A General on the edge

Print edition : February 24, 2006

A child injured in fighting near Dera Bugti in Balochistan. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The multiple crises facing Pakistan have a disturbing precedent: the last time around, they ended with the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the rise of the Islamist military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq.

LAST August, as Pakistan celebrated the anniversary of its independence, Baloch nationalist groups gave a demonstration of just what they were willing to do to secure their own freedom. Bombs went off in five upmarket Quetta neighbourhoods, while several government facilities as well as paramilitary force outposts in Turbat and Mundh were brought under attack with shoulder-fired rockets. Federal Minister Zubeida Jalal's home came under attack soon after, while a power transformer and a gas pipeline were blown up. President Pervez Musharraf's military regime responded with that time-tested tactic, denial: barely a word about these events appeared in the Pakistani media.

Six months on, the war in Balochistan has forced its way on to the world's newspaper pages - and refuses to go away. In early December, Sardar Ataullah Mengal, Balochistan's former Chief Minister, stunned journalists by charging that Pakistani troops had used chemical weapons against tribesmen in the troubled north-eastern province. Mengal produced photographs of individuals bleeding from their mouths and noses, who he claimed were civilian victims of poison gas attacks. Experts contacted by Frontline said it was impossible to arrive at any conclusion on the basis of photographs, but noted that such bleeding had in the past been reported among victims of Sarin, the gas used in the 1995 terrorist attacks on the Tokyo underground train system.

Mengal's allegations, which have sparked off calls for Pakistan to allow independent verification of the charges, came amid growing evidence that the bitter fighting in Balochistan is showing no signs of slowing down. Some of the worst fighting in recent weeks came on January 14, when three troops of the paramilitary Frontier Crops escorting a food convoy to the Pirkoh gasfield, 400 kilometres south-east of Quetta, were killed in an ambush executed with an explosive device. Soon after, three soldiers were killed when a rocket hit a military camp at Margat Indus, a coal-mining area about 75 km east of Quetta. Pakistani authorities claimed to have killed 12 Baloch irregulars in separate attacks on Pirkoh, though Baloch leaders assert that the dead were in fact innocent civilians.

Baloch irregulars have, meanwhile, been waging what appears to be an effective campaign of sabotage across the province. On January 26, in the fifth attack of its kind in recent months, Baloch insurgents blew up a stretch of railway tracks outside Mach town. Attacks have also targeted pipelines carrying gas out of Balochistan and the Pirkoh field's fragile water supplies. Despite the Pakistan government's claims to have wiped out farari camps - as insurgent bases are known in the region - there is no evidence that the combat infrastructure of Baloch forces has been degraded significantly. Just on January 25, for example, Baloch forces traded mortar and rocket fire with the Frontier Corps in the Dera Bugti area, which has been the scene of much of the fighting.

JUST how bad is the fighting? Baloch leaders claim some 100 people, mainly women and children, have been killed. Extraordinarily graphic images posted on the nationalist web site BalochVoice.com make clear the second part of this claim, at least, is credible. Speaking at the Karachi Press Club, human rights activist Asma Jehangir asserted that in addition to 35,000 troops of the Frontier Corps, 12,000 coast guards and 8,700 policemen, four entire brigades of the Pakistan Army had been committed to the province. Jehangir also asserted that an estimated nine combat jets and 12 helicopter gunships had been used in the fighting. If her assessments are correct, the troop commitment in Balochistan is staggering: just seven Indian brigades, by way of contrast, were committed to fight the 1999 Kargil War.

Little noticed in India, the fighting in Balochistan is only part of a larger wave of crises confronting Pakistan. One major area of confrontation is North Waziristan, where fighting between Taliban forces and the Pakistan Army led to dozens of deaths in recent weeks. On January 10, for example, seven soldiers were killed in a rocket attack; retaliatory action by Pakistani forces, in the form of a four-hour pitched firefight, was claimed to have led to the death of 14 Taliban cadre. Curfew had to be imposed in the town of Miranshah, the provincial headquarters. Soon after the January 10 fighting, Pakistani authorities withdrew an offer for the peaceful surrender of Taliban terrorists that had been hammered out with Utmanzai tribal elders.

