Balochistan continues to slide into violence. There is a sound strategy for the government of Pakistan to follow, but it's not an easy one.
Appeasement and containment are key in Balochistan
The cycle of violence continues in Pakistan's restive Balochistan province, the strategically located area bordering Iran and Afghanistan, as separatists and extremists engage in an unceasing killing spree.
At least 28 people were killed at the end of last month, and over 70 injured, in a suicide attack on the Hazara Shiite community in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan. The incident happened two weeks after twin suicide attacks rocked Quetta on June 15.
A further attack struck the Quaid-e-Azam residency in Ziarat, 120km from Quetta, on that same June day. There, Baloch separatists destroyed the monument marking the place where Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, spent his last days, in 1948.
At least 300 people have lost their lives in 73 bomb blasts in the province this year.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned sectarian group, claimed responsibility for the June 15 blasts, while the outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) took responsibility for the attack on Ziarat residency.
Shiite Hazaras were the specific target of LeJ, which is Sunni. This terrorised community has lost hope in civilian administrations and its leaders have been demanding that Quetta be put under army control.
These incidents raise concerns about the operational capacity of terrorists in Balochistan, where the newly elected Dr Abdul Malik Baloch took office last month. The province's new chief minister is expected to step up efforts to bring militants to the negotiating table.
But Balochistan's crisis needs to be seen in both local and geopolitical perspective. The province is facing an insurgency backed by separatists, who are operating under different names including BLA, Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and Baloch Liberation Front (BLF).
These groups are demanding full independence; they do not want the province to remain a part of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Baloch nationalists have been struggling to obtain for their people the economic and political rights that are enshrined in the country's constitution.
The main nationalist parties boycotted the 2008 elections in protest against the military handling of the Balochistan problem. Pakistan's least-developed province has paid heavy political, economic and human costs for the continuing military operation against the separatists, launched in December 2005 when Gen Pervez Musharraf ruled the country.
The province has slid deeper into violence over the past five years. Targeted killings on ethnic lines are a prime tactic for the separatists.
But this anger is not one-sided. Even the security establishment battling to quell the insurgency seems frustrated. Pakistan's military forces and its political leadership are not on the same page in their response to the Balochistan conundrum.
Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister, is keen to hold talks with the insurgents, but the military wants to continue its operation against them. Killings of Baloch youth amply indicate the latter's intention to resolve the issue by force. A civil-military tussle over handling of the issue is likely to further complicate things in the province.
The province has witnessed four previous insurgencies - in 1948, 1958, 1962 and 1973. But this continuing fifth insurgency, and growing sectarian violence associated with it, have significant geopolitical implications.
The province's strategic location makes it essential to the future of the pipeline from energy-rich Iran, Central Asia and the Middle East to energy-hungry south-east and west Asia. Unrest in the province may have a strong connection with the regional politics currently at play.
Islamabad and Tehran finally began construction of the $7.6 billion Iran-Pakistan pipeline earlier this year, but security is the biggest challenge to the success of the project, most of the length of which will traverse the volatile Balochistan.
This will have an effect on the security situation in the province: key actors will certainly battle to maintain peace and stability, so that the pipeline can be exploited. Non-state actors, on the other hand, can be expected to try to destabilise the province; there may be an element of proxy war in this.
LeJ and Jundallah, two main anti-Shiite militant groups, have emerged as the destabilising forces posing a threat to construction of the pipeline. Jundallah, in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan, along with LeJ in Balochistan, have been involved in launching deadly attacks on Shiites in the province.
These groups, with their violent activities, could become a source of diplomatic tension between Iran and Pakistan. Both are allied with the Pakistani Taliban, which recently claimed responsibility for killing foreign tourists in the country's north.
What the government needs to do first is to divide the opposition, splitting the separatists from the nationalists. The nationalists should be fully backed, to weaken public support for the more militant separatist groups.
In other words, the government needs to follow a policy of appeasement towards nationalists while working to contain the separatists.
It must address the genuine grievances of nationalists fighting for the rights of the neglected Baloch people, while using an iron hand in its dealings with the separatists and Islamist extremists.
But this two-pronged strategy will fail if it not fully backed by both the political leadership and the military establishment.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan