Pakistan: A Complicated Domestic Outlook

16 May 2017 Scott Young, Research Assistant, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • The increased presence and activity of Islamist terrorist organisations adds to the general instability in Balochistan. The tough approach to security taken by the authorities in the region has led to allegations of misconduct, including the deaths of prominent Baloch nationalist figures.
  • The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) remains one of Pakistan’s best hopes for long-term economic and energy prosperity, but could be undermined by terrorist activity.
  • Demographically, Pakistan has a disproportionately large youth population, many of whom are, in the absence of meaningful economic and educational opportunities, potentially vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups.
  • The Pakistani education system is characterised by substantial discrepancies between public and private schools and, outside the élite, needs to foster higher levels of educational attainment. It is currently unable to address the needs of the majority of Pakistani youth.


Since independence, Pakistan has endured many significant challenges. Despite recent positive economic and political progress, many of those still remain. Terrorist attacks continue to be an issue and remain one of the major threats to security and stability. The violence that is destabilising the province of Balochistan is a major concern because it could undermine progress on the much-touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that is vital to Pakistan’s economic and energy futures. At the social level, the discrepancies between the public and private education systems also undermine domestic stability. Addressing those inequalities to produce a higher standard of education will help to remedy some of the problems encountered by the country’s youth.


Balochistan Separatist Movements

Since independence in 1947, Balochistan and the Pakistani state have experienced a complex, often bitter, relationship, with a strongly-held belief among many Balochis that their country was forcibly annexed by Pakistan. Since then, there have been six major conflicts between Balochi separatists and the army. The presence of jihadist terrorist groups adds to a fraught situation.

On 24 October 2016, three suicide bombs were detonated in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, killing at least 60 people. This was followed by an earlier attack, on 8 August, on a hospital that killed 74 people. In both cases, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and its affiliates claimed responsibility, adding its presence to the plethora of militant Islamist groups operating in Balochistan. It has been alleged that the authorities have tacitly supported Islamist groups in an attempt to counter the threat posed to the state by Baloch separatist movements. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a Pakistani military operation charged with eradicating al-Qaeda and similar organisations operating in neighbouring North Waziristan, is believed to have helped push the groups into Balochistan.

The presence of Islamist militants adds further complexity to the groups already operating in Balochistan. Baloch separatist and nationalist groups have been campaigning against the army and government since independence. There are at least seven main separatist groups currently operating in the region. Baloch separatists predominantly target non-Baloch entities, including civilian workers, and infrastructure projects. The most active is reportedly the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), which is allegedly connected to the Baloch Republican Party, a political party headed by controversial leader, Brahamdagh Bugti. Most notably, the BRA claimed responsibility for the attack on the Ziarat Residency, where Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of independent Pakistan, spent his final days. The attack was both highly symbolic and a clear demonstration by the BRA of its grievance at the incorporation of Balochistan into the state of Pakistan. The group was also responsible for an attack on an electric power grid that left approximately 140 million civilians without power. Another prominent group is the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLM). The BLM was responsible for an attack on 20 labourers working in Turbat, an area that is along the route of the highway being constructed between Gwadar Port and mainland China. The labourers were allegedly associated with the Frontier Works Organization, a group connected to the Pakistani Army.

Security in Balochistan

In an effort to restore order and stability to a highly volatile region, the Pakistani Government and Army have initiated and carried out a number of security policies and operations. The operations have been controversial, however, as allegations have surfaced over the draconian use of force, including the targeting of prominent figures within the Baloch nationalist movement. In 2006, for instance, an Army operation in the rugged, mountainous region of Dera Bugti and Sui led to the death of renowned Baloch nationalist and leader of the Bugti tribe, Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti. Bugti’s death was seen as a grave injustice and led to days of violent protest in Quetta. In 2011, Human Rights Watch published a report alleging ‘45 alleged cases of enforced disappearances, the majority in 2009 and 2010.’ An Islamabad court ruled that law enforcement officers were involved in multiple cases of forced disappearances. Such examples have raised concerns about the approach of the authorities to security in Balochistan. The death of Bugti, and other alleged incidences of officially-sanctioned disappearances, has heightened the divide between the government and the Balochi people. Reconciling these differences is crucial, not only for the long-term stability of the region but to ensure that the progress of Pakistan’s flagship economic project, the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC), continues without delay. CPEC is not only vital to the Pakistani economy but also to reassuring the global community that Pakistan is a safe investment destination.

CPEC: The China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor

CPEC links Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and China’s western Xinjiang region. China, Pakistan’s “all-weather friend”, has made huge investments in the project. For China, the project is part of its “One Belt, One Road” strategic initiative designed to link Asia, Europe and Africa through improved road, rail, energy and economic infrastructure. Additionally, Chinese investment in Pakistan is part of Beijing’s overall efforts to reduce the dependence of China on potentially vulnerable maritime choke points: its so-called “Malacca dilemma”. Pakistan is approximately 4,500 megawatts short of electricity supply, which often leads to frequent power outages and blackouts. In general, CPEC represents a welcome and promising development for Pakistan but is undermined by the ongoing instability in the areas through which it passes. Between 2007 and 2014, there were approximately 1,400 terrorist attacks in Balochistan, with 23 per cent of those confined to six districts, including Kech, a hotspot for Baloch insurgency groups, through which the western branch of the CPEC route passes. In an effort to curb the violence and protect the CPEC construction works and workers, Pakistan has deployed around 10,000 security personnel. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will be enough to stabilise the region and convince China that its US$64 billion investment is adequately protected.

