Friday, January 21, 2005

FAQs about Balochistan and the state

FAQs about Balochistan and the state

Najam Sethi's
E d i t o r i a l

hy has the situation in Balochistan in general and in Sui in particular suddenly flared up? Why are Bugti tribesmen attacking Sui gas installations and hurting the country’s national assets? What are the demands of the Baloch Liberation Army? Why is the BLA attacking military targets in Balochistan? Who is funding and arming the BLA? What is the role of the big Sardars in the political economy of Balochistan? Are the Sardars for or against development and progress? Why is there popular resentment in Balochistan against a national development project like Gwadar? Why don’t the Baloch want military cantonments in their province when the other provinces are awash with them? Why is there so much anti-army feeling in the province? How can the situation be controlled? How can genuine Baloch grievances be addressed? Consider.

In the ‘settled’ parts of Pakistan, the legitimacy of the state is widely accepted by its citizens even though the legitimacy of any particular government at any time may be in doubt. Crimes against the state are committed when particular laws are violated. But this violation is generally by individuals rather than groups. Resort to violence is therefore low level, particular and local rather than general and spatial. Criminals are hauled up by the police and the writ of the state is enforced . There is not much armed resistance because individual criminals cannot effectively resist the institutional force of the police. Also, having accepted the state as the legitimate and sole defender of their rights, citizens have given up personal arms for self-defence. Therefore a modicum of stability should be the norm rather than the exception.

There are two notable exceptions to these rules. First, there may be armed non-state actor-groups who don’t accept the state as legitimate and wish to overthrow it. Islamist revolutionaries (Al Qaeda-ists, jihadis), separatists and secessionists, even old style Maoist-communists fall into this category. When the local police and paramilitary forces are insufficient to quell their armed challenge to the state, the besieged establishment calls in the army. That is what happened when separatism erupted in East Pakistan in 1971 and that is what is happening in South Waziristan where Al Qaeda-ists are embedded today. Second, there may be armed non-state actor-groups who may accept the legitimacy of the state but don’t accept the legitimacy of the government in office. This happened in Balochistan in the 1970s when a tribal insurgency was provoked by the dismissal of the sub-nationalist government of Chief Minister Sardar Ataullah Mengal by the Z A Bhutto government in Islamabad. It also happened in Karachi from 1990-94 when the armed MQM defied the Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif governments in Islamabad by turns and held the urban areas of Sindh to ransom.

What is happening in Balochistan today can be explained by reference to this analytical framework. Unlike the ‘settled’ areas of Pakistan where the state is supreme, Balochistan has been treated like a tribal area even though it is not one legally where the writ of the state is non-existent. These borderland areas are flush with weapons, and traditional forms of group and tribal dynamics dominate the political discourse. Thus modern notions of both government and state are weak or non-existent in certain areas and among certain tribes. Indeed, the tribal Sardar is a personification of the tribal or pre-capitalist local state while the national government or central state remains a manifestation of the external or colonial or occupying power. Thus all manner of resistance, whether to local and competitive sources of power or to this external power, is always violent and always part of group dynamics rather than peaceful or individual-centred. In other words, where established parties like the PPP and PMLN which accept the legitimacy of the state but not that of the government are likely to take recourse to boycotts and peaceful demonstrations and public rallies in opposition, their Baloch tribal counterparts in opposition are likely to provoke armed attacks on the state. Similarly, where trade unions are likely to strike and negotiate to protect and advance their economic interests, their counterparts in the tribal areas are likely to physically attack their federal employers and contractors to redress their grievances.

