Pakistan’s Baluchistan Conundrum: Whither Islamabad?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 28 Mar 2013 15 Comments
The duly elected government in Pakistan has completed its full term under President Asif Ali Zardari, and the country is making preparations to hold National Assembly elections in May. This is the first elected government in Pakistan since its inception that has survived a full five-year term, and good news any way one looks at it. However, what puzzles some observers at this historic juncture is why serious discussions are not in progress in Islamabad among senior politicians and policymakers on how to stabilize and rejuvenate Baluchistan.


It is puzzling because Baluchistan is very much in the news and all the news that is filtering out indicates that this large province - the largest in Pakistan - is divided and in a state of deep turmoil. Bordering Afghanistan, Baluchistan will face a serious challenge in the coming months as foreign troops move out of Afghanistan in large numbers. What will follow that withdrawal in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), no one can predict. What is certain, however, is that Baluchistan is a richly endowed province, with its large mineral and gas and oil reserves.


Given all this, one would expect that Islamabad, financially desperate for years, would focus on Baluchistan and spare no effort to stabilize the province. But the fact remains that Islamabad spends little time and makes little effort to do so.


Importance of Baluchistan


A stable and secure Baluchistan is an essential ingredient for Islamabad to pipe in Iranian oil and gas to major Pakistani cities running through this province. Pakistan’s outgoing Cabinet recently approved an Iranian offer to partly finance the 490-mile-long Pakistan segment of a planned gas pipeline joining the two countries. The long-standing proposal for the gas pipeline enjoys broad public support within Pakistan and, if completed, will immensely help Pakistan’s economy and raise President Asif Ali Zardari’s political stock sky-high. At the same time, construction of the pipeline has been opposed outright by the United States and eyed suspiciously by Saudi Arabia, two major allies of Islamabad, because it could enrich Iran, a sworn enemy of the two. Therefore, construction of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline will remain a daunting task.


Further, by a stroke of luck, Baluchistan has emerged as a strategic interlink between Pakistan and China. China has invested heavily in Baluchistan’s Makran coast to develop a deep sea-port at Gwadar. The port is situated at a stone’s throw from the Strait of Hormuz connecting the Gulf of Oman with the Persian Gulf. On an average, 14 crude oil tankers passed through the Strait of Hormuz every day in 2011. More than 85 percent of these crude oil exports were bound for Asian markets - Japan, India, South Korea and China were the major destinations. 


China, whose oil import requirements from the Persian Gulf are rising sharply, became interested in developing Gwadar port more than a decade ago. Beijing paid about 75 percent of the initial $250 million used to build the port. China’s interest, of course, is in using Gwadar port to ship oil, gas and other imported bulk materials via an overland route through Pakistan to the Karakoram Highway in south-central China, taking thousands of miles and many days off the standard route from Africa and Middle East through the congested Malacca Strait – a narrow strip of sea between Malaysia and Indonesia in the far east.


Islamabad went ahead with the deal because an energy and trade corridor, built mostly with Chinese money, would fetch Islamabad a hefty sum of revenue on a regular basis. As a bonus, it would also engender interdependence between Beijing and Islamabad. That could be a windfall for Islamabad, considering the fact that China is the second-largest economic power in the world and aspiring to be number one. So, in a move indicating approval of the overall plan of things, the Pakistan Cabinet approved the transfer of Gwadar port to the state-owned China Overseas Port Holdings Limited on Jan. 30, 2013.


With so much at stake, why is Pakistan dithering on the political and economic condition of Baluchistan? Why is Islamabad refusing to bring the issue of Baluchistan to the fore?


One possible answer to that question could be that the wheeler-dealers of Pakistan (aka Punjabistan), and those who benefit from keeping Baluchistan virtually lawless, do not consider that the Balochs, or for that matter tribal Pushtuns of the FATA, deserve the attention they seek. Prior to the British Raj’s departure in 1947, breaking up the subcontinent into two countries, the Baloch tribes were eager to join Pakistan. They had voted overwhelmingly to join Pakistan in a referendum held on June 30, 1947. Although the actual assimilation of Baluchistan went through a few hiccups, the entire province became a part of Pakistan in 1948. Yet today this province along the border, with a thin population, many tribes and huge natural resource reserves, remains distanced from Islamabad, only nominally a part of Pakistan.


