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A wild west in the making

Published : Apr 22, 2005 00:00 IST



Tribal-dominated Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan has witnessed unrest and insurgency-related violence for the past year leading to the impression that the province is the new theatre of war for strategic control of the region.


AMID the hype centred around the India-Pakistan peace overtures, all the noise made by the West over Iran's nuclear programme, and the feel-good stories about Afghanistan fast returning to "civilisation", the extraordinary developments over the past year or so in the Balochistan province of Pakistan have not got the attention they deserve in the mainstream media.

The violent incidents and disturbances in the province might appear sporadic and less dramatic than the other developments in the region, but when put together and analysed dispassionately they provide a chilling account of the possible repercussions for the region in the years to come.

According to analysts in the subcontinent, the province has witnessed an estimated 1,600 incidents of rocket-firing and 140 bomb blasts since 2003. Three major incidents of supposed sectarian violence claimed hundreds of lives. But till date no one, including the Pakistan government, has been able to identify the culprits. Most of the time the incidents are attributed to the unseen and mysterious Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).

Said to be a creation of the erstwhile Soviet Union at the height of its proxy war with the United States in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the BLA faded away along with the Soviet Union, its main source of funding. In recent months self-proclaimed BLA activists have claimed responsibility for various acts of arson, but the truth is that no one has the foggiest idea what the organisation is all about today, leave alone its leadership and source of sustenance.

Little wonder then that it has triggered a debate within the Pakistani establishment and among independent analysts whether Balochistan is the new theatre of war for strategic control of the region. Some analysts are convinced that the sordid drama enacted in Balochistan is the result of a combination of two factors - the real or perceived injustices meted out to the Baloch people by the Pakistani federal establishment or the mafia and the complex geopolitical game being played since 1989, the highpoint of which was 9/11.

Though Balochistan represents less than 6 per cent of Pakistan's population, it is the largest of the four provinces, accounting for 43.6 per cent of the country's landmass. Besides, it is endowed with some of the world's richest reserves of natural energy (gas, oil, coal) and minerals (gold, copper) and it has strategic mountainous borders and passes adjoining Iran and Afghanistan and a maritime coastline stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea in the south.

For all its follies in neglecting the development of the province, the Pakistani Army and establishment have, in recent years, realised the potential of marketing Balochistan as a prime region for global investment and as a corridor for trade to Central and West Asia. The local people and the self-proclaimed Baloch nationalists are suspicious of the Army's agenda, and their fear of being reduced to a minority in their homeland is legitimate given the track record of the federal set-up in the last 57 years since the formation of Pakistan.

But the larger question troubling the Pakistani establishment and independent observers is that in the process Islamabad may have ended up antagonising bigger powers with a larger agenda in the region. The stakes are huge for several players in the emergence of the Gwadar deep-sea port as a vital corridor in the region. For some of the global players the stakes multiply at the thought of Chinese involvement in the construction of the Gwadar port and the trans-Balochistan highway. Despite the well-known "all-weather friendship" between Islamabad and Beijing, China could not be expected to invest in a port that would not be of any use for it in the future.

IT cannot be a coincidence that incidents of violence and destruction in Balochistan, mostly targeted at the security forces and government installations, increased steadily with the pace of construction of the Gwadar port. The first such incident, which set alarm bells ringing in the Pakistani establishment, was the kidnap and killing of Chinese engineers and technicians working for the Pakistani government in the Gwadar region, in early 2004.

The killings remain unresolved, although forces representing Baloch nationalists made vague claims of their involvement. The incident helped focus attention on the step-motherly treatment of Balochistan by the Punjab dominated Pakistani establishment and sparked a furious debate within Pakistani civil society and the media on the indefensible record of the ruling classes vis-a-vis Balochistan and the continuing violence.

Actually, the North-West Frontier Province and the Sindh province, too, have complained bitterly about mistreatment by the country's Punjabi-dominated rulers but the situation in Balochistan is far worse.

The standard of life in Balochistan is abysmal, going by the indicators of the basic quality of life. For instance, tapped drinking water is available to less than 5 per cent of the population and the female literacy rate is under 15 per cent. The province is also an administrative nightmare. More than 80 per cent of Balochistan, designated as a tribal area, is governed through special laws that the local people complain are highly discriminatory. Gas was discovered in the province in the early 1950s but it was only in 1976 that the province got its first liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) project, in Quetta. Later, a gas pipeline was laid up to Quetta. However, Sui town, which houses the gas plant that meets 40 per cent of the gas requirements of Pakistan, still does not have piped gas connections.

