Insurgents in the Mountains: Arms of Baloch Separatists
Whilst the various armed conflicts of militant and separatist groups across the Middle East and South East Asia are widely covered in multiple languages, in particular the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, multiple smaller conflicts are ongoing.
One of these is the ongoing efforts of multiple armed groups in Iran, Pakistan and to a degree Afghanistan to achieve national independence for the region of Balochistan, in a manner deemed superficially similar by some to the efforts of various Kurdish armed groups to achieve statehood. Whilst these do differ, like many broad nationalist movements, groups are fragmented and offer differ in desired end goals- as an example, Jaish ul-Adl and Ansar Al-Furqan claim the mantle of Baloch nationalism but are also hardline Sunni organisations that are believed by many to maintain links to Al Qaeda.
These are not the subject of this article, but rather armed separatists operating in Pakistani Balochistan- namely the broad grouping of multiple organisations, of which a large splinter of the BLA (Balochistan Liberation Army) and BLF (Baloch Liberation Front) are the most significant, as well as BRA (Baloch Republican Army) and BRG (Baloch Republican Guard). This grouping is known as BRAS (Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar) or Baloch National Freedom Front. BRAS was formed in Late 2018 as a coordinated front through which to attack Pakistani and Chinese interests, although it is unclear to what degree that funding, weapons and personnel are shared between sub-groups on the ground. Some media is still released by the media channels of individual groups, BLA being by far the most significant.
BRAS and subgroups have claimed multiple high profile attacks, such as an attack on the Chinese consulate in November 2018, the killing of 14 passengers of a Bus stopped near Gwadar in April 2019, and the destruction of a Pakistani Army outpost in February 2020. Multiple IED and outpost attacks have taken place, as well as assasinations. Pakistani security forces have responded to this through the use of both Air Power and the Frontier Corps (a local paramililitary force), as well as regular Intelligence/Military operations.
The Baloch insurgency remains at a low level, with most attacks taking place in the mountainous and remote countryside. As can be expected, Afghanistan appears to be crucial for planning, training and arms supplies, in particular Kandahar province. (A top leadership figure of the BLA, Aslam Baloch, was killed in a suicide bombing in Kandahar City in December 2018) As with all insurgencies, Baloch separatist groups do retain a level of local support enabling their activities.
As BRAS and it's subgroups operates in a heavily mountainous region, with a very rugged landscape & limited vegetation, so have much more of a focus on long-range weapons, in particular SVD Dragunov and PSL DMRs. These rifles both utilise the 7.62x54r cartridge.
Whilst it's likely that standard ammunition (Russian LPS, Chinese Type 53 steel core light ball, and similar types) intended for PK-pattern machine guns is used, as is very common practice among non-state groups. Whilst general purpose machine gun ammunition will not reach the accuracy of specific precision rounds (Such as the Russian 7N1 and 7N14), this does not mitigate the much improved range of the full sized rifle cartridges fired from the long barrel of SVD and PSL DMR as compared to the AK series of rifles. PSL and SVD appear to be used for in both the dedicated sniping role, but also in some circumstances are closer to a standard service rifle, as a reaction to the operating environment.
A local source unaffiliated with the insurgents has confirmed to the author that the SVD in particular is very popular with the fighters for it's long range abilities. The local area has a rich marksmanship tradition (Not unlike the use of the Lee-Enfield rifle in Afghanistan) which likely contributes to the rifle's popularity. The SVDs in use are typically of Russian and Iranian manufacture, and are often obtained from Afghanistan, where both the SVD and PSL are commonly found.
Curiously, captured Pakistani-produced G3 rifles do not appear to be used widely, even though the ballistic properties of the 7.62x51 NATO round are comparable to that of the 7.62x54r. This is possibly down to a lack of optics mounting solutions on the the G3, and may also be a result of unreliable ammunition supply as captures rise and fall over time- in contrast 7.62x54r can be obtained reliably from Afghanistan for a low cost. (NATO-pattern ammunition can also be obtained from Afghanistan, but is less common and more expensive) G3 may also be perceived as less accurate and less reliable than alternative platforms.
Alongside PSL and SVD, AK-pattern rifles are also widely used, although to to a much lesser degree than DMR-type rifles in some insurgent squads. Others, possibly serving different roles, do use AK-pattern rifles for the great majority of fighters. These include AK, AK-74, AKM as well as Type 56. In the limited available combat footage, AK pattern rifles are used primarily by militants engaging in close to medium range combat, although local sources indicate that is is uncommon compared to long range action. This is a rational choice- the AK is far more suited for this task, it has less recoil, larger standard magazine size, and is much more compact. Multiple GP-25 underbarrel grenade launchers can be seen in use with AK-pattern rifles, although combat footage has not yet shown these in use.
As the conflict in Afghanistan continues, another significant platform in use by Baloch insurgents is the M16A4. This modern rifle has been supplied in large quantities by the United States to the Afghan security forces, and has since proliferated widely across the country. The M16 is valued by Taliban fighters and has been captured in large quantities in recent years. It can hence be obtained from Afghanistan in significant quantities.