No matter how one interprets this dichotomy, it is fair to say that the blame for it lies squarely on the shoulders of Islamabad, which not only failed to integrate it into the country but also allowed the province to become a hotbed of foreign interferers.


Islamabad’s Hostile Moves


In the earliest days after Pakistan was formed, the country’s rulers, then headquartered in Karachi, could not exactly be held responsible. The original sin was committed by the British colonials, who, following World War I, drew lines dividing up the Muslim world that had formerly been part of the Ottoman Empire. Some regions - notably Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - received the status of nations or kingdoms, but some others, such as that of the Baloch and Kurds notably, were divided.


The Baloch tribes were divided between Baluchistan (which later became Pakistan’s Baluchistan province) and Iran, where they are still based in the northern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan. That decision created the potential for persistent instability in the region. Some Baloch tribes claim that an ethnic group with its own independent culture, history and language should have been given autonomy over their land. But at the time Baluchistan became part of Pakistan, that point of view was barely heard. So, what has gone wrong since?


Baluchistan’s troubles with Islamabad had their beginning decades ago. In 1954, a scheme was launched by the Government of Pakistan to merge the four provinces of West Pakistan into one unit. Called the “One Unit Policy,” the scheme was primarily designed to undermine the ethnic Bengalis of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), then a majority of Pakistan’s population. But Baloch leaders bridled under the policy, claiming it was a plan to obliterate Baluchistan and the Baloch identity. The Baloch carried out covert armed opposition, and the Pakistani military subdued those insurgencies using more than an acceptable level of force. By 1958, a fragmented Pakistani government slid right into the open palms of Pakistan’s military.


But that made little difference for Baluchistan. The failure of Pakistan’s power wielders to work out differences and generate policy plans for the future with the Baloch was exemplary. Moreover, once in the saddle, Pakistan’s military was co-opted by Washington’s cold warriors into the free world’s struggle against godless communism. At that point in time, it became easy to paint the dissenting Baloch as agents of the Bolsheviks. Needless to say, this dubious labeling did little to improve Islamabad’s relations with the Baloch, nor did it bring stability to this important border province.


When the “One Unit” folly finally blew Pakistan apart in 1971, when the new nation of Bangladesh was born, Baluchistan’s leading political party, the National Awami Party led by ethnic and feudal leaders such as Sardar Ataullah Mengal and Khan Wali Khan, demanded greater autonomy. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had become the new president of Pakistan, following Gen. Yahya Khan’s summary resignation in December 1971 after presiding over the nation’s break-up.


After his 1973 visit to Iran, where Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi warned President Bhutto against allowing nationalist movements on Iran’s border, the Bhutto government dismissed the elected government of Baluchistan. Iran was apparently concerned over the alleged efforts of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in league with the Soviet Union to undermine the pro-West Shah regime. Earlier, in February 1973, with the information that the Soviet Union had shipped a large cache of arms into Islamabad, a special military operation led by Pakistan’s Special Service Group and accompanied by the Pakistan Army Rangers, stormed the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad. Media reports said that authorities had discovered 300 Soviet submachine guns with 50,000 rounds of ammunition and a large amount of money that was to be distributed amongst Baloch separatist groups. Now, the die was cast.


What followed was yet another “invasion” of Baluchistan by the Pakistan Army, which saw the deployment of Huey-Cobra helicopter gunships provided by Iran and reportedly flown by Iranian pilots. Across the border, the tumult in Afghanistan that began in 1974 with the abdication of King Zahir Shah, and the power grab by the king’s cousin, Mohammad Daud, a socialist, further complicated the internal situation within Baluchistan. Shah Reza Pahlavi, a favorite of Washington’s cold warriors, did his best to see that the armed revolt in Baluchistan was quashed. The Shah did not want the “Soviet-controlled” Baloch insurgency to spill over into its own sizable Baloch community. It was also likely that these actions by Iran were carried out in “loose collaboration” with the United States.