This is what has been happening at Sui for 15 years where the Bugti tribe is led by its Sardar and is militantly negotiating pecuniary rights with Pakistan Petroleum Ltd, the owner of the Sui gas fields and installations. Indeed, like a tribal and armed trade union, the Bugtis are wont to attack their employer with guns and rockets in order to get a better deal. Normally, this local and periodic conflict can be controlled by paramilitary forces but sometimes when the conflict threatens to damage national assets the army has to be called in to restore order and bring both parties to the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, however, the recent trouble in Sui has acquired extraordinary proportions as well as a national dimension for two reasons. The first is specific. Perennially tense relations

Between the Bugtis and PPL have been rent asunder by the rape of a lady doctor allegedly by the hated paramilitary personnel which has given an excuse to tribal hardliners to exploit the situation. The second is more problematic. The breakdown of negotiations between the Bugtis and PPL comes in the wider context and background of a resurgent sub-nationalism in the province in which the mainstream secular nationalist parties have been edged out of political power by the state-government regime of General Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad and replaced by the mullahs and religious parties in the provincial government.

This is the point at which the Baloch Liberation Army enters the picture and clouds the issues. This is the point at which the Bugti local feud with PPL enters the simmering and underlying conflict between Baloch nationalists and Islamabad over the issue of effective stake-holding status in Balochistan. This is the point at which Sardar Ataullah Mengal and Nawab Khair Bux Marri, their offspring and nationalist middle class students join hands with Nawab Akbar Bugti and the Bugtis at Sui to voice their demands and vow to continue armed struggle till death. This is why anti-Islamabad Baloch leaders are not prepared to take responsibility for the actions of the BLA even as they secretly urge it to wage war against the external ‘occupying’ power.

In the 1970s, the Baloch secular nationalists were ousted from power by Z A Bhutto and they launched an armed struggle to reclaim power in the province. In the 1980s and 1990s, they were part of the democratic political landscape of the province. So they shared power and didn’t make trouble. But in the last five years they have been excluded from power in the province by General Musharraf, so they have launched an armed struggle to re-stake their claims.

But there are several major differences between the old and the new. First, in the 70s the Baloch insurgents were largely drawn from the Marri tribe and there was only a smattering of middle class urban elements among them. Now, there appears to be the formation of a tribal confederacy which includes the big Marri and Bugti tribes.

Second, a new generation of middle class Baloch nationalists has cropped up which is readily inclined to join the armed struggle against Islamabad. Third, there were no visible outposts or symbols of occupation in the 70s unlike today when the new port of Gwadar under federal jurisdiction has excluded locals from the fruits of its development.

Fourth, the insurgents were poorly equipped with arms and financially strapped in the 70s unlike today when they are flush with the latest weapons (bought from the Taliban and Afghans) and spilling over with donations collected from migrant Baloch workers in the Middle East. There is also a real possibility of estranged neighbouring states fishing in troubled Baloch waters.

Fifth, the army action in Balochistan in the 1970s was conducted by a largely popular and elected political leader and had a degree of acceptability in mainstream eyes, not least because the Baloch resistance could easily be dubbed as separatist since the Russians were thought to be coveting the “warm waters” of the Arabian sea. But no such conditions attach to the current situation.

Sixth, the regional environment is internally volatile for domestic reasons – as the unravelling of many countries for domestic compulsions demonstrates – but externally calm because there are no separatist-baiting superpowers in the neighbourhood.

Seventh, Musharraf’s military regime doesn’t enjoy the same legitimacy and popularity at home that Z A Bhutto’s government enjoyed in Pakistan at that time. Indeed, all mainstream and nationalist parties in the country are opposed to General Musharraf and even his erstwhile mullah friends are out to create trouble for him. Therefore if any repressive army action is undertaken in Balochistan, it is likely to face stiff opposition from all quarters, including elements of the governing coalitions that Musharraf has built for political survival.

Finally, it may be noted that the Pakistan army was fully focused on quelling the Baloch insurgency in the 70s while today it has its hands full dealing with the violent blowback from South Waziristan and Kashmir.

