The Pakistan Army announced last week that it had arrested Baloch militant leader Gulzar Imam alias Shambay, the founder of the Baloch National Army (BNA), a Baloch ethnonationalist militant group fighting against the Pakistani state.
For years, Imam was the operational head of Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), a group that helped unify Baloch separatist groups in Balochistan. In this role, he was not only responsible for the group’s financial operations but also dealt with international insurgent sponsors. Imam is also said to have played a leading role in directing militant activities in the south Balochistan region for years. As a result of his arrest, the insurgency is likely to suffer a significant blow.
In a statement, the military’s media wing described his arrest as a major counterterrorism success. “The arrest of Gulzar Imam Shambay is a serious blow to BNA and other militant groups, which have been attempting to destabilize the hard-earned peace in Balochistan,” the army said. It didn’t reveal where Imam was arrested. However, it disclosed that he “was apprehended after an innovatively conceived, carefully planned and meticulously executed operation, spanning over months at various geographical locations.”
The arrest has been hailed as a major operational success for Pakistan’s Army and intelligence agencies. The development is seemingly so important that it was discussed in the recently held meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC), which also decided to launch an “all-out comprehensive operation” against militants across the country. Separately, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif congratulated the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that steered the operation, saying that it “speaks of outstanding professionalism of our institutions.” The premier further said that Imam’s detention would help crush militancy in Balochistan and “usher in a new era of peace.”
This is the first time a Baloch militant commander of Imam’s prominence has been apprehended alive. In the past, military operations resulted in Baloch militant leaders and commanders dying in clashes with security agencies. There are not many cases when law enforcement agencies were able to successfully carry out an intelligence operation in multiple geographical locations or countries to detain a leader who is at the center of Baloch militant networks and attacks across the county.
An official told The Diplomat on condition of anonymity that the operation led to numerous arrests of other Baloch militants and helped bust the group’s networks in the province. Moreover, his arrest, as per officials, aided the security agencies in developing insight into Baloch militant operations, including methods being used to draw new recruits.
Imam’s arrest is also important as it will help Pakistan rebuild China’s trust in its ability to address its security concerns in Balochistan, particularly the protection of Chinese citizens working on projects in the province and beyond. Imam’s group was most active in the Makran division of the province, which is strategically important to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and includes the port city of Gwadar as well.
Additionally, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) recently recruited Baloch militant groups from the Makran division. The arrest may have weakened Baloch militant groups in this division, a change that would cripple the insurgency and its infrastructure in the region. “Peace in the Makran division would lead to peace in the strategically important Gwadar region,” said the official.
However, it is pertinent to mention that militants like Imam draw their strength from exploiting ethnic and political grievances among locals. It is widely understood in Pakistan that Baloch people have legitimate political and economic demands which need to be addressed by the province’s leadership and the state to achieve sustainable peace in the province.
In their decades-long militant campaign, Baloch rebels have failed to achieve their political objectives. Besides, it was counterproductive as it weakened the Baloch people’s legitimate concerns, which will have to be resolved via dialogue.
In the past, Pakistan has offered talks to Baloch groups on numerous occasions but these calls fell on deaf ears as several Baloch leaders with vested interests exploited the province’s youth and kept them wedded to arms instead of channeling their efforts via peaceful methods to draw the state’s attention towards their needs and rights.
The state too has done little to address the Baloch people’s concerns. It is because of the deep distrust between the two sides that even the ruling political class of the province, which should have been a conduit for Baloch grievances to reach Islamabad’s decision-makers, is viewed with suspicion.
Going forward, the Pakistani state will need to do more to change the impression that it is hostile toward the Baloch people. The key to any such effort will be to build stakes for the province’s youth in peace rather than violence.
Furthermore, a strong governance structure can make a significant difference in ending the influence of Baloch militant groups in the province. Lastly, unless the province’s key stakeholders are united that dialogue and engagement are the only way forward in the wake of Imam’s arrest, the arrest cannot be a game changer for the province and Pakistan.