Between 1977 and 2004 Baloch insurgents were relatively quiet. Then again in 2005 it broke open, when Pakistan was again under military rule, Baluchistan once more hit the headlines. Reportedly, the rape of a female doctor at Sui hospital by a Pakistani army officer and several soldiers of the Defense Security Guards on Jan. 2, 2005, sparked an increase in insurgent attacks. Soon open warfare erupted between Baloch groups demanding separation from Pakistan and the Pakistani military. Baloch fighters, mainly from the Bugti and Marri tribes, continued to attack Pakistani military and paramilitary forces and sabotage gas pipelines and other infrastructure on a regular basis.


Though the never-ending warfare between some Baloch tribes and Islamabad/Rawalpindi has no doubt left scars within the Baloch tribes, there is arguably a possibility for healing - if the leaders of Pakistan would take the time to attend to this.


Foreign Interference in Baluchistan


Decades of chaos in Afghanistan, and the associated growth in opium and heroin production in that country under the watch of thousands of foreign troops have also affected Baluchistan deeply. This is the heart of the Golden Crescent and home to scores of powerful organized crime networks, especially criminal organizations engaged in drug smuggling and opium production. Ethnic Baloch-led criminal gangs based in Baluchistan, as well as Taliban factions within Afghanistan, work hand-in-glove based on mutual business interests (as opposed to ideology or politics) in the smuggling of opium out of Afghanistan.


An added factor in Baluchistan’s state of chaos is foreign intervention. Although Baluchistan National Party-M (BNP-M) leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal denies activities by various foreign forces, there are clear indications that a number of negative forces, seeking different objectives, operate within the province.


At the top of Islamabad’s list is India. Islamabad routinely accuses India of aiding insurgencies in Baluchistan and threatens to produce documents to substantiate such claims, but never does. There is good reason why India might indeed aid the insurgents. But the level of India’s possible support is unknown, because Islamabad is either unable or unwilling to produce documents proving India’s involvement.


One can perhaps infer India’s involvement from various official statements from New Delhi. For instance, the statement issued on July 16, 2009 following a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then-Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani at the nonaligned summit in Sharm el-Sheikh ends with these words: “Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Baluchistan and other areas.”


Replying to the public uproar in India over this, Manmohan Singh told the Indian Parliament on July 30: “When I spoke to Prime Minister Gilani about terrorism from Pakistan, he mentioned to me that many Pakistanis thought that India meddled in Baluchistan. I told him that we have no interest in destabilizing Pakistan. ... If Pakistan has any evidence ... we are willing to look at it because we have nothing to hide.” That statement does not really explain why Baluchistan was at all included in the joint statement - unless India is, indeed, involved in some form or manner in helping the Baloch insurgents.


More direct accusations of Indian involvement have appeared elsewhere. For instance, the US think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relation’s magazine, Foreign Affairs, published the report of a roundtable discussion on the causes of instability in Pakistan in its March 2009 edition. There C. Christine Fair, a well-known US political analyst, is reported to have said that “having visited the Indian mission in Zahedan, Iran, I can assure you they are not issuing visas as the main activity. Indian officials have told me privately that they are pumping money into Baluchistan.” There were also media reports of a cable from the US embassy in Islamabad, leaked by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, containing “enough evidences of Indian involvement in Waziristan and other tribal areas of Pakistan as well as Baluchistan.”


Earlier, in an interview in the India-based Outlook magazine’s Apr 24, 2006 issue, then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s close associate, Mariana Baabar, stated without providing any evidence that “RAW has established its training camps in Afghanistan in collaboration with the Northern Alliance remnants. Approximately 600 ferraris, or Baloch tribal dissidents, are getting specialized training to handle explosives, engineer bomb blasts and use sophisticated weapons in these camps.” (RAW is the acronym of the Indian foreign intelligence organization, Research and Analysis Wing).


