Baluchistan: Soft Underbelly Of Pakistan? Ashfaqur Rahman

The province of Baluchistan enjoys an important geo-strategic location.The reasoning goes that it should support the cause of the people of Baluchistan for a homeland.

Since 2009, the US has been in difficulties with its important ally in South Asia, Pakistan. Although the US has been pouring billions of dollars in “unrestricted funds” to fight terrorism, progress has been very slow. By many estimates, terrorism inside Pakistan has escalated. Moreover, the military, which is the driving force in the country, cannot see eye to eye with US policy in the region. The US is using drone aircrafts to unilaterally kill terrorists, which has also been causing collateral damage to life and property within Pakistan. So there is a serious disconnect between the two allies. Yet analysts report that instead of winning any war there, the military is doing well for itself. It has invested the money coming from the US in hotels, real estate, shopping malls and purchasing military hardware to fight its old enemy, India.

The US government is therefore incensed. But it can do nothing substantive. The Pakistan military has been successful in raising twin fears within the US establishment. First, it expresses apprehension that any suspension of US military aid would weaken the military and lead to more terrorist attacks. Second, with the weakening of the military, the Taliban could capture power and take the world to ransom by having their finger on Pakistan’s nuclear trigger. The US is quite sold on this last possibility. So it continues to accept expense claims from the Pakistan military, though receipts are not provided, for combating terrorism. But the US is on the lookout to change its Pakistan policy.

Early in 2012, a small group of US Congressmen came up with two important recommendations. The first was that instead of co-opting the Taliban into the Afghan political system to reduce terrorism in neighbouring Afghanistan, it was a better investment to rearm the former Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This group would be in a better position to tackle terrorism. The second and more substantive was that the US should not try to normalise relations with Pakistan’s strong military and its ineffective government. The reasoning goes that it should support the cause of the people of Baluchistan for a homeland.

The province of Baluchistan enjoys an important geo-strategic location. In a way it straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its land area is large, being half the size of Pakistan. When Pakistan broke up in 1971 and Bangladesh was created, it was realised that ethnic identity of a people was more important than religious identity. The US has all this in mind while crafting its new Pakistan policy.

The people of Baluchistan have a long history of nationalist movement behind them. The movements could not get off the ground because Baluch nationalist leaders could not decide whether they should lend their support for outright secession from Pakistan or just seek more autonomy from the central government in Islamabad.

The story of Baluchistan really begins in 1893, when the British in India drew the Durand Line and separated British India from Afghanistan. Before that separation, Baluchistan was an independent tribal union. So when Partition took place in 1947 the tribes residing in Baluchistan were given the choice of joining either Pakistan or India. The then Baluch leaders instead wanted independence. But their wishes were totally ignored by all the parties to the Partition. These leaders were virtually kept in the dark about their fate. Suddenly, Baluchistan found itself as a part of Pakistan. But the national leaders of Pakistan assured the Baluchi leaders that under Pakistan they would be given political and economic autonomy. They would also have control over their land and their resources. But these assurances remained only assurances.

In 1963, a Baluch leader, Sher Mohammed Marri, resisted Islamabad’s intention to set up military bases in Baluchistan. This led to an insurgency which came to an end, five years later. A ceasefire was accepted by the Baluchis on the condition that greater autonomy would be granted to them. But again this promise was not kept.

In 1973, another insurgency took place. This was to stop Pakistan government from exploiting natural resources of Baluchistan as well as for greater political and economic autonomy. It was sternly put down by the Pakistani authorities. Pakistan asked and also got the support of the then Shah of Iran. Pakistan used its air power for the first time to crush this revolt. About 5,000 insurgents were reported to have been killed. The infamous General Tikka Khan, who was in command and ordered the air strikes, became known as the “Butcher of Baluchistan.”

When General Ziaul Huq took power he introduced a “policy of development” in Baluchistan. Peace was temporarily restored in the region. But the central government had its eye on Baluchistan’s natural resources, including the estimated 19 trillion cu feet of natural gas and 6 trillion barrels of crude oil.

The latest insurgency in Baluchistan started in 2005, when a local female doctor was allegedly gang raped by security officers. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti (who has expired) then demanded punishment of the rapists. In response, the army attacked Dera Bugti, the largest gas reservoir, in order to suppress those who were seeking justice. In retaliation, the Baluch insurgents fired rocket launchers at former Pakistani President General Pervaz Musharaf’s helicopter when he arrived on a short visit to Quetta.

The army was determined to crush the nationalist movement once and for all. However, with the rise of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan as well as the deteriorating law and order situation in Pakistan’s other provinces, the movement could not be stymied. As the attention of the Pakistan government was distracted, the Baluch nationalist movement gained momentum. In 2006, it was reported that the Baluch nationalist leaders had established a government in exile.

The US government has, however, been quietly monitoring these developments. But three events recently brought the US to focus closely on Baluchistan. First was a congressional hearing on Baluchistan. Second was the introduction of a Baluch self-determination bill in Congress and, third was the holding of a much publicised meeting of the Baluch National Front in Berlin in 2012. These events also focused international attention on the plight of the Baluchis.

Another development also encouraged the US to look closely at the situation there. The Baluch nationalist leaders now are mostly young, educated and networked. A 44 year old by the name of Allah Nazar Baluch is leading the movement. He has been successful in drawing the attention of the US Congress and the British Parliament. The leadership has in many ways inspired the Baluchis to work for their cause.

The big question is whether Baluchistan is likely to be the new soft underbelly of Pakistan. If so, then Pakistan must wake up to the challenge and stop further hemorrhage of its body politic. It must note what a wise man had once said: “Giving up doesn’t always mean you are weak. Sometimes it means that you are strong enough to let go.” Here, it means giving the Baluchis the political and economic autonomy to run their affairs before it is too late. Is it too much to ask in return for peace and development in South Asia?

The writer is a former Ambassador and a regular commentator on contemporary affairs.

E-mail: [email protected]

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