We are in the era of “internal upheavals”. The Soviet Union, Central, South and South East Asia, Eastern Europe and even the Middle East have fallen victim to this contemporary dialectic. Our own Pakistan’s current “internal upheaval” is very much the result of so-called “national security” policies followed in the decades since the 80s. The prosecution of jihad in Indian-held Kashmir and west in Afghanistan eroded the Pakistani state’s “monopoly of violence” by enabling private parties to acquire the means and rationale for violence. This has undermined the maintenance of the “internal sovereignty” of the country. Balochistan has especially suffered from this loss of sovereignty. Its internal polity has been shaped by an influx of Pakhtuns and Afghans following the war against the Russians in Afghanistan and lately by the influx of militant jihadis, Taliban and Al Qaeda elements. The 2002 elections conducted by General Musharraf in Pakistan solidified the situation by ousting the Baloch nationalists from the power equation and entrenching an alienated Pakhtun votebank.

There are additional external factors. Iran is no longer the friendly country that it was in the 1970s when the Shah was its ruler. Apart from a bitter conflict of interests with Pakistan over Afghanistan during the Taliban era, the Iran of today is suspicious of the Pakistan-US axis, especially in view of Washington’s hostility to Iran’s mullahs and its budding nuclear programme. Similarly, Kabul is still influenced by an anti-Pakistan, anti-Pakhtun component that the Taliban ousted in 1996. Finally, there is an entire underworld of jihad that has vowed to reverse Pakistan’s post-9/11 policy and has resorted to terrorism all over the country. In Balochistan this element is embedded with the Taliban who have been allowed by Islamabad to live comfortably in Quetta. This is the larger backdrop to the rise of the Balochistan Liberation Army.

For all these reasons we may come to the following conclusions. First, while the situation at Sui can conceivably be defused in the short term by means of a transparent inquiry into the rape of the lady-doctor, followed by swift pecuniary concessions to the Bugtis, the problem of Balochistan’s nationalist stake holders is more difficult. The BLA cannot be scuttled by military action, political promises and economic crumbs. Indeed, nothing less than a full restoration to power of the nationalists will create the conditions for disunity and disarray in the ranks of the BLA, thereby weakening and isolating it. But this solution is not likely to unfold without fresh general elections in which the military establishment is able and willing to wrap up its opportunistic political alliances and bury its political enmities of the past. Second, constitutional amendments will have to be made in the nature of the central state and the relationship of Islamabad to the provinces. Far from imposing a centralised presidential system as advocated by some, the movement has to be in the direction of full-fledged provincial autonomy and devolution. Third, the reform process has to show disdain for religion-inspired political solutions and allies and consolidate the essence of secular, mainstream, liberal democracy. Finally, the military must return to barracks for all times to come and enable civil society to build a peaceful co-existence at home and in the region.

This is a tall order. If Pakistan’s current civil and military leadership is not up to the task, there will be more rather than less domestic conflict and instability.

MQM makes use of Balochistan crisis

Mazhar Abbas
Altaf Hussain seems to be playing a complex game but at the end of the day is likely to remain within the government rather than opting out

s the crisis in Balochistan continues, the one party that seems to be trying to draw political mileage out of it is the ethnic Mutahidda Qaumi Movement. Recently, its exiled leader Altaf Hussain announced that he would consider walking out of the government if the army launched an operation in Balochistan. But while the announcement has gone down well with the Baloch, it hasn’t amused Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q who shot back saying the government wouldn’t fall even if the MQM were to quit.

To make his threat credible, Altaf Hussain personally contacted Nawab Akbar Bugti, chief of the Jamhoori Watan Party and assured him of his support, besides reiterating that the MQM would quit the present government both at the Centre and in Sindh in case of a military operation in Balochistan.

Baloch leaders like Bugti and Attaullah Mengal have lauded the MQM announcement for being “timely” and the first of such a nature by any major politico-nationalist party.

However, observers question the motives behind Altaf Hussain’s announcement. “It is all part of a game to gain popular support and credibility,” says an analyst. “He is getting too much out of this coalition to want to throw it away.”

The interesting point is that there is no political party in the country that supports the military option in Balochistan and that includes the PML-Q. Ch Shujaat is trying his best to avoid an armed showdown and last Tuesday was reported as saying that the federal government was prepared to amend the Constitution to accommodate Baloch aspirations.

