War of discontent

Print edition : February 10, 2006

Bugti tribespeople leaving conflict areas in Dera Bugti town in Balochistan province. - BANARAS KHA/AFP

With the insurgency in the Balochistan province escalating into a bloody conflict between the tribal rebels and the Pakistan Army, General Musharraf's regime is vulnerable as never before.

"With identity, nationhood and huge gas revenues at stake, Baloch leaders believe their murderous showdown with Pakistan's military could prove as significant as the Bangladesh war of liberation."

IN January 2005, Baloch nationalist leader Sardar Ataullah delivered a bleak warning to Pakistan's military at the Press Club in Karachi. If it launched an operation in the gas-rich western province, he said, the province's "people will fight a decisive battle this time as they are committed to safeguarding the integrity of their land until the last drop of their blood is spilt".

Just 12 months on, what was seen as polemic appears prophetic. Since December, Pakistani helicopter gunships and combat jets have been strafing the heights above the gas fields of the Sui and Loti valleys, trying desperately to stamp out a massive insurgency that poses the most serious threat to Pakistan in decades.

Pakistan's massive military campaign in Balochistan began after insurgents fired rockets at a December 14 rally of tribal elders that was being addressed by President Pervez Musharraf. A day later, Baloch insurgents opened fire on a helicopter carrying the Inspector-General of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, Major-General Shujaat Zamir Dar, and a Deputy Inspector-General.

Hours later, Pakistani forces launched attacks on several farari camps, as rebel bases are known in the region, scattered across the mountains. With no journalists present on the front - that the Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jehangir was fired on, allegedly by state forces, while travelling to the area helps explain why - no wholly credible account of the fighting has become available. Most accounts, however, suggest that hundreds have died in the fighting, many of them civilians. For their part, the insurgents - who appear to be loosely organised under local tribal commanders - have hit back with an array of small and medium arms, including rockets, heavy-calibre machine guns and mortar.

Although the Pakistan government has declared that its objectives in Balochistan have been secured, the fighting has continued apace. On January 10, for example, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid announced that the "military operation in Balochistan has been wound down". Just three days later, though, at least 18 people, including three soldiers and three Frontier Corps personnel, were killed in attacks by insurgents near the Pirkoh gas fields, 400 kilometres west of Quetta. Twelve others, who the Pakistan government claims were insurgents and Baloch leaders say were civilians, were shot dead in the course of a successful attempt to hit a pipeline taking gas from Pirkoh to Karachi.

Fighting in Balochistan has been escalating steadily since January last year when tribesmen owing allegiance to the hereditary Sardar of the Bugti tribe, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, stormed the Sui gas fields, which produce an estimated 45 per cent of Pakistan's total gas consumption. The attack was driven by tribal fury at the Pakistan Army's refusal to act against a junior officer who allegedly raped Shazia Khalid, a doctor who was subsequently pushed into quasi-exile by the Musharraf regime. Bugti insurgents fired 430 rockets and 60 mortar rounds at the Pakistan Petrochemicals Limited production facility in Sui, killing eight people and disrupting supplies for over a month. Steel and fertilizer production across Pakistan was hit as a consequence of the Bugti raid.

"Don't push us," General Musharraf had warned the Baloch leaders after that attack. "It isn't the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won't even know what hit you."

AS WITH many conflicts in South Asia, the war in Balochistan has a long and complex history. In 1947, the Khan of Kalat, the quasi-autonomous monarch who had ruled Balochistan under the umbrella of the British Empire, chose independence. While Pakistani troops moved into the region in March 1948, the Khan of Kalat dragged his feet on signing the legally necessary Document of Accession until early in the next decade. Across the border, in India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had wheedled and coerced reticent monarchs to sign away their independence; Pakistan chose to settle the issue by despatching two newly acquired combat jets to strafe the Khan's palace.

In the event, the accession of the Khan of Kalat's territories settled little. By the middle of the 1950s, the Prince of Kalat launched the People's Party, representing a new Baloch nationalism that cut across tribal and linguistic lines. In 1972, the People's Party and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP)-based National Awami Party allied with the Islamist Jamait-ul-Ullema-i-Islam to oppose the centralising regime of President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Having won the elections, the alliance sought to increase the representation of the ethnic Baloch in government, and demanded greater control over development and industrialisation. Bhutto, representing the national ruling class of Pakistan, resisted this effort by the regional elite to assert its authority.

Matters came to a head in March 1973, after Pakistan's covert services interdicted a consignment of weapons believed to have been despatched by Iraq's covert service to the head of the Balochistan provincial government - Sardar Ataullah Mengal. Bhutto dismissed Mengal's government, leading to the outbreak of civil war. Led by the Marxist Balochi People's Liberation Front and Balochi Students Organisation, some 10,000 guerillas took on six divisions of the Pakistan Army, which was supported by close air support. Napalm was reported to have been used in the conflict to destroy the Baloch tribes' most valuable economic asset, their livestock. As many as 5,300 insurgents, 3,300 Pakistani troops and perhaps tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the desperate fighting, which dragged on until Bhutto was overthrown and the military regime of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq arrived at a political settlement with some Baloch leaders.