For its part, Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) has degenerated into precisely the kind of fascist enterprise that the United States claims its support of President Musharraf is intended to prevent.

The provincial government of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal - and Islamist coalition backed by the Pakistan Army - has put in place laws that have made the NWFP almost indistinguishable from the Taliban state the U.S. troops overthrew in Afghanistan. In December, for example, Peshawar District and Sessions Judge Mohammad Jamal Khan sentenced Ajab Khan, an Afghan national, to amputation of his legs for the crime of having stolen a sum of Rs.3,20,260.

The bodies of four members of a Marri tribal family killed in the fighting with the Army in January.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Not surprisingly, the world has for the most part chosen simply to pretend nothing is going on in Balochistan or elsewhere in Pakistan. Not a word has emanated from Washington either on the use of artillery and air strikes against civilians in Balochistan, or indeed the practices that are being institutionalised in the NWFP. Bar leveraging Pakistani fears that Baloch insurgents are receiving some degree of support from Iran, the West seems to have no real interest in their fate. Baloch leaders such as Mengal and Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti have been repeatedly appealing for international intervention, and say they will be unable to reopen negotiations with Pakistani authorities without a trusted third party at the table. However, no one seems particularly keen to play that role.

FOR students of history, the ongoing crisis in Pakistan holds out insights far more disturbing than single events. In February 1973, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) discovered a consignment of arms shipped by Iraq's Embassy to members of the Marri tribe, who then as now were seeking independence for Balochistan. President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promptly dismissed the provincial government. Baloch nationalists responded by launching a full-blown insurgency - the fourth since the formation of Pakistan.

An estimated 80,000 Army and paramilitary personnel were committed against ill-armed Baloch irregular forces numbering around 1,000. Helicopter gunships, armour and mortar provided by the Iranian monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, were used to crush the rebellion.

Meanwhile, in mid-1973 Bhutto also dismissed the NWFP government, accusing it of allying with the pro-Moscow regime of Sardar Daud, which had taken control of Afghanistan. The Pakistan government attempted to counter Pashtun nationalism by cultivating Islamist exiles who had fled the country. Among them was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would go on to play a key role in the anti-Soviet jehad in Afghanistan. In Punjab, meanwhile, Bhutto attempted to appease Islamists by declaring members of the Ahmadiya sect apostates. His actions bought a temporary peace, but laid the foundations for a further crisis. "As populism lost its momentum to Islam," the scholar Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr has argued, "the fate of Bhutto's government was sealed."

Ironically enough, Musharraf's energetic efforts to distract attention from domestic crises by pushing Jammu and Kashmir to the top of his agenda seem to be having the unintended consequence of fuelling sub-nationalist feelings. In December, Noor Ahmed Haleemzai, a powerful local leader from the Mohmand Agency, demanded that the seven tribal regions along the Afghan border be granted a special constitutional status, including the right to have their own Prime Minister, President and Cabinet. Haleemzai, who heads the Tehrik-e-Ittehad-e-Qabail, or movement for the unity of the tribes, suggested that the constitutional status of the Pakistan-administered region of Azad Kashmir be used as the model - a wry comment on Musharraf's calls for `self-rule' in Jammu and Kashmir.

Few Baloch leaders seem to doubt where events are headed. An emotional Mengal told journalists in Karachi that if "the Army's role in national politics is not eliminated, it may lead to another tragedy like East Pakistan". Despite the fantasies of the Right of Indian politics, or the grief of the victims of the violence in Balochistan, it is unlikely that the Pakistani state is headed towards collapse - at least any time soon. Unless President Musharraf is right and India is indeed providing significant levels of aid to Baloch nationalists, it is even unlikely that the insurgency will prove capable of sustaining itself for any great length of time. Yet, it is also clear that Musharraf's Pakistan is perched on the edge of the abyss: an abyss the General seems both unwilling and unable to walk away from.

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