Flustered by the unending cycle of violence in Balochistan, Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf sought to blame the tribal chiefs only to contradict himself by admitting that only three of the 78 tribal chiefs in the province were "troublemakers". He had no explanation why the mighty Pakistan Army and establishment could not take care of "three of the 78" tribal chiefs. Obviously the malaise runs deep and some other forces are trying to take full advantage of the situation on the ground.

Moreover, the strategy and tactics of the establishment to bring the situation under control seem to be flawed. At the height of the debate in the Pakistani media on the plight of the ordinary person in Balochistan, Musharraf, speaking to a local private channel, warned insurgents of a military operation and said this was not the 1970s when they could hide in the mountains. "They will be struck with weapons and they will not know what happens to them."

The rebel Baloch tribal chief, Nawabzada Balaach, hit back on another television channel. "I have just heard Musharraf threatening us. I tell him it is not the 1970s either, that through military force they can suppress us. They should learn a lesson from Iraq where the world-best U.S. Army has failed to overwhelm the local resistance."

A few weeks ago Musharraf said the insurgents in Balochistan were getting alms and arms from foreign forces but did not name them. The media had a field day speculating who they could be, but, ironically, the Pakistani establishment chose to play down this aspect and focussed on the local angle. No one knows why.

The only person to have openly defended the BLA is the rebel tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti, a former Balochistan Chief Minister and the last of the major tribal chiefs still resident in the province. "The question is not whether what the BLA is doing is right or not. The government should be asking why so many people in Balochistan support the BLA," he said. The BLA's agenda clearly strikes a chord with the Baloch population, he argued.

ACCORDING to an investigative story carried by News Central Asia, a private news agency of Turkmenistan, the current story of Balochistan should have started on the night of January 7, 2005, when the gas installations at Sui were hit by rockets and much of Pakistan came to a grinding halt for about a week. Or, it could be the night of January 2, 2005, when a woman doctor was reportedly gang-raped in Sui. The story said:

"Actually, the elements for the start of insurgency in Balochistan had been put in place already and the planners were waiting for a convenient catalyst to set things in motion. The gang-rape of January 2, around which this sticky situation has been built, was just the missing ingredient the planners needed. But - and it is a BUT with capital letters - when we say Americans or Russians, we have reasons to suspect that the American and Russian involvement in Balochistan is sanctioned, at least in part, by the Pentagon (if not the White House) and the Kremlin.

"As they told us, during the Russo-Afghan war, the Soviet Union was surprised by the ability and resourcefulness of Pakistan to generate a quick and effective resistance movement in Afghanistan. To punish Pakistan and to answer back in the same currency, the Kremlin decided to create some organisations that would specialise in sabotage activities in Pakistan.

"One such organisation was the BLA, the brainchild of the KGB built around the core of the BSO (Baloch Students Organisation). The BSO was a group of assorted left-wing students in Quetta and some other cities of Balochistan."

Said A.H. Amin, a former Major in the Pakistan Army: "The new U.S. strategic agenda is possibly the creation of a Kurd state. If it is extended to the creation of a new Baloch state, it should not be a surprise. An independent Baloch state would give the U.S. an excellent base which could possibly replace/supplement both Afghanistan and Pakistan to strike at future strategic targets in Central Asia, West Asia and Eastern China."

He suggested a six-point formula to come to grips with the Balochistan crisis. He said: "First, the Pakistani military junta has to stop the construction of new cantonments. The second should be a careful control on the population of Gwadar. All non-Baloch doing business in Gwadar must not be allowed the right to vote in any elections held in Gwadar. Third, control of Gwadar should be given to the Balochistan Provincial Government. Fourth, the Balochistan Provincial Government should be allowed to make direct economic ventures with foreign investors so that the Islamabad non-Baloch federal mafia is sidelined. Fifth, the cancellation of all land deals in Gwadar. Sixth, transfer of control of all mineral and gas installations to the Balochistan Provincial Government. The federal government may monitor the facilities. The Pakistan military junta needs to understand that the best way to protect the Baloch oil and gas resources is the proud chests of the Baloch race."

Will the Pakistani Army and establishment pay heed to him or allow the situation to drift and turn Balochistan into its very own wild west?

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 22, 2005.)



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