Tuesday, December 21, 2004

How India's Intelligence Establishment Sees the Balochistan Situation

How India's Intelligence Establishment Sees the Balochistan Situation

By Kanchan Lakshman

NEW DELHI, December 21: The stage for escalated, and possibly extraordinary, violence has been set in Balochistan. Addressing the media at Turbat in the province on December 16, 2004, President Pervez Musharraf declared that his Government would crush all anti-Pakistan movements: "We are gathering information through intelligence and other sources that who is doing what in the area and I warn them because when the Government starts action against them, they will be crushed."

This declaration of intent only completes what has been on the cards, at least since 31st March 2004, when the General had declared on the Pakistan Television (PTV) "Newsnight" program, that the problem with Balochistan was that only 5 per cent of the area was 'A area', while 95 per cent was 'B', where the police did not operate. Soon, he had stated, the entire 95 per cent 'B area' would be made into 'A area'. Already, he disclosed further, five districts in the 'B area' had been declared 'A area'.

[The British colonial administration divided Balochistan into A and B Areas: the former were under direct British control and administration; in the latter, the British exercised proxy control through the Sardars or tribal chiefs. The system was continued after Independence by the Pakistan Establishment.]

With its vast potential for a wide range of natural resources, including oil, uranium, copper and other minerals, its critical strategic location - it commands over 900 miles of the Arabian Sea coastline, and the development, particularly, of the Gwadar Port with massive Chinese financial and technical assistance, 'stabilizing' Balochistan and consolidating Islamabad's administrative hold over the province is emerging as an overarching objective of the present regime.

These objectives militate directly both against the long-standing system of near autonomy most of the province has enjoyed since and even before the creation of Pakistan, and against a number of critical demands consistently held by the Baloch people and leadership. Specifically, the Baloch Ittehad (Baloch Unity) movement seeks, among a range of other objectives, to bring an end to the exploitation of Baloch resources by Islamabad, particularly by North Punjab; to secure fair royalties for Baloch gas; to secure employment for locals in projects being executed in Baloch areas; and to ensure that revenues from various projects in Balochistan are invested in the province itself.

More significantly, the Baloch have long and bitter memories of Islamabad's repression and betrayal over the past, and there is great venom against the 'Punjabis' in the Baloch discourse. In the 1950s, after an unsuccessful insurrection, Pakistan offered a General Amnesty to the rebels, but when their leaders came out they were hanged. This betrayal weighs heavily in the consciousness of the Baloch, as does the brutality with which the rebellion of the 1970s was suppressed, with indiscriminate use of superior firepower - including air power - against Baloch camps and villages in which thousands were killed.

But the current sentiment goes well beyond the bitterness of historical memories to a fear of an existential threat, as Islamabad unfolds its plans to transform the very character of all of Balochistan. The military regime has reportedly decided to replace the Levies (the local enforcement apparatus) and to provide full powers to the police to control law and order. This would bring 25 districts of Balochistan into province-wide policing, and do away with the traditional institution of Levies, which are manned substantially by the locals. The Federal Interior Ministry is reported to have finalized a Rupees 9.6 billion security plan under which the 'B areas' would be converted into 'A areas' under this scheme, and for which 9,866 personnel would be recruited.

Changing the structure of policing in Balochistan is central to a deeper re-engineering of the entire power structure in Balochistan. Many of the tribes have already been bought over or neutralized and it is only among a few dominant tribes such as the Bugtis and the Maris that an independent power base survives.

The Pakistan Establishment has systematically diluted the traditional system of working through the Sardars, because the local leadership is no longer trusted. The Sardars, in turn, jealously guard their socio-political and financial control in the regions, and seek to 'keep the destiny of Balochistan in their own hands'. Each of Islamabad's new experiments at social engineering is, consequently, deeply resented, as is the increasing dominance of the 'Punjabis' in Islamabad.

Clearly, the Sardars now realize that Musharraf has confronted them with a 'do-or-die' choice. If the General succeeds in transforming all of Balochistan into 'A areas', the power of the Sardars will have ended. The current struggle is, consequently, quite different from the insurrections of the 1950s and the 1970s. The Sardars, in the present instance, are completely united. Earlier movements had individual tribes rebelling, and these were individually targeted in concentrated areas in the mountains into which they escaped.

