Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Balochistan challenge

When the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) coalition government assumed power in 2008, it provided President Zardari with an excellent opportunity to focus on Balochistan. Initially, he did raise hopes when, as head of PPP and being of Baloch descent, he made a public apology for all the wrong doings of the past against the Baloch people. This was followed by further conciliatory gestures by both the president and prime minister which resulted in the release of political detainees and a relatively relaxed political environment. Sadly, the momentum was lost and the province is once again adrift with insurgency taking a turn for the worse, as was evident on the third death anniversary of Nawab Akbar Bugti when the province came to a grinding halt.

Prior to the assassination of Akbar Bugti, the insurgency was primarily centered on Dera Bugti, but after his death it has spread beyond the tribal belt into settled areas of Makran, Sarawan and Jhalawan divisions. In fact, there is an on-going operation in Makran division. Target killings are on the rise and Shias and Punjabis are the main victims. In addition, gas pipelines and high-voltage transmission grids are being blown up, and the armed forces are being targeted. All three militant nationalist movements — the Balochistan Liberation Army, Baloch Republican Army and the Baloch Front are now engaged in low-level insurgency operations and are closely cooperating with one another in attacking military installations and civilian targets.

The Baloch nationalist leaders believe that the present civilian government, even if it wants to pursue a policy of reconciliation, will not succeed as the real policy is still being determined by the military intelligence as was the case during General Musharraf’s period. The Baloch leadership believes that the establishment is not prepared to shed control over their rich resources and there is lack of confidence between the state institutions and the province’s political elite.

Regrettably, the Baloch leadership also does not have much to offer. Tribal chiefs have been mistreating their own people and failing miserably while in office. They are rightly accused of deliberately mismanaging provincial resources and development funds. In fact, they have deliberately kept the people backward by not promoting education, failing to build hospitals and creating physical infrastructure. On the other hand, Balochi nationalists and tribal chiefs claim that the federal government has deprived them of their normal democratic rights and has taken control of their natural resources, thus throttling the Balochs economically and politically.

Extensive involvement of the military and age-old tribal customs has prevented normal political evolution in the province. Practically all Baloch nationalist parties that have a large following and include the Jamhoori Watan Party, Balochistan National party, National party and the Haq Tawar Party boycotted the last national and provincial elections. The current provincial assembly draws its strength more from the establishment than from the people. With politics and governance of the province being managed from outside, the representative character of the provincial government is indeed questionable.

General Musharraf erred by ordering a military operation against Akbar Bugti. The latter was perhaps among the few tribal leaders who had earlier been a part of government and was still prepared to engage with the establishment provided he was dealt with honourably. Instead, Musharraf adopted the fatal military option. The younger generation of tribal leadership has, since then, become more alienated and radicalised. General Musharraf, on the basis of his development projects, wrongly assessed that a majority of the Balochs are supportive of the government and tribal chiefs had limited following.

Tribal leaders claim that false cases are registered against them to keep them out of politics and force them to leave the country. Geography, poor communication links, the absence of political and economic development, antiquated social structures and lack of say in the management of natural resources are mainly responsible for the current state of Balochi frustration.

The main demands of the rebel groups are that security forces should be withdrawn. Political workers and insurgents under detention should be released and the government should make a public apology for its wrong doings. Their main demand however focuses on control of resources and a high level of provincial autonomy bordering on independence. The demand for provincial autonomy in accordance with the 1973 Constitution is perfectly valid and the federal government should grant it, but going beyond that is unacceptable. However, more crucial in the context of Balochistan are social reforms and unless these are undertaken, any sustainable development will not be feasible in a centuries-old tribal structure. The only way to bring the region in the mainstream is to allow genuine politics to take root. But for both political evolution and economic development, the government has to provide security which, so far, has been unsatisfactory.

The government accuses the Balochistan Liberation Army and other nationalist parties of having links with India, Afghanistan and other foreign agencies. The involvement of India was even brought to the attention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by our prime minister at Sharm-el- Shiekh and will remain a serious subject in future exchanges.

China, Iran and United States too have a deep interest in the province.

The establishment of the Gwadar deep-sea port, confirmed deposits of precious metals in the province and shared borders with Afghanistan and Iran has given Balochistan a unique strategic position. Gwadar has the potential of being a highly profitable communication link between China and the Persian Gulf, and between Central Asia and Pakistan. The US has a huge interest in the province to protect itself in Afghanistan, and considers it important in the context of its potential rivalry with China and poor relations with Iran. The power play of global and regional actors in an insurgency-ridden Balochistan is a serious challenge for Pakistan. Islamabad should realise that the peace security and stability of the province are closely interlinked with the integrity and future well being of Pakistan. And Balochi nationalism has to be assimilated and harmonised with the overall national interest, and not allowed to remain hostile to it.

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