It’s not the Pakistani Army but the Baloch nationalists it suppresses that may be the most effective counter to politically motivated religious extremism.
Obama’s publicised 30,000 troop increase for Afghanistan has come with latest round of deliberations for a second “surge”: the expansion of drone attacks into Balochistan. But while the US seems to only view Balochistan, and particularly, its capital, Quetta, as a hotbed of Taliban extremism, it is far better known to the Pakistani Army as home to a politically secular, sometimes Marxist insurgency that has already been at war with the state, in its latest round, since 2004.
The largest of Pakistan’s four provinces–it’s nearly half of the country’s landmass–Balochistan was forcibly annexed in 1947, has fostered four insurgencies with a fifth currently underway and is entirely occupied by the Pakistani Army, its vast natural resources including natural gas, oil, coal, gold and copper siphoned away from the local Baloch towards the rest of Pakistan. Meanwhile, the province remains gut-wrenchingly poor, and it’s that inequality, between what Balochistan provides and what it gets, that has fuelled a stubbornly secular ethnic Baloch nationalism.
The Great Game
America too, has its own obsessions with Balochistan. Rich in energy reserves and strategically situated along the borders of Iran and Afghanistan the province is central to the energy politics of the region. The US fears that China’s involvement in building Pakistan’s critical warm water port of Gwadar on the southern edge of Balochistan may mean that the US will lose out on all that energy wealth. And with Washington’s wars expanding, it may look to Balochistan as a critical base for US forces wanting to stage attacks into Afghanistan or Iran. American drones already fly from bases in Balochistan, particularly Shamsi air base.
The Pakistani government blames India for meddling in Balochistan and fomenting an insurgency there, and Tehran is worried about what the Baloch national movement inside Pakistan may mean for Iranian Balochistan, an underdeveloped region where the Baloch have been brutally suppressed.
The state, or the “center” as the Baloch call it, has always sought military solutions to the Balochistan question, staging its worst confrontation in the 1970s during which some 55,000 Baloch fought against an 80,000 strong Pakistani Army. It has also tried to ideologically neutralize Baloch nationalism by pursuing Islamization polices. Many argue that as with the NWFP, the state has been involved in behind-the-scenes manipulation such that parties with Taliban sympathies such as the Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) hold critical seats in the Balochistan Provincial Assembly. And, JUI members introduced a resolution against drone attacks into the Assembly two months ago. Although, it’s unanimous passage does not signify support for the Taliban but rather concern for the casualties that must follow when bombs drop on a crowded city of nearly two million by current local estimates, the origins of the resolution are telling.
The fanning of sectarian flames has had international consequences: Tehran accuses Islamabad for providing support to religiously sectarian Baloch outfits like the anti-Shia Jundallah, responsible for attacks inside Iranian-Balochistan this past October killing many including senior members of the Revolutionary Guard.
Additionally, the paramilitary Frontier Corps, which are deployed inside Balochistan along with the Army allegedly have links with Islamist militants, the logical outcome of the FC’s involvement in training and equipping the mujahideen in the 70s and 80s.
The consequence of the Army’s and central government’s policies is an increasingly radicalized population, especially among the young. While the leaders of mainstream nationalist parties send mixed messages about whether they want maximum provincial autonomy within a federated Pakistan or outright independence, their base is far more clear. At a rally organized by the BNP-M (Balochistan National Party -Mengal faction) two weeks ago in Quetta, protestors shouted “Pakistan murdabad!” (“Die Pakistan!”) slogans. Having spent much of the past month travelling through Balochistan, that sentiment is not limited to the extremes. It’s everywhere, daubed on school walls, on road signs, hospitals and on the lips of the young. Pakistanis seriously underestimate the level of anger and discontent of the Baloch.
That’s what made the Balochistan package a foregone failure. Termed a historic offer by the current civilian Pakistani government, the Agaz-e-Haqooq deal was rejected by even the most moderate Baloch national parties as a sham because it does not fundamentally deal with budget or resource issues and simply offers to replace regular Army troops with the FC -which many Baloch describe as worse than the regulars.
The government has also claimed that it released twenty of the enforced disappeared, but Chairman of the Voice for Missing Baloch, Nasrullah Baloch says that several of those freed were in fact known to be in a jail in Sui, Dera Bugti. In other words, their whereabouts were always known and they don’t belong the group of the disappeared. Anywhere between 1,500 to 4,000 Baloch remain disappeared. Eyewitness reports as well as fact-gathering missions by groups like the HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) confirm that they have been forcibly disappeared by the intelligence agencies. Local police also regularly refuse to register FIRs (first information reports) or charges on behalf of families of the disappeared. The amazingly untenable responses of the government compound the issue. Echoing Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Balochistan Chief Minister Aslam Raisani recently remarked at a press conference that the missing were in fact not missing at all. Rather, they had “deliberately gone underground to malign the country’s intelligence agencies.”
The intransigence of the federal government coupled with the brutality of the Army has given rise to an armed Baloch movement. The Pakistani government blames India for fomenting an insurgency in the area. It’s hard to know, with any certainty whether that’s the case, but it’s clear that groups like the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army) and BRA (Baloch Republican Army) enjoy widespread support among the Baloch as they launch attacks on the Army and FC. Thus, even if funding may come from international players, the genuineness of the insurgency cannot be doubted.
There is however one troubling aspect to the militancy as well as to Baloch nationalist rhetoric. The Baloch often define the issue in terms of Punjabi domination over Balochistan, and regard Punjabis living in the area as “settlers,” sometimes attacking them in retaliation for attacks on the Baloch. The most recent case has been the cycle of violence initiated in Khuzdar where the FC cold-bloodedly opened fire on a student protest killing two and injuring several including one 20-year old student Liaquat Kurd whose left leg has had to be amputated as a result. In return, four Punjabis were killed in various parts of Balochistan.
Pressed on this issue, Baloch nationalists give varying responses: some claim that those killed have links to the intelligence agencies; others argue that intelligence agencies are killing Punjabis in order to give a bad name to the Baloch struggle, a claim difficult to swallow as the BLA has accepted responsibility for three of the four killings. Other non-Baloch communities such as the Hazara have also come under attack.
Following this model of organic nationalism appears to be dangerous on two grounds. First, unlike Israel’s direct funding of Israeli settlers on Palestinian territory, the non-Baloch population inside Balochistan has not, by-in-large, been systematically placed there by the government. It thus smacks of a disregard for human rights which is not helpful to the the movement. One wonders what kind of havoc this kind of ethno-nationalism will wreak should Balochistan gain independence. Secondly, it’s simply not strategically useful because it alienates potential supporters of the Baloch struggle. While the movement appears to be gaining strength and momentum in the wake of Akbar Bugti’s murder, it now remains to be seen whether it can ground itself in more sophisticated rhetoric. None of this however, takes away from the central fact that Balochistan–like Swat of late (which I also visited)–is under occupation by Pakistan’s own Army, and that Army and its government (for the Army owns the country), have dealt with the Baloch cruelly.
The End Game
Now, Obama’s war is likely to further destabilise the region with the Army using the chaos as a cover to crack-down on Baloch nationalists rather than the Taliban once again. The end game may be that—as with Egypt and the Middle East generally in the 1970s—the repression of secular Baloch nationalists compounded by possible drone attacks may actually pave the way for the very Islamists Washington so fears.