The current and mounting insurgency is radically different. Presently, a majority of Balochistan is covered, and almost all tribes have been united in their opposition to Islamabad in the enveloping Baloch Ittehad The political leadership of the Ittehad comprises Khair Buksh Marri, Akbar Bugti, Attaullah Mengal, Abdul Hayee Baloch and Hasil Bizenjo. Marri rejects the Parliamentary system, and is more prone to 'direct action'. Bugti leads a political party - the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), but also retains armed cadres. Mengal has adopted the path of political protest and mobilization, and is the Chairman of the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONAM). Hayee Baloch and Bizenjo are leaders of the National Party (NP).

While Marri, Bugti and Mengal are Sardars, Baloch and Bizenjo come from ordinary middle class backgrounds. All have come together in a loosely cooperative structure under the banner of the Ittehad This present movement, consequently, is an inclusive movement representing wide Balochi interests, not just the Sardars and there has been increasing popular consciousness of exploitation among the common Baloch, which now transcends elite interest groups.

This has translated into a calibrated and widely dispersed campaign of attacks virtually across the length and breadth of Balochistan. Total casualties have, however, remained relatively small - given the South Asia context - with some 94 dead and 303 wounded in the current year (till December 14). However, vital installations and state actors have been repeatedly targeted and the strife in Balochistan is emerging as a critical internal security problem for Islamabad.

The most alarming aspect of this crisis, from Islamabad's perspective, is the sheer spatial and temporal distribution of attacks on the Army and security forces, vital installations and sporadic skirmishes. These have been reported throughout the year from north-central Balochistan (Kohlu and Dera Bugti), the capital Quetta (also the hub of sectarian terrorism) in the west, and Gwadar, Kech, and Khuzdar in the south. Encounters between the troops and 'Baloch nationalists' have been on the upswing since the middle of 2004 and furthermore, increased army presence ('protective deployment' according to military regime spokesperson Major General Shaukat Sultan) has led to high-profile targets like Chief Minister Jam Muhammad Yousaf falling under the compass of violence.

Nevertheless, the pattern of insurgent violence thus far suggests that the Balochis are essentially demonstrating their capabilities, rather than using them to the fullest. Hence, the low fatality levels, uncommon for violence-wrecked South Asia. Actions are being calibrated to a threshold that keeps the movement alive, while a fuller commitment is kept at abeyance till clearer assurance of support is secured from one or another external power. It is significant, in this context, to note that, though fatalities have been kept low, rocket attacks and improvised explosive device explosions have been an almost daily affair throughout 2004. In May 2004 alone, for instance, approximately 140 rocket attacks were recorded, targeting the gas pipelines in Sui, while some 120 rocket attacks were reported in June.

The insurgency has gradually spread across the whole of Balochistan, and is not concentrated in any one sector. Strikingly, there is no locus of command either, and the Balochis, wiser for their experience in the 1970s, appear to have ensured that their movement will not easily be 'decapitated'. A deeper scrutiny of the insurgency also reveals that no single leader is central to its survival, and there are indications derived from operational patterns that suggest that the movement has, in fact, been dispersed down to the level of cells comprising 2 to 10 persons.

Widening the strategic depth of the insurgency, the Baloch have sought to exploit the situation prevailing in Waziristan as well. Insurgents from the tribal belt have reportedly begun crossing into the mountain ranges of Balochistan. Tarique Niazi notes that, "they seamlessly melt into the latter's capital city, Quetta, which houses predominantly Pakhtun population, alongside the burgeoning demographic growth of Baluchs on its skirts."

However, the current insurgent activities are like warning shots fired over the bow, not an open insurgency as yet. While it is true that grievances which form necessary conditions for an insurgency are a reality in Balochistan, they have not been adequate enough, thus far, to trigger a major conflagration. Most violence is 'nationalist' and there is no co-operation between Islamists in the North and the Balochs, and there is little love lost between the Mullahs and the Sardars. Fortunately for Islamabad, though the Balochis are devout, they are not fundamentalist. Indeed, efforts by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) to consolidate the influence of the Mullahs in Balochistan is seen as a direct threat to the power and influence of the Sardars.

The crisis has acquired additional urgency as a result of a multiplicity of 'externalities' linked to the strategic location and natural resources of the province. Chinese involvement is clearly growing in Balochistan, and as the region becomes increasingly important, its security dimensions cannot be neglected. Gwadar is, in fact, being projected as a major economic hub in the region, facilitating imports and exports between Pakistan and China. While negotiations are currently underway for investment and collaboration in coal-fired power generation, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz during his visit to China from December 14 to 18, 2004, signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the expansion of Gwadar seaport channel capacity for facilitating large vessels.

