gawadar Port are being operationalized. In the backdrop of recent terrorist incidents in Balochistan, involving incessant attacks on paramilitary security personnel and targeting the general public through suicide bombings and IEDs, the facets of hybrid warfare have made world headlines.

The national and international media only quantify the occurrence of terrorist attacks but the situation is far more complex than depicted.

Understanding the nature and form of terrorism in Balochistan demands a deeper insight into the multi-layered landscape of local militancy with its strands now transcending the local/ traditional reasons and motives: it is no longer a simple one-dimensional insurgency as described by the oriental press and more simply clubbed as TTP Lashkar-e- Jhangvi chapter, BLA, BLF, etc (in layman's parlance). The present array of militants is an all-encompassing body whose constituents span around the entire spectrum of militants: sectarian/ religious, ethnic nationalists/separatists, and right-wing to left-wing insurgents with their passive ideological supporters with the explicit objective to undermine the peace of the province to build a perception of a perennially unstable Pakistan for the explicit strategic objective of sabotaging the CPEC. Some of them are still making a stand and appear to have conjoined to expand into a more diversified threat.

Why have these incidents risen in recent weeks? Is the TTP reorganizing (as many outside media outlets make us believe) or is the increasing frequency of renewed terrorist attacks the function of laxed Kinetic strategy?

Balochistan is in the neighborhood of dozens of countries: the conspicuous neighbors are Iran, Afghanistan, and locked adversary, India – though not directly linked through the shared border with Balochistan but is a "resident" neighbour in Afghanistan, Iran (eg, through Chabahar), and in the Arabian Sea; the unobvious neighbors, however, are over three dozen countries of NATO in Afghanistan that may not be geographical close by but have a nuanced understanding of geopolitics and are also its successful practitioners. Considering rightfully to be the stakeholders of this cauldron, these stakeholders realize very well the potential of Balochistan to become the springboard in the larger context of China's over-the horizon-energy security supply chain, even if Balochistan does not fall directly in their zone of interests.

Thus the local drivers and actors of the militant landscape form handy leverage in achieving the strategic goals of foreign amplifiers constituting as pillars of hybrid warfare. Their goals are pushing Balochistan into a direction of chaos and instability preempting its march towards development, connectivity, and becoming the economic hub of the region.

Tactically, the techniques of the terrorists may not have substantially changed. Their selection of targets follows the usual paradigm of hitting LEAs, destroying government buildings of particular interest, and hunting high-value individuals. They prepare for single attacks taking months and months in raising finances (ie, with the help of their powerful sponsors who have stored huge Pakistani currency sitting in Kandhar and operating from it as an HQ for strategic planning and execution of terrorism project in Balochistan) recruiting, training, launching and deploying foot soldiers employing sophisticated narrative and propaganda tools like using social media; and coordinating the entire effort from trans-frontier command posts. However, if one looks at the efficacy of these terrorist attacks rather than the frequency of these incidents, we may observe the strategy of the LEAs.

Their strategy seems to be three-pronged: kinetic, social/economic/development, and narrative building. No narrative can be coherent, convincing, and accepted if LEAs fail to overwhelm the enemy and reestablish a monopoly over violence. In other words, the narrative can work if a kinetic prong is successful. Similarly, social prong can produce results if kinetically the LEAs are winning or seen to be winning. For example, if the government makes a school and LEAs cannot protect the students; Nani Ziarat though not developed, was an arena of international car rallies – in other words, was secured if not developed but when development went into, it became the target of terrorist attacks and security declined, so public trust as a tourist resort also saw a dip: a case study of how relations between development and security are intertwined.

It is in this context that a smart application of kinetic prong based towards overwhelming force will help narrative building and boost economic/social development direction [Note: the overwhelming force in simple terms being the combination of intelligence gathering and aggressive application of force against terrorists].

Against this backdrop, where did things go astray in the province given the rise in terrorism incidents?

The first wake-up call was the first-ever penetration and attack by the TTP inside Loralai Cantonment in Jan 2019, marking the resurgence of the TTP. Then these incidents spread all over Balochistan: an attack was carried out against Gawadar PC Hotel; Boozisar Pass was ambushed twice in the same area; a senior commander of paramilitary forces was ambushed in Panjgur; then several incidents involving running over of check-posts and abandoning of posts occurred without fighting.

In the example of Bibi Nani Tourist Resort – millions of rupees were spent on its development – repeated terrorist attacks in the area made the resort least attractive.

Another attack on Quetta Serena Hotel was a spectacular terrorist incident for many reasons: it targeted the Chinese ambassador pulling a massive worldwide publicity coup; it entailed gross intelligence failure – the attacker must have passed through many watchful eyes remaining undetected and later must have cleared the poorly manned security post of the hotel when the attack happened in the car compound. Incidents like these give terrorists a massive opportunity to recruit which they normally struggle with after the loss of foot soldier(s). The case is, otherwise, with the state which can fill in the vacuum promptly if it loses men to terrorism.

The other focus of the LEAs in Balochistan has been on smugglers, thieves, and drug traffickers who are not the primary threat, compared to terrorism. Yes, big-level smuggling, drug trafficking, and ransom for money are contributing factors for terrorist financing but the best way is that they should be disrupted when they cross over a thousand eyes, hence the need for strengthening the intelligence gathering, assumes critical value. From the kinetic strategy perspective, they are not primary threats per se hence should be treated as such.

Since the paramilitary force is the primary leading effort in CT in Balochistan, it obliges the army to share input in strategy, implementation, and resources domains. A very competent Commander of 12th Corps, Gen Sarfaraz Ali is presently in charge who boasts a formidable experience in CT and by way of his earlier combat exposure as a commander in the same area enjoys the trust of the army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa. The army chief quite recently was comprehensively apprised of the strategic security situation of the province by the same commander of the area on the sidelines of his visit to the Command and Staff College.

The top leadership of the LEAs held marathon huddles to evaluate the emerging security challenges and cared to carve a befitting response to stem the tide by changing the present posturing of defensive stability to a new strategy of the proportionate kinetic surge.

It comes on the heels of three lessons learned over years in tackling CT flagged as under: Do not sidestep, focus on terrorism – not smuggling and thieves and drug trafficking per se – in Balochistan's context. Smart use of overwhelming force which is "blind elephant" and as such should be employed by the matrix of quality intelligence only. To get the sequencing right, a non-kinetic approach should run parallel to massive kinetic operations done ruthlessly all over regardless of who the terrorists are. Kinetic, development, and narrative prongs should go hand in hand with the explicit goal of isolating terrorists, politically, socially, and financially.

Balochistan has come a long way since the days of well-entrenched networks of terrorism when it peaked in 2009, 2010. The ethnic and sectarian militants are in their last throes regardless of the propaganda they generate after a terrorist attack. The publicity that the recent incidents gained should not overblow the magnitude of the issue of terrorism in Balochistan.

Nevertheless, given Gawadar Port and the CPEC flourishing, regional practitioners of the geopolitical contest will likely continue to sustain militancy in Balochistan in some form and shape.

(The writer is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Centre for the Institute of New Horizons & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai)