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Blundering in Balochistan

As General Pervez Musharraf blunders through Balochistan, he would do well to remember the fate of the Soviet Armies in Afghanistan, when a jihad engineered by the US and an unlikely gaggle of allies through Pakistan inflicted a humiliating defeat on what was, then, one of the world's two super powers. It was Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence that had orchestrated that jihad - and at least some of the Baloch had been armed and mobilised in the campaign against the Soviets.

The Musharraf regime cannot be ignorant of the enormity of what can be achieved through contemporary guerrilla and insurrectionary strategies against the blunt force of a conventional Army. Helicopter gunships, planes, tanks, incendiary bombs and missiles may create a sense of great power among the leaders of Pakistan's military and paramilitary forces but in terrain and a theatre like Balochistan, much of this "power" is no more than an illusion.

Pakistan, it appears, has still to learn the lessons of 1971, when it lost its Eastern wing as a result, essentially, of the same patterns of political mismanagement, infinitely compounded by indiscriminate and brutal use of military force. The Army, the main culprit in that case, is still looking for alibis to explain the debacle. Indeed, the Army engaged in a vicious campaign of repression in Balochistan shortly thereafter, between 1973 and 1977, in order to restore its own confidence and redeem itself before the power-elite in Pakistan.

General Musharraf has sought to raise the bogey of the "foreign hand" in Balochistan today but it is significant that, despite the protracted conflict in the province in the 1970s, and the temporal proximity to the Bangladesh war, India has consistently refused to intervene.

If anything, India had far greater incentive and capacity to intervene in the 1970s, in a Pakistan immensely weakened by the Bangladesh war, than it has today, in a situation where it is actively seeking a gas pipeline from Iran which would necessarily pass through Balochistan.

It is time Pakistan realised that the predatory culture that dominates its politics and, overwhelmingly, its Army, will not benefit it. The age for such a primitive outlook is long past and while the use of force may be necessary for a country from time to time, the core of national responses to popular grievances lies in political management.

Musharraf has been eloquent in his advocacy of what he calls "self-governance" and "self-determination" in Jammu and Kashmir - but if Islamabad had conceded even a fraction of the self-governance and democratic rights that are currently available to the people of that Indian State to the people of Balochistan, he would not have the present insurrection on his hands.

Unfortunately, Pakistan's leadership is still dominated by militaristic ideas and ideologies. The reality is that militarism and the patterns of covert warfare that Pakistan is chronically engaged in benefit no one today. Pakistan's leadership continues to believe that it is securing a "strategic advantage" through its campaign of terror in J&K; the truth is, Pakistan is being systematically hollowed out by these campaigns.

Most of Pakistan's crises today can be traced back to its covert campaigns in Afghanistan and India. A continued reliance on military and terrorist methods, both within the country and in the larger region, will invite the collapse of the entire structure.

Last year, Musharraf had issued a crude threat to the Baloch, declaring, "This is not the 1970s... they will not even know what and from where something has come and hit them." He is correct on the first count. This is not the 1970s and the world will not long tolerate the sort of campaigns of genocide that Pakistan got away with in 1973-77, and that it is trying to repeat now.

Nor indeed will such a campaign now be successful in a theatre like Balochistan. Access to modern weapons and technologies has tremendously narrowed the gap between State and rebel forces in this age; the Baloch are no mean enemy; and Balochistan is a vast land - 3,47,641 square kilometres, accounting for as much as 43 percent of Pakistan's total landmass.

In relative terms it has a small population, just six percent of Pakistan's total, but this amounts to nearly 10 million people, most of who are today utterly alienated from Islamabad. (It is useful to recall, in this context, that Jammu and Kashmir accounts for 2.6 percent of the Indian landmass and, with about 10 million people, barely one percent of its population. And popular discontent in J&K is nowhere near the passions that have now been provoked in Balochistan.)

Worse, Balochistan is by no means the only crisis confronting Islamabad today. Nearly 80,000 troops are currently concentrated in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), to contain the restive people there, and to execute the apparent "war against terrorism". Gilgit-Baltistan, another region of chronic neglect and oppression, has seen rising levels of violence and public ire over the last two years. Musharraf has, of course, done a hasty volte face on the Kalabagh Dam project or he would have had another crisis on his hands in Sindh, and escalating violence in the NWFP.

Both Sindh and Punjab, moreover, have seen significant Islamist extremist and terrorist activity. The fact is, Pakistan - which was relatively at peace internally (though it was a chronic nuisance for all its neighbours) six years ago, when Musharraf seized power - has seen a steady expansion of the spheres of disorder and violence under the present and visibly incompetent dictatorship, and the future promises little relief.

Indeed, despite Musharraf's diatribes against the foreign hand and statements against India, it is the case that his capacities to deal with problems in NWFP and Balochistan are largely a consequence of the peace process with India, which has allowed him to withdraw a significant proportion of his forces along the Line of Control and International Border, for redeployment in internal security duties. Without any overt aggression, had India sought to maintain a posture even of passive belligerence, these forces could not have been released for such duties. This alone is ample testimony to India's intentions towards Pakistan.

The current violence in Balochistan lies along a historical continuum of discontent and rebellion. It is only because Pakistan chooses to regard the movement in isolation, as a unique event, that its leadership thinks external and radical provocation and support are necessary. Indeed, the present surge in violence has long been predicted, and emerged, in a sense, in slow motion, progressively compounded by Islamabad's mismanagement.

The Baloch have, for years, been demanding a modicum of justice and equity in the distribution of benefits between the provinces, particularly those arising from the extraction of natural resources. Balochistan is perhaps the most resource-rich province in Pakistan, with an abundance of natural gas and minerals. However, it receives a pittance as royalties - a fraction of what other provinces, including, for instance, the NWFP, receive for their resources.

This province - with all its bounty of natural resources - remains the poorest in the country, with few avenues of employment for locals and little by way of public services in the field of education, health and welfare. As Sanaullah Baloch, the Senator from this region, put it: "The people of Balochistan are still living in the stone age and people living close to the gas-rich Sui in Balochistan are still using wood to make fire in winter."

Such treatment can only widen the rift between Islamabad and the people of Balochistan, especially since a majority in the province rejects Pakistan's forcible annexation of the province in 1948, despite the fact that it was not part of British India but a separate principality under the Khan of Kalat. Sub-nationalist sentiments, compounded by Islamabad's obtuseness, have already driven the Baloch to at least three major rebellions since then, and the present insurrection is the fourth.

Instead of addressing these issues, Islamabad has chosen to militarise the entire province, establishing four major cantonments, 59 "mini-cantonments", six missile testing ranges, three nuclear testing sights, and hundreds of military and paramilitary posts across Balochistan. Part of the current discontent relates to the expansion of this military machine by the creation of new cantonments. Worse, over a million non-Baloch have been settled in Balochistan, and there are even now large acquisitions and allocation of lands to outsiders, including major projects for Armymen drawn from outside the region.

Musharraf has spoken repeatedly and boastfully of the many "developmental projects" that he plans for Balochistan, and the Gwadar Port is held out as an example of what can be achieved. But none of these appear to have any visible benefits for the local population and they bring more and more "outsiders" into the province, aggravating resentment, friction and eventual violence.

The character of Islamabad's responses to legitimate demands for justice is dramatically illustrated by the Dr Shazia Khalid rape case, in which an Army officer was involved. The incident occurred on the premises of the Sui Refinery in January 2005, and locals, led by Nawab Akbar Bugti, took up the case.

Islamabad chose to confine and intimidate the victim in this case and to shield the perpetrators. Eventually, Dr Khalid fled the country under sustained threat, while the military response to protests by the Bugti tribe provoked an escalating pattern of violence which was only temporarily "settled" by an agreement in April 2005. The Bugti areas have now again come under military attack, with Islamabad unilaterally violating the terms of the April agreement.

Musharraf has sought to project the current violence in Balochistan as a conspiracy of a few sardars (the traditional community leaders in the region) but the truth is, the present movement has united the Baloch across class boundaries. Middle class leaders such as Abdul Hayee Baloch and Hasil Bizenjo have overcome their natural antipathies to join together with sardars such as Akbar Bugti and Khair Baksh Marri.

It took more than 80,000 Pakistani troops backed by air power - including planes and helicopter gunships provided by Iran - more than three years to suppress the rebellion of the 1970s. This was only possible with the most extraordinary and excessive use of force, with "collective punishment" inflicted on the larger community, and unnumbered thousands of civilians killed. This time around, these methods will not be sustainable for very long.

Iranian - indeed any external - support will be unavailable to Islamabad and the forces of the increasingly united and better equipped rebels will be greater. This war will sap the Pakistani nation of its vitality. Musharraf's rational choice is a political compromise. Regrettably, Musharraf's record does not provide significant evidence of such rationality.


(Published in The Pioneer, January 22, 2006)






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