The Ifs And Buts Of Negotiating With Insurgents In Balochistan

Islamabad is confident that it can digest the current amount of violence that is taking place in Balochistan considering the overall national state of law and order.

If there is one news story that will always make front page headlines regardless the redundancy, it is a government announcement to reach out to insurgents in Balochistan for negotiations. We all have heard such government announcements since the weakening of pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L-Quaid-e-Azam).

Sardar Saleh Bhoothani, Balochistan’s interim chief minister ahead of the 2008 general elections, announced that he intended to negotiate with the Baloch insurgents. He failed not because he did not genuinely try but because he neither had the mandate nor the required time to complete such an initiative.

He was soon followed by Nawab Aslam Raisani, the full-time Chief Minister from the Pakistan People’s Party. Mr. Raisani’s announcement was taken more seriously considering his credentials as a Baloch tribal chief. His statements were also echoed and backed by Governor Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi. They both failed in making even an inch of progress in initiating dialogue with the Baloch armed groups. In his brief stint as the caretaker chief minister, Ghaus Bakhsh Barozai, promised to play his role in commencing a peace process with hardliners among the nationalists. He failed too.

Speaking on the floor of the Balochistan Assembly, Chief Minister Dr. Malik Baloch said last week that his government intended to initiate a peace process soon after the Eid. The proposed process would comprise of members of the parliament and Baloch tribal elders. The C.M.’s peace plan is two-pronged. He wants to speak to the Baloch nationalists who apply violence to achieve a free Balochistan and also the Islamic extremists who regularly target Shia Muslims in the province in the name of religion.

There is never better news than talk of peace. Most peace talks fail which is what makes them so challenging. It is always reassuring to talk of peace and make an attempt to end violence. However, some bleak ground realities will contain Chief Minister’s attempts to resolve the Balochistan conflict. Consider the following simple facts.

One, Baloch armed groups are unwilling to negotiate on anything less than Balochistan’s absolute freedom.

Two, the civil and military leadership in Islamabad is unwilling to negotiate with anyone who questions the integrity of Pakistan. Prime Minister Sharif and Army Chief Kayani are indeed on the same page when it comes to not talking to those who seek separation from Pakistan.

There are some other reasons why a peace process in Balochistan will not immediately kick off. Here is why:

While coming in power, the P.M.L-N is not as desperate on the Balochistan issue as was the P.P.P. at the time of coming in power in 2008 under the slogan of ‘reconciliation’. What the P.M.L.-N realizes about the situation in Balochistan is not even realized by Dr. Baloch. When the P.P.P. came into power in 2008, it was under tremendous pressure because the moderate Baloch nationalists (such as the Balochistan National Party and the National Party) had boycotted the elections and the new government faced a serious credibility deficit. The P.M.L-N. no longer faces that situation. With the B.N.P. and the N.P. contesting elections, the polls gained legitimacy while the appointment of a Baloch nationalist as the C.M. also resolved half of the problem. After all, it was people like Dr. Baloch who were the first contributors to discontent in Balochistan as early as 2004 when they voiced reservations about the Gwadar Port.

Unlike Sharif, the post-election situation has significantly weakened the position of the Baloch nationalists on theoretical front.

If Balochistan is a political issue, its champions were political parties like the B.N.P. and the N.P. With their institutional accommodation, the Baloch ‘nationalists’ are technically no longer outside the so-called national mainstream. The international community support for the Baloch, if there is any, is predominantly for peaceful political parties not the armed groups or those who champion violence no matter what justifications they provide for their actions.

With regards to the Baloch armed groups, they are not political organizations although their demands and ambitions are political. Since they do not have offices in Balochistan, it is impossible for the government to reach out to the real insurgent leaders to initiate dialogue. Hairbayar Marri and Bramdagh Bugti, based in London and Switzerland respectively, have time and again denied running the Baloch Liberation Army or the Baloch Republican Army. The only leader currently operating in Balochistan on behalf of the armed groups is Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, the presumed head of the Baloch Liberation Front. There is a Catch-22 situation involved here. The more he refuses to negotiate with the government, the more it perpetuates his political life and also adds to his popularity whereas a government attempt to kill him will also backfire and open new fronts of armed resistance.

The government has to act very cautiously while talking to the armed groups.

What is also pertinent is this: What does the government, mainly the security establishment, has to offer in return of starting talks with the armed groups? Is the army willing to pull out of Balochistan or stop kill and dump operations? What are some of the confidence building measures (C.B.M.s) that the government is willing to take? If the government has nothing tangible to offer, a mere announcement to negotiate is, after all, not enough to move forward.

Lastly, any peace talks with the Baloch armed groups will not succeed until they are backed by the central government and the Pakistani armed forces. Both of them, at this point, do not seem to be in any kind of urgency with regards to addressing the the level of violence the Baloch nationalists are currently employing. For them, this is still not more serious than the Taliban threat or the violence in Karachi.

Islamabad is confident that it can digest the current amount of violence that is taking place in Balochistan considering the overall national state of law and order. Hence, in such circumstances, the federal government is unprepared to offer the Baloch any major concessions, including agreeing to resurface the missing persons.

With the 18th Amendment and the appointment of a Baloch nationalist chief minister, one can see a marked decline in the interest of the media and the civil society in Balochistan affairs. Ironically, ‘internal autonomy’, a concept meaning provinces should manage their own affairs, can be catastrophic for Balochistan. The province consistently needs media attention and national and international debate. A Balochistan that is not under spotlight will remain a land where the ordinary person suffers every single day. Consider a Balochistan where security forces apply violence against citizens; hardliner Balochs kill moderate Balochs on a regular basis and Islamic extremists routinely target Shia-Hazaras. And what if, in the midst of all this chaos, the central government and the media show least interest in Balochistan’s ‘local affairs’!



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