Ch Shujaat has also said that the parliamentary committee set up by him has achieved much and remains relevant (see interview of Sardar Mengal on this page). Moreover, the Balochistan government has made clear that it has called in the troops in-aid-of-civil-power to restore law and order in the Sui area and not for launching a military operation.

From the way it looks, Altaf Hussain is playing a more complex game than simply holding out a threat that he says he intends to carry out. The MQM has been at the short end of the military’s stick since the 1992 army operation in Sindh and it is only in the past three years that it has made its peace with the army. It has the lion’s share of ministries in the Sindh government and is spoiling to contest this year’s municipal polls. The party had boycotted the first election under the new plan and has since had to bear the consequences of what it later described as an ill-thought decision.

But the red rag for the MQM bull would be any move that could bring the PPP close to the army. For a number of reasons that could become the only viable course for Islamabad were Hussain to actually carry out his threat. The likelihood is that he knows Islamabad is showing force in Balochistan rather than actually intending to use it. Given this it makes sense for him to play his cards in a way that he can sidle up to the Baloch nationalists.

In fact, as one analyst told TFT, Altaf Hussain seems to have made a smarter move compared to the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal which has remained taciturn on the Baloch issue. “It almost seems like they are fine with a military operation in Balochistan,” says this analyst. It is possible that the MMA sees the present standoff as being to its advantage especially if it pits the army against the nationalists and by doing that weaken both the sides.

Altaf knows that he holds a key position in Sindh – it has 42 seats in the Sindh assembly and 18 in the NA – and the provincial chief minister, Arbab Ghulam Rahim, depends heavily on the MQM legislators. However, if the push came to a shove, the government could always co-opt the PPPP. Of course, that would also change the entire hue of the political game.

For their part, MQM leaders claim that ministries do not really matter to the party. “The government knows this and so does Shujaat,” an MQM leader told TFT. In the past, the MQM has quit various governments but has also shown the tendency to play various sides. Whether it can do that this time is difficult.

“The MQM has been in and out of power and has still managed to retain its political power whether in the government or in the opposition,” said an analyst. However, the party has undisputedly seen its best times after President Pervez Musharraf since took over in October 1999. Under Musharraf’s rule, the party has managed to get hundreds of MQM activists released after years in jail for cases booked during Benazir and Nawaz Sharif’s governments. But most of all it has managed to get rid of its rival Haqiqi faction.

“Given its gains, its losses will also be big,” says an analyst.

The cost of conflict in Balochistan

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Any escalation would be costlier for the stronger party, namely the army, especially if it gets bogged down in the province

Recently, General Pervez Musharraf has warned the Baloch nationalists against underestimating the power of Pakistan Army, saying that they should not hark back to the seventies. The message is clear: any insurgency will beget a much firmer response. “They wouldn’t know what has hit them,” was how Musharraf put it.

What does one make of this? Surely, we aren’t in the seventies. The dynamics of the regional geo-politics are different and so is the strength of the army. On the surface, conditions support military action against nationalists and other forces. Islamabad could always argue that it was trying to wipe out religious extremists and Al Qaeda elements hiding in the mountains of Balochistan. Indeed, some reports suggest that Taliban and Al Qaeda elements might be moving into northern Balochistan and would likely support an insurgency in the province. The fire could be further stoked by the Indians, possibly even the Iranians. There are even rumours of American intelligence operating in Balochistan.

While these multiple factors should dissuade the government from a military operation, ironically they can also be used to create a rationale for intervention.

However, what Musharraf must realise is that a military response may result in a stalemate that would be difficult to get out of. Also, such a situation would put far greater pressure on Islamabad than on the insurgents. Let’s see how that could happen.

In a way what’s happening is akin to the juvenile game of chicken. Musharraf wants the tribal leaders to chicken out while the Baloch think they can make Musharraf relent. The Baloch also understand too well that the army cannot afford prolonged and serious instability in the province. Balochistan is where Pakistan’s future economic prospects lie. So, while the army has the capacity to conduct a major operation, it would limit itself to arm-twisting. Here are some facts that must be considered.

