Narendra Modi made headlines on Monday by bringing up Balochistan in his Independence Day address from the Red Fort.
Given what we know about proxy war in South Asia, I’m skeptical that Modi using Balochistan as a “pressure point” will have much of an effect – and it may be even be counterproductive. First, though it lets him score a few rhetorical points, rhetorical points matter very little when push comes to shove. The Pakistan Army isn’t going to change anything because Indian diplomats start mentioning Balochistan, just as the Indian security establishment hasn’t magically shifted policy every time Pakistan brings up Kashmir; if anything, quite the opposite.
Second, Pakistan will now ever more aggressively claim that India is supporting the Baloch insurgency, providing domestic political cover for an extremely brutal, largely hidden COIN campaign. It provides a huge boost to the previously low-credibility Pakistani campaign to link India to Balochistan; this is a PR gift to ISPR.
Third, if Modi talks a big game but doesn’t follow through, Baloch insurgents who may have hoped for Indian support get hung out to dry. And if the Army weakens, breaks, or co-opts the Baloch insurgency in the years to come, that’s now a clear, public win for Pakistan over India, whether India was even playing the game for real or not. This seems like by far the most likely outcome: Indian hawks pat themselves on the back for finally getting tough but nothing actually happens, and so Balochistan chugs along as a low-level insurgency that the army is able to simultaneously contain and frame as a case of Indian subversion.
Fourth, let’s say India does in fact get a proxy war going: pumping guns and money into Balochistan to seriously up the ante. The history from the region isn’t very promising. Pakistan has bled India badly in Punjab and Kashmir, but that led India to dig in, not concede. Indian support for Tamil militants forced the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 but ended up blowing up in India’s face with the IPKF war, while fueling the anti-Indian JVP revolt. Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, and Burma have all mucked around in India’s Northeast, but with little geostrategic consequence beyond a nuisance. The Chinese pushed the CPB in Burma with real fervor in the late 1960s and early 1970s but even their massive support couldn’t punch through tatmadaw defenses. The Thais built a buffer along the Burma border but weren’t using support for the KNU and others as a form of coercive diplomacy to extract policy changes.
The big proxy victories were 1) India severing Bangladesh from Pakistan, but that involved the rather large conventional war of 1971 and 2) Pakistani backing for the mujahideen in Afghanistan to impel Soviet withdrawal (its backing for the Taliban was a brute force war of conquest, not coercing a foreign regime). And that was a long, brutal, and complex campaign far beyond anything India has shown any interest in pursuing. The record of proxy wars actually leading to substantial desired policy changes is not encouraging.
Balochistan is a particularly tricky place to play this game: on the wrong side of Pakistan from India, with a Pakistani security apparatus resolved to absorb further costs and a conflict with a peripheral role in Pakistani politics that isolates both elites and masses from the war’s costs. Making Pakistan bleed through Balochistan enough to drive policy change, whether on Kashmir, cross-border terrorism, or anything else, will be a very tall order. If India is serious, it will need to commit to sustained munitions and funding for Baloch militants, support strikes in urban centers, and turn Indian infrastructure in Afghanistan into a conveyor belt for war; an extra few IED hits on convoys in the middle of nowhere won’t accomplish anything. Right now Pakistan owns the escalation ladder in Balochistan – just as India owns the escalation ladder in its own COIN campaigns – and it will take a lot to change that.