Shocks to come

Published : Sep 22, 2006 00:00 IST

Nawab Akbar Bugti's killing could have consequences for the whole region.


WHEN the Pakistan Army killed Nawab Akbar Bugti last month, it did more than eliminate the most visible icon of the Baloch nationalist struggle: the shock waves from the bombing of his mountain hideout could have profound consequences for the future of India-Pakistan relations.

Since the death of the ageing and arthritic politician, commentators across South Asia have considered the consequences the violence that followed might have for Pakistan and the region. One real risk, however, has passed almost unnoticed. Escalating conflict in Balochistan, coupled with his domestic political vulnerability, could push President Pervez Musharraf to adopt an aggressive position against India, and even fuel a fifth India-Pakistan war.

In recent weeks, Pakistan has repeatedly charged India with financing the Baloch rebellion. Pakistan claims that Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) stations in Teheran and Kabul have funnelled funds to organisations such as the left-wing Balochistan Liberation Army, and that President Hamid Karzai's regime in Afghanistan is providing training camps for the rebels.

Battered by the growing violence in Balochistan and bereft of political allies, President Musharraf is desperate for an issue with which he could restore his fragile legitimacy. More than a few experts now believe that renewed hostilities with India is the sole card Pakistan's military ruler has left in his deck.

Pakistan's domestic political life is shaping the fallout from Bugti's killing. Heading into elections scheduled for 2007, Musharraf is under assault from his core constituency: Pakistan's military establishment. In July, 18 prominent figures in Pakistan's public life - including former Inter-Services Chiefs Lieutenant-General Asad Durrani and Lieutenant-General Hameed Gul, and former Balochistan Governor Lieutenant-General Abdul Qadir - wrote toMusharraf demanding that he either resign as President of Pakistan or the Chief of the Army Staff.

"Besides being a constitutional office," their letter argued, "the office of President of Pakistan is also a political office. Combining the presidency with the office of Chief of Army Staff politicises the latter post as well as the Army." No democracy, its authors said, could exist, unless the institutions of state abided by their Constitutional roles, and respected the principle of separation of powers. "The elections scheduled for 2007," it concluded, "will not be credible without neutral and impartial caretaker governments, both at the Centre and in the provinces."

Not surprisingly, India's military establishment has been watching Pakistan's military deployment patterns with some disquiet. On the face of it, Pakistan is in no position to risk an offensive military enterprise, whatever Musharraf's political concerns might be. Pakistan's Mangla-based I Corps, its northern army reserve and a string of other formations that protect Punjab, are drained by counter-terrorist commitments along the Afghanistan border in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan. In recent months, the Peshawar-based XI Corps' 7 Division, which is fighting the Taliban in the NWFP, is thought to have received two reinforcement brigades from the I Corps' 17 Division. Two more brigades of the Pannu Aquil-based XXXI Corps' 37 Division are also thought to have been moved to support the 7 Division's operations. Similarly, the Kohat-based 9 Division, which is engaged in the NWFP, has received a brigade each from the Multan-based II Corps' 14 Division, the Quetta-based XII Corps' 16 Division, the I Corps' 35 Division and the XXXI Corps' 41 Division.

But Pakistan still has offensive options if it believes India will not punish a localised offensive across the Line of Control (LoC) by a full-scale offensive against Punjab and Sindh. In 1986-1987, India was deterred from retaliating against Pakistan's support for Khalistan terrorist groups through a conventional military offensive because of fears that the conflict might escalate to unmanageable levels.

Since then, Pakistani strategists have come to believe that their nuclear shield guarantees them the freedom to wage small, localised wars, or to support enterprises like the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. To Pakistan's military, India's decision not to cross the LoC during the 1999 Kargil war, or to risk a conflict in 2001-2002 after the terrorist attack on Parliament House, demonstrated that this belief was robust.

Some in India's Military Intelligence establishment believe Musharraf is again considering a Kargil-style enterprise. In recent weeks, the 19 Division, a reserve formation of the Muree-based X Corps, which has its peace-time headquarters at Jhelum, moved to a concentration area at Chakoti, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Troops of the Mangla-based 26 and 28 Brigades, along with the 7 Azad Kashmir Brigade from Jhari Khas are thought to have reinforced the division, along with significant numbers of Special Forces personnel.

In addition, the Jalalpur Jattan-based 333 Infantry Brigade, part of the 23 Division's reserves, has moved to a forward position facing the town of Naushera, in Rajouri. Such movements typically precede a sharp, localised military thrust, which in this case would threaten Indian positions in Gulmarg and Poonch.

No one believes these troop movements are in themselves indicators of war. Indeed, they are likely a careful threat - a warning of just how Pakistan might react if India extends significant support to the Baloch insurgents as tit-for-tat retaliation against the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. However, the idea of a limited war in Jammu and Kashmir continues to engage the minds of Pakistan's military strategists even after its defeat in Kargil.