Further, China is to continue work on the Rupees 16 billion Saindak Project as Pakistan has reportedly expressed its willingness to extend the lease of Saindak copper-gold mines in Balochistan for another 20 years. Crucially, the Gwadar Port is part of China's long-term strategy to consolidate its strategic presence in the region, and its maritime dominance in the Persian Gulf. The security of these and a widening spectrum of projects for 'economic cooperation' in the province is, consequently, pivotal, and it is believed that China has made it amply clear to Islamabad that a repeat of the incident of May 3, 2004, at Gwadar Port, in which three Chinese engineers lost their lives, would be 'unacceptable'.

US interests in the province are also increasing. While the Government has sought to dispel notions that the US may be permitted to locate military bases in Balochistan, analysts point out that the US military has, for long, targeted the development of a base near Dalbandin and Pasni, 180 miles west of Karachi, close to the Gwadar Port. A further deepening of Pakistan's relations with the United States, including plausible base access, are to a certain extent co-terminus with the plans underway to consolidate the Army's control over Balochistan, which could project 'strategic depth' into Central Asia and the Gulf region.

Another, albeit ambivalent, externality relates to Iran's interest in Balochistan. Iran's population includes about two per cent of Baloch, who nevertheless dominate or have very significant presence in the Zahedan , Khorasan, Seistan and Balochistan (Iran). The Baloch are Sunnis, and Baloch separatism - and the unity of the Baloch across the Iran-Pakistan border - is seen as a threat by Teheran as well.

Indeed, at the height of the suppression of the Baloch movement in Pakistan in the 1970s, US-supplied Iranian combat helicopters, at least some of them manned by Iranian pilots, had joined the Pakistan Air Force in its strafing and bombing of Baloch camps and villages. At other times, Iran's general hostility to predominantly Sunni Pakistan, and its involvement in the sectarian conflict within Pakistan, has tempted it to support the Balochis. Currently, however, there is no evidence of such support.

Other complexities also color the situation in Balochistan. At least one of these involves an internal clash of interests in US policy. While the US is broadly committed to the general 'stabilization' of Pakistan, it does have a vested interest in delaying projects that would establish a dominant Chinese strategic presence in the region, particularly the Port of Gwadar. There would, consequently, be some US interest in persistent, though low grade, violence in the province.

The cumulative force of these considerations, however, is that the Islamabad now places the highest priority on the 'pacification' of Balochistan. Given his temperament, Musharraf's first inclination is to crack down. By nature an impatient man, he would seek to cement Islamabad's dominion in the province during his own tenure, and his decisions would be based more on his assessment of how necessary tranquility in the region is for Pakistan's economic and strategic interests, and not on objective assessments of the Baloch insurgency.

The primary response, consequently, has been military. In October this year, Lieutenant General Hamid Rab Nawaz was handpicked to head the 12 Corps based at Quetta, which is in charge of the Baloch Operations. Nawaz, a Punjabi from Chakwal and, like Musharraf, a Commando, shares Musharraf's belief structures and orientation, and is believed to have been sent specifically to Quetta to 'take care' of the situation. The 12 Corps comprises two divisions, the 33rd and the 41st, both headquartered at Quetta, but currently projected in 'protective deployments' across the province. In addition, the Frontier Corps (FC) - a paramilitary force - has its units present all over Balochistan.

The FC is officered and overwhelming manned by non-Balochis, and is deeply resented, with most recent rebel rocket attacks targeting its personnel. There has, till now, been no additional allocation of Forces to Balochistan, though available evidence suggests that counter-insurgency operations are being carried out in wide areas of the province, including in Kohlu, Dera Bugti, Gwadar, Turbat and Makran.

There is, however, a danger here that Islamabad may well be biting off more than it can chew. In November 2003, in what was possibly a moment of braggadocio, Musharraf had declared that only five per cent of Balochistan was a 'trouble spot' and that he would 'straighten out' the trouble-making Baloch leaders. This is clearly a misreading of the situation on the ground, and while the present Force deployment may be sufficient to 'contain' the violence at existing levels, particularly given the present proclivities of the rebels themselves, it is far from adequate to secure the radical structural transformations that Musharraf appears to be committed to, and to suppress the natural local responses these can be expected to provoke in an entrenched, deeply traditional and historically hostile society.

