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Gandhara Podcast: The Gathering IS Storm In Balochistan

Pakistani security officials examine the site of a powerful explosion in Mastung district, east of provincial capital Quetta, in the southwestern province of Balochistan in May.
Pakistani security officials examine the site of a powerful explosion in Mastung district, east of provincial capital Quetta, in the southwestern province of Balochistan in May.

Balochistan, a vast region straddling the Iranian Plateau in southwestern Pakistan, southeastern Iran, and southern Afghanistan, has for decades been a crossroads of complex insurgencies and regional rivalries.

Yet it remains below the international radar even as some of these rivalries now threaten to turn Balochistan into new conflicts that will threaten both regional and global peace and stability.

It’s not possible to grasp the issues of geopolitics, energy security, regional rivalry, terrorism, nation-building, and diplomacy in South Central Asia and the Gulf without understanding the complexities of resource-rich Balochistan, where most communities still live in grinding poverty and oppression.

Listing a few of the current conflicts in the region underscores the enormity of the challenges ahead.

Since the early 2000s, Pakistan has been trying to suppress a Baloch nationalist rebellion that turned into a separatist cause in Balochistan, which makes up nearly half of the country’s territory but is home to 5 percent of its estimated 200 million people.

While fighting the secular separatists, Islamabad is often criticized for hosting or tolerating a range of Islamist militant groups in Balochistan. While the Afghan Taliban have enjoyed a safe haven in northern Balochistan’s Pashtun-populated districts, the Islamic State militants (IS) have emerged in the southern Baloch-populated regions of the province. Islamabad is grudgingly moving to counter some of these elements, but the fault lines of Balochistan’s conflict remain unchanged.

All of these are magnified by several new endeavors to transform the region. In recent years, China has focused on turning the region into a lynchpin of its grand strategy to revive the ancient Silk Road to project its power as a leading global economic and military player. As Baloch separatists target projects in the Beijing-funded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Islamabad’s crackdown on dissent in the region is expected to worsen.

India is now employing the Balochistan conflict in its rivalry with Pakistan. After accusing Islamabad of sponsoring unrest in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir for decades, New Delhi is now keen to highlight alleged Pakistani atrocities in Balochistan while offering asylum and support to Baloch separatists.

The emergence of IS in Balochistan has major implications for neighboring Iran, which recently suffered attacks claimed by IS in its capital, Tehran.

The southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan has been the scene of attacks by hard-line Sunni militants for more than a decade. The attack in Tehran raised the prospects of the region turning into another arena for devastating sectarian struggles in the Middle East, often bankrolled and orchestrated by the Sunni and Shi’ite regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

To untangle the complexities of Balochistan, we turned to an all-star panel. Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur, a longtime Baloch activist and writer, joined us from the southern Pakistani city of Hyderabad. Former Pakistani lawmaker and public intellectual Afrasiab Khattak participated in the discussion from Islamabad.

Kamran Bokhari, political director and senior anti-extremism fellow at the Center For Global Policy, a think tank in Washington, shared his perspectives. I contributed from Prague, and as usual RFE/RL Media Manager Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion from Washington.

Listen to or download the Gandhara Podcast:

Gandhara Podcast: The Gathering IS Storm In Balochistan
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The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.