India is by no means the only outside power involved in Baluchistan. There are others who have left their paw-marks and who have been named often as troublemakers there. For years since 2003, Baluchistan was the operational center of an anti-Iran terror group, Jundullah. This group conducts cross-border terrorism inside Iran’s adjacent Sistan-Baluchistan province to trouble the Shi’a regime in Tehran - as the cats-paw of much more powerful players.


The Saudi Factor


In 2008, Arabic website cited informed Peshawar-based Pakistani sources who claim that Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies have significantly increased the number of their covert operations (Saudis ‘behind Jundullah hostage taking’: Thai Press Reports: December 10, 2008). The report also said Saudi Arabia has extended its channels of communication across Pakistan, and particularly Peshawar. According to information obtained from sources in Peshawar, said Saudi Arabia has been directly supporting Jundullah to carry out the hostage-taking of Iranian police officers.


The report also claims that Saudi Arabia and the US Central Intelligence Agency have been using Jundullah as the “proxy army” to destabilize the government in Iran. In July 2008, Pakistan’s former Army Chief, General Mirza Aslam Baig, said the outlawed group is the main recipient of US financial and military aid.


In another report in July 2009, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed that US Congressional leaders secretly agreed to President George W. Bush’s $400-million funding request in 2008 for a major escalation in covert operations in Iran. Under the ruling, the United States can arm and fund terrorist groups such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) and Jundullah militants, Hersh states.


Another news item, one that came out of Israel, said the US news magazine Foreign Policy’s Mark Perry had reported that the Mossad carried out operations inside Baluchistan in 2007-2008 behind the back of the US government, which infuriated then-US President George W. Bush.


Perry quotes a number of American intelligence officials and claims that the Mossad agents used American dollars and US passports to pose as CIA spies to try to recruit members of Jundallah, which he describes as a Pakistan-based Sunni extremist organization that has carried out a series of attacks in Iran and assassinations of government officials. According to the report, Israel’s recruitment attempts took place mostly in London, right under the nose of US intelligence officials (‘Israeli Mossad agents posed as CIA spies to recruit terrorists to fight against Iran’: Haaretz: Barak Ravid: Jan.13, 2012).


In addition to the covert operations by Jundullah, Baluchistan is now a major Shi’a-killing center. The killers are members of the banned Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). LeJ was set up years ago in Pakistan with the alleged support of the Pakistan ISI as an offshoot of another Sunni-terror group, Sipah-e-Sahaba. LeJ was designed to counter Iran’s influence in Pakistan spread through the country’s Shi’a minority. Since then, LeJ has transformed itself into a Shi’a-killing machine. In recent months, LeJ has also carried out mass murders against the Hazaras of Afghanistan in the city of Quetta, Baluchistan’s provincial capital where the Pakistan military’s Command and Staff College is situated.


Both LeJ and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attack, are affiliates of al-Qaeda and they derive much of their finances directly from Saudi Arabia. In a London Guardian article of Dec. 5 2010, “WikiLeaks cables portray Saudi Arabia as a cash machine for terrorists,” the US State Department acknowledges that Saudi Arabia is indeed funding terrorism in Pakistan: “Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba - but the Saudi government is reluctant to stem the flow of money, according to Hillary Clinton. ‘Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,’ she said. Three other Arab countries are listed as sources of militant money: Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.”


LeJ has been financially linked to the Persian Gulf monarchies, as well. Stanford University’s “Mapping Militant Organizations: Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” states under ‘External Influences’: “LeJ has received money from several Persian Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. … These countries funded LeJ and other Sunni militant groups primarily to counter the rising influence of Iran’s revolutionary Shiism.”


Following the recent killings of Hazara Shi’as in Quetta, Islamabad issued routine statements alleging intelligence failure. Since there is a significant presence of Pakistani military in Quetta, one wonders why these killings were allowed to go on. According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch group, in Baluchistan, some Sunni extremist groups are widely viewed as allies of the Pakistan military, its intelligence agencies and the paramilitary Frontier Corps, which are responsible for security there.


Instead of perpetrating abuse against its political opponents in Baluchistan, the military should be safeguarding the lives of members of vulnerable communities under attack from extremist groups, Human Rights Watch said.        

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