Whilst the M16A2 is likely more common in Taliban captures, the M16A4 is particularly valued by Taliban fighters for it's ability to mount optics, often Thermal optics. BRAS-affiliated fighters have not yet been observed with thermal optics, but do widely carry M16A4 with Trijicon ACOG optics and M203 underbarrel grenade launchers. Other accessories common in Afghanistan can be seen, such as AN/PSQ-18-pattern M203 sights and AN/PEQ-2 ITPIAL.
Whilst M16-pattern rifles are common status weapons across South East Asia and the Middle East, often regarded as more accurate and of higher quality than Eastern bloc weapons platforms. Staged images of individual "Martyrs" should not be regarded as sufficent evidence of the wide adoption of M16, but evidence does exist of operational fighters carrying these rifles in notable quantities and of their use against Pakistani forces.
It is unclear precisley what role the M16A4 is used in by BRAS fighters, but a typical use case for many non-state groups is as a "proto-DMR" when these platforms are lacking.
Whilst BRAS does not lack DMR-type rifles, the M16A4 is a lightweight, accurate and soft shooting weapon that is certainly of use. Whilst the 5.56x45mm round does not possess the long range capabilities of 7.62x54r, it is a flatter shooting round and is likely to be sufficient from the 20" barrel of the M16A4 for use at medium range. The reliable ACOG optic is also likely to be valued in this use case. The very limited footage available of M16A4 in combat use appears to show limited numbers of these rifle used in the offensive designated marksman role by fighters, as attackers armed with AK-pattern rifles moved in towards Frontier Corps positions.
BRAS is not only armed with rifles, various machine guns are also used. These are typically PK(M) variants, as well as MG3 variants, which are captured from Pakistani Forces. The machine gun most commonly seen is the Serbian Zastava M84, which is a mildy modified variant of the Soviet PK, and can be disinguished by it's entirely solid buttstock, lacking the cutout of the original weapons. The insurgents also use NATO-standard weapons, mostly M249 LMG, although M240 are also used. These weapons, much like the M16 variants used, appear to be entirely obtained from Afghanistan.
Some heavy machine guns are also used by the insurgents, although these are rarely spotted. The Chinese QJG-89 can be seen below, although it is likely that HMG are usually mounted to pickups for their use as a technical. HMG also appear to be used at long range to harass frontier force outposts prior to an attack.
The BLA maintain weapons caches in the rugged countryside, including ammunition for various recoillless rifles, although these are not pictured often.
The insurgents also use RPG-7 pattern launchers, usually with OG-7V type rockets. As the group rarely faces armoured vehicles, this can be expected. Many warheads appear to be OGi-7MA warheads, an enhanced AP variant of the OG-7V manufactured in Bulgaria and supplied in large quantities by the United States to Afghan Authorities
One particularly notable aspect of the Taliban insurgency has been their use of thermal optics against government forces. This has not yet been publicly replicated in BRAS (or subgroups') media, but open source information does exist of likely ATN or Pulsar-manufactured thermal optics in the hands of the BLA. These can be purchased on the black market in Afghanistan. However, footage of these in action exists, and it is unclear if the available images may have been taken in Afghanistan.
If these thermal optics were put into use against authorities' outposts, it is likely that they would provide a similar advantage to insurgent forces that they do to Taliban forces, who usually face Afghan National Army or Police units who lack night vision capability. It appears that Pakistani Frontier Corps or militias also lack this capability.
Weapon Stocks and Sourcing
The below images have not previously been publicly available, and have been sent to the author by a individual with access to BLA weapons stocks. Note the extremely good condition of most of the materiel, all of which has been obtained from Afghanistan.
The BLA's arsenal has substancially modernised in recent years- below are multiple M240, M249, M16A4 and other weapons, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, recently obtained from Afghanistan to fuel the insurgency.
Whilst the insurgents still broadly prefer Eastern Bloc weapons, evidently if funds are available plenty of NATO-standard weapons in excellent condition can be obtained. These are typically purchased in person within Afghanistan from arms dealers, prior to transfer
Although these have not yet been spotted in action, the insurgents also have access to supplies of mortar bombs, as seen below. Mortars themselves do not appear to be common.
A strong firearms culture exists in Balochistan (as well as across Pakistan in general), so it cannot be assumed that all weapons shown in the hands of the insurgents were specifically procured- it is typical for small arms to be easily available.
BRAS is an organisation barely covered outside of local media and counter-terrorism study, and is a comparatively small group that has slim chance of achieving the stated goal of the organisation, as well as facing legitimacy challenges from other groups and the Baloch diaspora. However, BRAS forces have shown themselves to be capable of reasonably complex attacks against government forces, and are well armed with a variety of modern weapons.
This last aspect is the most interesting- the long wars in Afghanistan have clearly lead to spillage of modern arms across the region and beyond (Stinger MANPADS made their way to Chechnya in the 1990s, for example), and the trend continues. Many weapons from BRAS are example of the proliferation of large quantities of NATO-standard equipment into the hand of a small seperatist group as BRAS (Or sub groups, such as the BLA) is a fascinating example of the 2nd and 3rd order effects of not just the involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, but the dramatic losses and corruption of the government that the United States supports. It may also show proliferation from other parties- sources familiar with local weapons smuggling claim that many SVD rifles found in Balochistan are Russian-made models smuggled in from Iran into Afghanistan. Regardless, as Afghaninstan continues to be a melting pot of weapons flow, it also fuels other conflicts.