First, Baloch nationalists are aware of Islamabad’s acute nervousness regarding the ability of a smaller province or a sub-region to destabilise the state. More than the Baloch insurgency of the 70s, it is the memory of the dismemberment of the country in 1971 that makes the army nervous. It is understood that Islamabad would make all effort to protect its soft underbelly. It is interesting to note that the tribal chiefs are escalating tension carefully because they have greater gains within the union. It is the adjustments in the status quo that suit them rather than a major political transformation. However, a better price could only be negotiated through escalating tension. While there is always the probability of an SSG man readily using the trigger, this option would clearly not produce the results Islamabad wants.

Second, sub-regional leaders have a greater ability to escalate tension to Islamabad’s disadvantage. An outbreak of conflict is bound to destabilise the province and negate the economic dividends the federal government hopes to gain through developing Balochistan. Third, there is also the problem of the army’s highly negative image in the province. Unlike Punjab, where the army generally has better approval ratings, the Baloch and the Sindhis do not share a good memory of the armed forces. The crackdown and human rights abuses in Sindh during the 1980s and the operation against the Baloch during the 70s still lurk in peoples’ memories.

The tribal leaders understand that the federal government would have to make a greater and unsuspended effort to sell its development agenda to the people. Meanwhile, there are too many negative images that, if added to the new ones, would thwart any effort to make an effective sales pitch for development projects. For instance, the tragic incident of the rape of the lady doctor would make the central government’s task more difficult. The matter could have been amicably dealt with by instituting an inquiry rather than the gung-ho attitude adopted by the ISPR.

One understands that Musharraf represents the army and would look after the interests of his organisation. But he is also the president and needs to realise what the stakes are. He has to avoid taking steps that could further disenchant the people because that would only strengthen the tribal chiefs’ hands.

Fourth, any escalation might eventually be more embarrassing for the stronger party, the army, especially if the operation results in protracted conflict and the province is turned into a battle zone. A simmering conflict will not only undermine the strategic value of this sub-region and push Islamabad behind in its development schedule, it will also sharpen the army’s image as a ‘carnivorous’ institution. As it is, the armed forces were never as intrusive as they have become under the present dispensation. The officer cadre now demands greater sacrifices in terms of opportunities for itself. This, in itself, is a negative because it means lesser space for the civil and political society. With army officers being placed in civilian organisations, there are less and less opportunities for others to grow. Add to this the conflict dimension and it would mean disaster for the image of the institution.

This concept should be applied to all those cases as well where army personnel have overstepped, such as in the case of the alleged rape incident in Sui. If the institution is interested in economic development, it would have to put itself on a par with the rest of the society and detach itself from political involvement.

Repeating an earlier point, the Baloch leaders have a reputation to protect as well. Right or wrong, they would try to defend their image, which would put them at cross-purpose with the establishment, especially if the latter tries to ignite a political fire. Chickening out of the game would, in fact, cost the Baloch leaders politically. This is an option they would not consider even if confronted with the threat of being dealt a heavy hand by the army.

At this juncture, the nationalist leaders are willing to negotiate which is a positive sign. Their political space had been reduced due to the incursion of religious forces/parties sponsored by GHQ. The nationalist forces have a lot at stake and would be eager to reclaim their space even in partnership with the establishment. Granted, tribal leaders are like ‘roving bandits’ and have consistently demanded concessions, but taking them to war would be costly both politically and militarily. After all, American forces getting bogged down in Iraq and Pakistan army in Wana are recent examples.

It would be a good idea for Musharraf to see the worth of showing magnanimity and understanding the complexity of the situation. Being a military man he should understand that pushed to the wall, a smaller force is equally likely to ‘go to guns.’ If one were to use the analogy of nuclear deterrence, the Baloch nationalist leaders’ ability to challenge the army is similar to a smaller force having nuclear weapons with the intent of using the WMD, if needed. In case of a nuclear conflict the onus is on the bigger power to manage the conflict because the smaller one would be eager to escalate to save its political position. Hence, it is better to de-escalate and contain conflict, particularly if the bigger force wants to keep it at a manageable level.

