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Paramilitary Force Stirs Resentment in Restive Pakistani Province

A Pakistani Frontier Corps officer displays arms and explosive materials seized during an operation in Quetta. (file photo)

The Pakistani government views its large paramilitary force as the first line of defense against insurgents and criminals in the vast southwestern province of Balochistan, which reels from violence and crime that officials often link to neighboring Afghanistan and Iran.

But opposition politicians say the Frontier Corps (FC) is a reckless force that torments civilians. They maintain that the FC, which operates a network of check posts and fortresses across the province, often acts of its own accord while claiming substantial resources from the local civilian government.

“We demand that in order to restore civilian authority in Balochistan, the FC’s power should be granted to the civilian authorities,” said a joint declaration by Pakistan’s major opposition political parties on September 20. “All the obstacles [and check posts] created by the FC in each [Balochistan] district should be removed,” the statement added while alluding to the FC’s role in Balochistan’s 33 districts.

Lawmaker Nasrullah Zarey, a leader of the opposition Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party in Balochistan’s assembly, says the FC, which is a federal force, was first deployed in Balochistan with a counterterrorism mandate but is now involved in numerous shadowy practices.

“The FC is paid by the federal government, but it receives billions of rupees [in subsidies] annually from the provincial government,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Even then, the FC has set up numerous illegal check posts across the province.”

Citing a specific example of the FC’s overreach, Zarey says the force collects 500 Pakistani rupees or $3 on every ton of coal excavated from mines in Balochistan. “This totals 10 billion rupees [$60 million] annually,” he said, adding that FC check posts are notorious for racking in bribes from civilians from across the province.

The FC is part of the complex border security architecture that the British Empire left behind in South Asia. Divided into north and south components, the FC Balochistan comprises of tens of thousands of troops. While formally a part of the Interior Ministry in Islamabad, the Pakistani Army provides the FC’s officer corps. Most of its soldiers, however, are recruited from the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

After the emergence of a separatist insurgency by Baluch nationalists nearly two decades ago, the FC’s traditional role of antinarcotics and border security force expanded into counterinsurgency. Attacks by Islamist militants against the minority Shi’a in the provincial capital, Quetta, led Islamabad to additionally task the FC with policing. The region’s anemic police force, mostly limited to major cities and towns, compelled the government to rely on the FC for policing.

The Frontier Corps (FC) dug a 480-kilometre long ditch along the border with Afghanistan (file photo).
The Frontier Corps (FC) dug a 480-kilometre long ditch along the border with Afghanistan (file photo).

Senator Jehanzaib Jamaldini, a leader of the Balochistan Nationalist Party, says FC involvement creates public resentment. “From day one, we have been demanding the FC should only be deployed to secure the country’s borders,” he told Radio Mashaal. “The law enforcement organizations need to avoid controversies.”

The FC’s current role in Balochistan is partly the result of a directive by former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, who deployed the FC to Quetta after a sit-in protest by the Shi’ite Hazara minority community promoted Islamabad to sack the provincial government in early 2013. Successive provincial administrations have religiously renewed a quarterly directive extending the FC’s role.

Shahzada Zulfiqar, a senior journalist in Quetta, says the opposition’s complaints about the FC’s overreach are valid. But he sees no alternative to the force’s presence.

“The police were trained to deal with local crimes, so they were unable to combat terrorism,” he told Radio Mashaal. “The police need to be properly trained and equipped to turn into a robust force, which would justify the FC’s return to their barracks.”

Balochistan Interior Minister Mir Ziaullah Langu agrees. “For now, the FC is the only force trained for counterterrorism. Our [security] is not ready to take this role away from the FC,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Whenever our police are ready to shoulder these [counterterrorism] responsibilities, we will take such responsibilities back from the FC.”

Langu, however, supports the opposition’s demand to reduce the FC’s footprint in Balochistan. “After a review, we will soon reduce the number of FC check posts on major roads,” he said.

The controversy around the FC’s role in Balochistan, however, are unlikely to end soon.

Earlier this month Major General Sarfaraz Ali, inspector general for the FC in Balochistan, defended his organization’s conduct before lawmakers after an FC soldier allegedly killed a university student in August. Hayat Baloch was allegedly shot by an FC soldier in unprovoked attack on August 13 after a roadside bomb injured three FC soldiers in Turbat, a rural district in southern Balochistan. Baloch was reportedly working in his father’s date palm orchard at the time and was shot while being questioned by the FC.

“We have handed over the accused to the law,” Ali told a Senate panel on September 4. He termed Baloch’s killing a criminal act.