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Pakistan's Baluch Separatists Losing Their Afghan Sanctuary

Family members of alleged Baluch separatists protest against forced disappearances in Karachi, Pakistan, on February 2.

For years Afghanistan was seen as place of refuge for Baluch separatists seeking to evade Islamabad's crackdown on their homeland in Pakistan. But following the return of the Islamist Taliban to power in Kabul, members of the secular groups fear they have lost their sanctuary.

Some appear to have crossed the border and resumed their fight in Muslim-majority Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan, where attacks on security forces have risen dramatically in recent weeks. Others are believed to have moved to Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan Province. But for those who remain in Afghanistan, fears of persecution are on the rise.

On January 22, unknown assailants in Kabul killed Abdul Razzaq Baloch, a refugee who fled with thousands of other ethnic Baluch activists after a dispute in 2004 over natural resources erupted into open fighting between Islamabad and Baluch separatists.

Members of the Baluch minority in Kunduz Province. Many Baluch who were accused of being separatists fled Pakistan and found refuge in Afghanistan.
Members of the Baluch minority in Kunduz Province. Many Baluch who were accused of being separatists fled Pakistan and found refuge in Afghanistan.

The killing is seen as part of a string of attacks and arrests of Baluch activists and militants who supported the two-decade insurgency in the region bordering Afghanistan and Iran.

"The [Baluch] refugees I have talked to are in hiding and desperately to look for an escape," Kiyya Baloch, an exiled journalist who tracks violence in Balochistan, told RFE/RL. "Definitely, concerns about the safety of the Baluch are increasing."

While Afghanistan suffers from an image as a war-torn country whose people are sometimes forced to flee to neighboring countries to escape conflict. But for some -- such as rebels from Pakistan, Iran, and China -- Afghanistan proved to be a safe haven.

Baluch activists became the largest group taking shelter in Afghanistan after the killing in Pakistan of Nawab Akbar Bugti, an elderly Baluch politician, in August 2006. They followed in the footsteps of an earlier generation who escaped into southern Afghanistan after fighting a bloody insurgency against Islamabad in the 1970s.

Many members of the Taliban took the opposite path, basing themselves in Balochistan following the arrival of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001. With the Taliban's return to power in Kabul in August, many of the Baluch activists and militants remaining in Afghanistan have gone into hiding.

"After the Taliban seized power, Pakistan has been freely chasing Baluch refugees with the help of the Taliban," Sidra Baloch, an exiled activist and friend of Abdul Razzaq Baloch, alleged in comments to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

No one has claimed responsibility for Baloch's killing and the Taliban and the authorities in Islamabad have been reluctant to comment, but the hard-line Islamist group's historically close ties to the Pakistani military have raised suspicions of possible collusion.

To be sure, Baluch exiles also came under fire in the two decades before the Taliban's return.

Baluch fighters at a camp southeast of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province. (file photo)
Baluch fighters at a camp southeast of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province. (file photo)

Supporters of Aslam Baloch, a top military commander of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) who was assassinated in a suicide attack in Afghanistan in December 2018, have accused Islamabad of involvement. He was targeted soon after the BLA claimed responsibility for an attack on the Chinese consulate in the southern seaport city of Karachi in November 2017.

In another case, Brahumdagh Bugti, the grandson of the late nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, was targeted by suicide attacks in Afghanistan before his escape to Switzerland in 2011.

Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Islamabad frequently accused Kabul of conspiring with archrival India to support Baluch separatists. And Pakistani authorities today appear to approve of any steps taken by the Taliban to contain a group it considers to be terrorist, according to Pakistani media.

In October, the Taliban reportedly arrested eight Baluch refugees in Nimroz. Exiled Baluch separatist activists said they were accused of being connected with the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K).

Radio Azadi contacted several Taliban spokesmen to seek comment about the arrests and reports of increased pressure against Baluch nationalists, but received no response.

In a television interview, Mufti Abdul Hakim, a Taliban official, alluded to the issue.

"The Pakistani security establishment targets opponents, particularly nationalists in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces," he told the private Tolo News television station, pointing to the two Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan. "But they blame Afghans for them to signal to the international community that the Afghans are terrorists."

There are indications that some members of the Baluch exodus from Afghanistan might have bolstered the Baluch insurgency in Pakistan.

“Most of the Baloch 'terrorists' fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover," the Express Tribune, a Pakistani daily, recently quoted an unidentified Pakistani official as saying.

In the past few weeks, Pakistani security forces have suffered mounting losses due to increased attacks by Baluch fighters. Scores of militants and soldiers were killed in two separate attacks on military bases on February 3.

"We have been fighting against them for 20 years and they have received support from Afghanistan," Balochistan Home Minister Mir Zia Langove alleged in comments to journalists on February 3, adding that Baluch communities had also been supported by Tehran.

Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai told RFE/RL that as Taliban influence rose in Afghanistan in recent years, Baluch militants and their supporters lost whatever support they had. With the Taliban in power, he said, remaining fighters and refugees must rely on ties with Baluch communities in Pakistan and Iran.

Security personnel stand by the checkpost destroyed in overnight attacks by militants in the Nauski district of Balochistan Province on February 3.
Security personnel stand by the checkpost destroyed in overnight attacks by militants in the Nauski district of Balochistan Province on February 3.

Prior to the Taliban's return, the Baluch separatists were considered the largest exiled community in Afghanistan. The country's indigenous Baluch population is about 200,000 strong. They are concentrated in the southern Afghan province of Nimroz and nearby parts of Helmand, Kandahar, and Farah provinces. They make up a small part of Afghanistan's cultural mosaic and population of 39 million, and have a complicated history in the country.

Members of Marri, a prominent Baluch tribe, fled into southern Afghanistan during a five-year insurgency by the Baloch People Liberation Front, a Marxist guerrilla organization, against Pakistan in the 1970s. However, most of them returned to Pakistan after the Islamabad-allied Afghan mujahedin attacked them following the collapse of Afghanistan's pro-Soviet socialist government in 1992.

"The situation appears to be less bloody for the Baluch this time around, but it looks increasingly difficult for Baluch dissidents to continue living in Afghanistan," Kiyya Baloch said.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also the author of the weekly Gandhara Briefing newsletter, which features some of best reporting and analysis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.