LASBELA, Pakistan — The insurgents' presence is obvious in the mountains and ravines of Pakistan's western Baluchistan province, where hilltops are fortified with slabs of rock to serve as secure lookout posts for snipers.
From there, they observe the comings and goings of potential threats — mainly Pakistani paramilitary forces — and plot attacks from the thorny brush along the isolated roads. Pointing to footprints in the sand marking the insurgents' path through the brush, the Baluch activists in this farming district on the periphery of an eight-year nationalist rebellion said that ambushes are common here because the prey have nowhere to run.
Baluchistan — a vast wilderness bordering Afghanistan and Iran — has become the chaotic battleground for cloak-and-dagger conflict between Pakistan's military intelligence services and nine insurgent groups. But activists, insurgents and political analysts say that the festering insurgency lacks the political direction and momentum of a coherent independence movement, thwarting chances for a swift resolution to a conflict that's become increasingly deadly.
Violence spiked in Baluchistan last year, when 621 people died in insurgency-related violence, including 231 people who were kidnapped and later found dead, human rights groups have reported.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The conflict briefly attracted the attention of Congress in February, when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who chairs the oversight subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced support for an independent Baluchistan, citing allegations of widespread human rights abuses by Pakistani security authorities.
Islamabad, which flatly denies any abuses in Baluchistan, reacted angrily, and Rohrabacher's call was quickly disowned by the Obama administration. The White House has no interest in further straining ties with the Pakistani government, whose help is considered key to ending the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Indeed, Baluch separatists have little backing from the outside world. Neither neighboring Afghanistan nor Iran has any interest in fueling the insurgency, analysts said.
The conflict largely has been an internal tussle between powerful tribal chiefs and the Pakistani government for control of Baluchistan's natural resources, particularly natural gas. Since the 1960s, the Baluch have watched as gas produced here — some 36 percent of Pakistan's total supply — is transported by pipeline to the rest of the country while their own province remains Pakistan's least developed.
"Gas, electricity, water — we are fighting for control of these resources," said Amir, a Baloch activist who asked that his full name be withheld to shield him from reprisals.
However, activists and analysts said the insurgent groups in Baluchistan lack the manpower and armed capability — and arguably even the ambition — to mount a fight to the end against Pakistan's powerful military.
Direct confrontations between the insurgents and army-led paramilitary forces of the Frontier Corps are relatively infrequent, they said. Rebel ambushes of paramilitary convoys and posts have tended to be in revenge for kidnap, torture and murder incidents allegedly carried out by the military's intelligence services.
Mostly, the insurgents have specialized in sabotage, repeatedly blowing up sections of the pipelines carrying natural gas from fields in Baluchistan and the railway lines that link it to the rest of Pakistan.
Various insurgent faction leaders living in exile in Britain, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates also have been reluctant to form a united political platform, although they loosely share independence as their stated objective.
The analysts said the political incoherence of the insurgency was a direct reflection of Baluch culture, with most fighters restricted to territory defined by their leader's tribal identity.
"Different armed groups operate in various districts and they do not interfere in each other's areas of operation," said Malik Siraj Akbar, editor-in-chief of The Baluch Hal, an English-language news website covering Baluchistan.
The website was blocked by the Pakistani authorities in 2010 and Akbar, a respected columnist in Pakistan's mainstream press, sought political asylum in the U.S. after repeatedly being threatened, allegedly by intelligence agents.
Increasingly, the tribal chiefs leading the insurgency are under pressure from younger, educated activists to unite on a single platform.
In February, Hyrbyair Marri, an exiled insurgent leader based in Geneva, traveled to Britain to meet separately with another exiled leader, Barambagh Bugti, grandson of the late Akbar Bugti — a rebel tribal chief whose death during a Pakistani army operation in 2006 sparked the current uprising — and Mir Suleman Dawood, the Khan of Kalat, who's the most important tribal chief.
The initiative amounted to nothing — inflating suspicions among Pakistani analysts that the tribal leaders of the Baluch insurgency, rather than agitating collectively for independence, are preoccupied with obtaining greater power and royalties for themselves.
The poverty of the Baluch, the analysts argue, is largely attributable to the feudal powers wielded by tribal chiefs. They also practice a harsh and often arbitrary form of justice that includes the forced exile of erring clans and, infamously, the determination of a suspect's guilt by making them walk on red-hot coals — no blisters means innocent, blisters means guilty.
In Lasbela, concrete-walled canals carrying water from the hills are owned and used exclusively by the local chiefs to irrigate their farms. The chiefs were also the sole local beneficiaries of quarries that provide building materials — from marble to crushed sandstone — to the booming Karachi construction market.
The loosely joined independence effort masks the intense rivalries between the tribal chiefs and fears that if Baluchistan were to gain autonomy, it would implode into civil war as the chiefs jockeyed for political and economic supremacy.
"The timing of the movement is all wrong. None of the regional powers is really interested in seeing an independent Baluchistan and, without reliable supply lines from a neighboring state, no insurgency can succeed," said Mujahid Barelvi, a political commentator and TV talk-show host based in Karachi.
Nonetheless, Baluchistan recently has raced to the top of Pakistan's domestic political agenda. Politicians and the Supreme Court have expressed concern that the alleged human rights abuses by the military intelligence agencies have created a "1971-like situation" — a reference to the civil war that led to the secession of Bangladesh, after India militarily intervened to support a popular separatist movement.
Pakistan's military denies any direct involvement in the counterinsurgency operation, but the province's chief minister and governor have consistently complained that the military has seized most political, administrative and policing powers. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani recently endorsed that view, saying the military intelligence agencies "ought to respect the mandate of the provincial government."
In Lasbela, an hour's drive west of Karachi, the locals — farmhands, mostly — were unnerved by the presence of an outsider and brushed off interview requests. While the rebellion also recently has attracted middle-class Baluch, such as human rights workers, students and writers, their attempts at peaceful agitation have been met with violent suppression, allegedly by the military's intelligence operatives.
"Actions by Pakistani security forces have radicalized even moderate Baluch activists and citizens," said Akbar, the website editor. "There are no peaceable Baluch left."
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Amjad Hadayat contributed to this article from Lasbela.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.