An Indian strike against terror training camps in Pakistan, provoked for example by a massive terrorist attack of the kind seen in Mumbai in July, could be the pretext for such an attack. So too could large-scale artillery exchanges along the LoC. Most important of all, a massive escalation of violence in Balochistan on election-eve is certain to provoke charges that India is underwriting the secessionists - and push Musharraf to appropriate nationalist sentiment through military action.

"Don't push us," Musharraf warned Baloch leaders soon after the fifth Baloch rebellion broke out early last year. "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." Ironically enough, the General is the one who has been looking for cover ever since that threat.

Fighting in Balochistan has been escalating steadily since January last year when tribesmen owing allegiance to Bugti stormed the Sui gasfields, which produce an estimated 45 per cent of Pakistan's consumption. The attack followed the Pakistan Army's refusal to act against a junior officer alleged to have raped Shazia Khalid, a doctor who was subsequently pushed into quasi-exile by Musharraf's 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 fertiliser production across Pakistan was hit as a consequence of the Bugti raid.

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 wavering 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 NWFP-based National Awami Party allied with the Islamist Jamait-ul-Ullema-i-Islam to oppose the centralising regime of 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 Sardar Ataullah Mengal, the head of the Balochistan provincial government. Bhutto dismissed Mengal's government, leading to the outbreak of civil war. Led by the Marxist Balochi People's Liberation Front and the Balochi Students' Organisation, some 10,000 guerillas took on six divisions of the Pakistan Army, which received helicopter gunships and armour from the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pehlavi, the despised monarch of Iran. The use of napalm was reported in the destruction of the Baloch tribes' most valuable economic asset, their livestock. Five thousand three hundred insurgents, 3,300 Pakistani troops and perhaps tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the 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 following 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 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 three per cent of the coastguards 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."

Musharraf's policies on India will be shaped by how desperate his situation becomes - but if the Baloch media is a good index of sentiment in the province, a full-blown secessionist war, of the kind Mazari warned of is not far ahead.

For The Balochistan Express, the protests that broke out after Bugti's death were similar in their character and intensity to the mass protests which broke out after General Yahya Khan decided to call off elections which would have brought East Pakistan Awami's League to power. Bengali nationalists responded to the military dictator's decision by launching a massive popular mobilisation, which in turn was met by a brutal military crackdown. The Baloch protests, the Express asserted, were "of the same level that was [seen] in Bangladesh on March 1 1971, which was the beginning of the end of politics".

Azaadi, an Urdu language newspaper, argued that Islamabad had repeatedly "betrayed" the Baloch people. "Nawab Norooz Khan Zehri, 90, a Baloch fighter, received promises from [Field Marshall] Ayub Khan's government that he would be granted an amnesty once he surrendered," it recorded. "But," the newspaper continued, "the government backtracked from its promise and killed the aged leader. This time, they have repeated the same deceitful act with Nawab Bugti." Some newspapers found words inadequate to express their anger. The widely-read Asaap chose to publish just five lines of commentary condemning Bugti's death, filling in the rest of the space normally reserved for the editorial with a black box.

Judging by events in recent days, it seems likely the anger demonstrated by Asaap's editors will drive political mobilisation in Balochistan. On September 3, the Akhtar Mengal faction of the Balochistan National Party announced that it would resign four seats in the Provincial and National Assemblies, as well as Pakistan's Senate. Two members of the Provincial Assembly and one of the National Assembly subsequently resigned. Senator Sanaulla Baloch, who threatened resignation, is out of the country and on the exit control list. Other Baloch parties who might have been valuable interlocutors for Pakistan's military seem to have been alienated beyond the point of return. Tens of thousands of protesters were reported to have participated in a recent rally organised by the four-party Baloch Alliance and the Alliance for Restoration for Democracy against Bugti's killing.

While Baloch political resistance against the military regime in Pakistan clearly escalated, the military consequences of this development are still unclear. Several Pakistani commentators have suggested that Bugti's death could become the catalyst for thousands of new recruits to the ranks of Balochistan's secessionist militias. Baloch groups have already demonstrated both the capability and material resources to engage Pakistan's armed forces in a bitter war of attrition. Younger leaders like Nawabzada Balach Marri or Bugti's grandson, Brahmdagh Baloch, could well decide that an escalation of the conflict will serve their interests.

Egged on by hawks in Pakistan's military, Musharraf hopes Bugti's killing will signal to secessionist groups in Pakistan the costs of raising their heads. But Pakistan's President knows the risks this desperate manoeuvre contains within it: after all, Bhutto paid for the failure of the Pakistan Army in Balochistan with his life. Could a General this time be sacrificed for the Pakistani military's errors of judgment? Perhaps. Musharraf is, more likely than not, aware of the abyss that lies ahead.

In a desperate moment, a desperate man could well stake his future on the desperate belief that a small war in South Asia is an acceptable price for survival. India's strategic establishments will have to watch events in Pakistan with the greatest possible care - and respond with the greatest possible caution.

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