The troubles in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) have already stretched Islamabad's Forces, with over 70,000 troops stationed in South Waziristan alone. Additional commitments in Balochistan would demand a dramatic redrafting of national strategies, and it appears that the military regime has not, in fact, visualized the deployments that would be required in a rapidly worsening internal security scenario in Balochistan.

Crucially, Balochistan's unforgiving terrain would not yield to marginal increments in deployment. Topography provides undetectable gateways to the Baloch on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Some areas of Afghanistan (Nemroz, Helmand and Farah) also have significant Baloch population, and historically these have constituted safe areas for rebels during earlier uprisings.

More significantly, harshness of the terrain and the sheer expanses of the province - 347,641 square kilometers, nearly 43 per cent of Pakistan's total area - are such that, in conventional counter-insurgency operations, virtually the whole of the Pakistan Army could sink into the province without being able to establish full control. Sir Charles Napier once remarked that Balochistan was "the place where God threw the rubbish when He made the world."

Selig Harrison in his authoritative work, In Afghanistan's Shadow, notes that "getting from one of these valleys to the next on foot can be a precarious business: there are few passes, and many of them are not negotiable even by local donkeys accustomed to the jagged terrain." But for the Baloch, according to a 16th century war ballad, he adds, "the lofty heights are our comrades... the pathless gorges our friends." With an insurgency dispersed across the whole geographical area of Balochistan, it will be impossible to repeat the successes of the 1970s, when small locations in the mountains where particular rebellious tribes had fled were targeted with overwhelming force.

Further, vast areas of Balochistan can easily be cut off from the rest of Pakistan and there are just two routes from provincial capital Quetta to Karachi, both of which can be disrupted or interdicted. The evidence of earlier Baloch rebellions indicates that the Baloch knows and can live off the terrain, is a hardy fighter, virtually 'born with weapons', and makes a formidable adversary. There is, moreover, no shortage of weapons among the rebels. These can easily be purchased from the Afghan surplus, both within Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Wide and relatively indiscriminate state violence will be necessary if the Baloch are to be 'crushed' once again.

Such violence is, of course, not beyond Islamabad's capacities. The insurrections of the 1950s and 1960s were, in fact, suppressed through unrestrained violence, with air power widely used to strafe and destroy civilian concentrations. Musharraf himself may, also, not be particularly averse to such extreme measures - he had, after all, earned himself the sobriquet of the 'Butcher of Baltistan' during his campaigns as a Brigadier in the Northern Areas.

It is questionable, however, whether such state repression would be sustainable within the current international context - despite the extraordinary indulgences the 'international community', and particularly the US, has inclined to extend to this persistent offender against international standards. Pakistan appears, currently, to be preparing grounds to justify extreme use of force in the province, planting reports that Osama bin Laden may be in Balochistan and that some Al Qaeda leaders, who were discovered in Iran, had escaped to that country through Balochistan. The presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda elements (essentially supported by the Pashtuns in the North Balochistan areas) is being projected in order to justify action against wider Baloch targets further South.

Some diversionary 'political initiatives' have, however, also been announced to manage the dissent in Balochistan. The most significant of these was the appointment during Shujaat Hussain's brief tenure as Prime Minister, of a Parliamentary Committee comprising two sub-committees, one to look into the problems in Balochistan, and the other to examine the question of 'Provincial Autonomy'. The former was headed by Mushahid Hussain, who has since made more than one visit to Balochistan and has met all the chieftains.

The Balochistan Sub-Committee's report is to be submitted on January 7, 2005. The Provincial Autonomy sub-committee, which has only met a couple of times, has seen little movement. These committees essentially constitute a classical South Asian tactic that relies on delay to diffuse political crises. Given the circumstances in Balochistan, it is improbable that such stratagem will significantly influence the larger course of events.

The military crackdown in Balochistan is clearly slated for intensification. The operations against the jirgas in Waziristan have already demonstrated that no one can be exempt from punitive action if Islamabad's authority is challenged, and that Musharraf believes that there are certain areas of Pakistan that have to be 'quietened' in the immediate future. With the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) relatively secured, it is now Balochistan's turn.

Other events that may propel such action beyond a 'turning point' would include an act of major sabotage at Gwadar; a major disruption of the gas pipeline; or the linking up of Baloch forces across international borders. Even absent such extreme provocation, the province appears to be headed for an extended period of bloody violence that may well have defining consequences for the future of Pakistan itself.

The writer is a Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management and Assistant Editor, Faultlines. This article was published in the South Asia Intelligence Review.


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