Over the next few decades, pipelines began to carry gas from Sui to distant Karachi, and work began on a massive port at Gwadar. However, a considerable section of the benefits went to the growing numbers of ethnic-Punjabi and ethnic-Sindhi migrants who arrived in the province to capitalise on the new opportunities. Of the 33,275 personnel of the Frontier Constabulary deployed in Balochistan, Mengal pointed out at his Karachi press conference, only 300 were from the province. Only 3 per cent of the coast guards deployed in Sindh and Balochistan were ethnic Baloch; 62 per cent were Punjabi. Moreover, investment in itself did little to bring about social development. For instance, women's literacy in the region stands at just 7 per cent, the lowest in Pakistan. Balochistan was a perfect illustration of what the economist William Easterly has described as "growth without development".

Political engagement could have offered a way forward - but the Pakistan Army was not interested. To the veteran Baloch politician Sherbaz Khan Mazari, there was a grim historical parallel. In the build-up to the Bangladesh war, he recalled, Bhutto was "determined to crush Mujib [ur-Rahman, the East Pakistan leader]. I think our generals held the Bengalis in contempt. The present Balochistan situation has some similarity to 1971."

WHY, though, has fighting erupted at this particular juncture? At the core of the problem appears to be the Pakistan Army's efforts to displace the traditional tribal Sardars and replace them with Islamists it favours. Balochistan, along with the NWFP, was one of the two provinces where the ultra-Right Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Coalition for Action) took power in Pakistan's controversial 2002 elections. Although Islamists had never had a significant electoral role in Pakistan politics, the Army helped them to come to power in both the NWFP and Balochistan, hoping that the MMA would prove to be a counterweight both to democratic parties and to the Taliban.

Marginalised by the military, the Sardars began hitting back. A succession of terrorist attacks by the Baloch National Army, notably against Chinese engineers working at Gwadar, followed the 2002 elections. Preparations to develop a full-blown insurgent military capability also began: in 2004, an investigative report by the Sindhi journalist Ismail Khoso showed that well-organised farari camps were up and running, where hundreds were being trained in military skills.

As the eminent journalist Najam Sethi has recorded, the crisis now unfolding was a consequence of "social and electoral engineering engineered by the military regime". By sidelining mainstream parties in favour of Islamists, he said, President Musharraf alienated both "the old non-religious tribal leadership as well as the new secular urban middle classes of Balochistan who see no economic or political space for themselves in the new military-mullah dispensation". During a recent Voice of America Urdu service programme, hosted by journalists Murtaza Solangi and Akmal Aleemi, Balochistan Governor Owais Ghani argued that the problem was the consequence of the resistance of the Sardars to a new modernising elite. Pakistani Senator Sanaullah Baloch responded bluntly: "The elite you represent does not come from Balochistan. It comes from outside. There are 72 high administrative positions in Balochistan. Most of them come from outside of the province. This is why when you people rule, there is no peace."

TO President Musharraf, though, the answer appears more simple. In a recent interview to the television channel CNN-IBN, Musharraf claimed he had proof that India was providing support to Baloch nationalist forces, who he described as "anti-government and anti-me". Musharraf said the Indian involvement in Balochistan included "financial support" and "support in kind". Pakistan's Interior Minister also made a similar allegation on January 6. Musharraf's comments came soon after New Delhi had called on Pakistan to "exercise restraint" in Balochistan - a statement that showed, if nothing else, that the Ministry of External Affairs had no intention of passing over the opportunity to repay Islamabad's frequent complaints about Indian human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.

Musharraf has not made public the evidence he claims to possess on Indian involvement in Balochistan, and leaders of the insurgent groups there have been dismissive of his assertion (see interview). Yet, it is also true that Indian frustration with Musharraf's refusal to deliver on his promises to end Islamist terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir has been growing. Many in India's intelligence establishment believe that the time has come to use what are called offensive covert means. In the past, India has demonstrated the capability to do so, and with good effect: two Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) groups, CIT-`X' and CIT-`J', had, for example, carried out a series of bombings in Lahore and Karachi as retaliation for strikes by Pakistan-backed Khalistan terror groups. India's offensive covert operations were closed down early in the tenure of Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, but the weapon, as Musharraf well knows, could be unsheathed again.

Beset by multiple crises - even as the Pakistan Army battles insurgents in Balochistan, it has come under fire from terror groups operating in northern Waziristan and the NWFP - General Musharraf's regime is vulnerable as never before: in one of those great ironies of history, the General, not the Baloch tribesmen on the mountains around Dera Bugti, has been left wondering just what hit him.

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