Indian Involvement in Balochistan

Pakistan has often attributed ongoing instability and delays with CPEC and, more broadly, the region as a whole, to Indian funding and support for Baloch separatist groups. Historically, separatist groups operating in Balochistan have been linked to both Afghanistan and India. In the 1970s, it was alleged that militant training camps were established in Afghanistan to train Baloch separatists. Recent Afghan governments, however, have sought to downplay and reassure the Pakistani Government that is no longer the case, but it is alleged that India has continued to fund and train separatist groups from its embassy in Kabul. Brahamdagh Bugti, the current head of the Baloch Government and son of the famous Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti, has indicated his desire to seek asylum in India. For Pakistan, Brahamdagh Bugti’s overture to India has similarities to the process that led to the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. In this context, official rhetoric from New Delhi has confirmed Pakistani suspicions of India’s efforts to fuel support for Baloch independence. During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech, for instance, Modi spoke of atrocities allegedly committed by Pakistan in both Kashmir and Balochistan. Such rhetoric, while not a departure from the traditional Indian stance over alleged Pakistani misconduct, does, from Islamabad’s perspective , indicate a proactive and renewed Indian interest in Baloch affairs. That interest is, however, understandable from an Indian perspective. For one, CPEC has the potential to strengthen Pakistan economically and, perhaps, to embolden it politically, something that is always of concern to India. Second, CPEC travels through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, territory that is also claimed by India. Third, India has raised concerns over the possible use of Gwadar Port as a strategic hub for the Chinese Navy. An unstable Balochistan is, therefore, geopolitically useful to India because it undermines both, the Pakistani state as a unified entity and its co-operation with China. Usefully, it also disrupts Chinese efforts to avoid the “Malacca Dilemma”.

“Youth Bulge” Demographics

CPEC is vital, not only for the Pakistani economy and to meet domestic energy needs, but also as a source of job creation for the country’s youth. According to United Nations world population projection profiles, 54.9 per cent of Pakistan’s population is aged 24 years or under. With such a substantial percentage of the population under the age of 24, combined with poor socio-economic performance, countries with a “youth bulge” and poor socio-economic performance are prone to conflict. Active recruitment by extremists coupled with a disproportionately large youth population increases the threat of young people joining groups such as IS. This does not necessarily suggest that large numbers of Pakistani youth will become jihadists or terrorists, but a large and potentially disaffected youth population with few or no prospects does, however, make their recruitment a much easier task for extremists. If the normal avenues for individual advancement and prosperity are unobtainable, that legitimate grievance becomes easy for radical groups to exploit. One such example is the issue of equitable access to education, which is a root cause of socio-economic polarisation.

Educational Access, Attainment and Performance

Many of the grievances of Pakistani youth can be attributed to the country’s education system and the overall low levels of educational attainment that it produces. An examination of Pakistan’s education system does not paint a positive picture. A report published in 2015 in response to the call from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for member states to assess their progress on education, found that the school system in Pakistan perpetuates inequalities and ‘economic stratifications’. The existence of two parallel systems of public and private schooling, the report finds, are among the root causes of social polarisation and conflict in society. Public schools, for instance, generally provide a poor level of education in comparison to private providers. Public schools mainly cater for poor, underprivileged children residing in rural or semi-rural areas and are characterised by a ‘poor quality of education due to lack of physical facilities, shortage or absence of teachers, and non-availability of suitable learning materials.’ Private schools, in comparison, provide a much higher standard of education but, because of the high cost, are only available to a privileged élite. As a consequence, many Pakistani students do not receive a quality education and, as such, are significantly disadvantaged in comparison to their privately-educated peers.


Pakistan has, and is likely to continue to face, a number of challenges that undermine its domestic stability. The bitter and protracted conflict that has been unfolding in Balochistan since independence will likely continue unless a compromise between the government and the Balochi people can be reached. That may require a fundamental rethinking of the approach to maintaining peace and stability in the troubled region that has been taken by the authorities. The increased activity and possible presence of IS and its affiliates in the region presents an additional challenge that will demand more resources to combat. Attempting to resolve Balochi grievances should, therefore, be a priority. It should be undertaken in tandem with broader efforts to address the security situation in the province because stabilising Balochistan will be necessary if Pakistan is to reap the full economic and energy benefits of the CPEC project. There is a major concern, however, about terrorist activity undermining the long term viability of CPEC.

Maintaining the viability of CPEC is vital to ensuring that Pakistan’s youth population will have access to employment opportunities. Socio-economic opportunities are important to give the country’s youth viable and reliable avenues to participate in the industrial, economic, agricultural and infrastructural opportunities that can flow from CPEC. Providing greater economic opportunities and addressing the public-private disparities in the education system will also give the government added legitimacy and reduce the attractiveness of extremism to disadvantaged youth. It is unlikely that it will entirely solve the broader issue of extremist violence, as some individuals will always be drawn towards that circumstance, but could go a long way towards alleviating grievances and reducing its attractiveness.



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