So, while the army may be able to quash the Baloch nationalists, would the country be able to absorb such a huge cost of conflict?

Use of force will worsen the situation in Balochistan

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Moeed Yusuf
Balochistan is a political problem and it has to be resolved politically

ollowing the recent rape incident involving a lady doctor in Balochistan, a crisis situation has developed in the province. Since the incident, military personnel and gas pipelines in Sui have come under constant attack. In fact, damage to the pipelines has already caused major disruption in gas supply to Sindh and Punjab.

The seriousness of the situation has caused the military to step in to secure the gas facilities. President Musharraf has openly threatened action against Baloch tribes that are creating problems, saying “They shouldn’t push us. It isn’t the seventies when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time they won’t even know what hit them.”

This threat, if Musharraf were to carry it out, would lead to catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, events on the ground suggest he might be seriously contemplating employing force (although no decision to this effect has been made yet). If so, his belief in the utility of a military intervention is entirely misplaced. A military operation will leave us in a far worse situation.

It must be understood at the outset that an overemphasis on the unfortunate rape incident as the underlying cause of the current crisis is erroneous. This incident is simply the latest symptom of a three-decade-old disease. The situation must be analysed within the boarder context of a longstanding resentment against the Centre among certain tribal pockets.

With regards to a military intervention, the first question that needs to be answered is, who is going to be the target of the military operation? This is important since in order to keep the operation limited, pinpointing the enemy and identifying specific targets is an imperative. In Balochistan, opposition comes from two quarters. On the one hand, there are nationalist elements that oppose the Centre’s rule in general while on the other there is a focused conflict in Dera Bugti. In this case, what exactly would the army intervention be looking to achieve? Would it be tasked only to settle the current crisis by targeting those attacking gas facilities in Sui (Bugti tribesmen) and then protecting these installations? Or is the goal to make this a broad intervention in order to quash all forms of opposition to the Centre once and for all?

If the former, the operation would prove to be both unnecessary and futile. A military action against the present troublemakers will do nothing to solve the problem in the long run. It may subdue the crisis temporarily but the underlying grievances will cause active agitation to return sooner or later. A much more amenable way of resolving the present situation would be to arrest the alleged DSG officer and conduct an impartial investigation to the satisfaction of the locals.

However, if the idea is to find a permanent solution to the recurring opposition in Balochistan, the story would be much different. In that case, the scope of the operation would be defined in the broader context of the nationalist problem. What this amounts to is an expansive operation against multiple targets, reminiscent of the ongoing Wana operation.

Analysing Musharraf’s threat to the tribes in light of the above signals his overconfidence in today’s military technology. When he says, “this time you won’t even know what hit you,” he is referring to Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) and their ability to decimate targets without putting the armed forces or civilians at risk. Given the task of quashing anti-Centre elements in the province, such an emphasis on PGMs is absurd.

PGMs cannot produce the results Musharraf is hoping for. Localised armed opposition in guerrilla type formations cannot be defeated without physical presence on the ground. Moreover, the dispersed and mobile nature of such opposition means that the terms of battle favour the guerrillas. They know their terrain, they have established hideouts, they are extremely difficult to identify, they have the benefit of time, they have support from the locals, and most importantly their aim is merely to survive the onslaught, a much easier task than having to eliminate targets.

Asymmetric warfare of this sort always forces militaries to perform what are essentially considered to be non-military functions. Militaries are most confident when they have an identified adversary and are tasked to strategise and fight against its military formations. In asymmetric warfare, however, militaries inevitably end up having to first identify adversaries on an individual-to-individual basis and then target them successfully at the same time ensuring minimal collateral damage. This is when militaries are at their most vulnerable.

One only has to look at other ongoing insurgencies to realise the problems militaries face in such situations. The world’s strongest military has been unable to quash the insurgency in Iraq for over a year. Despite the fact that the US military has the world’s most sophisticated weaponry at its disposal, it has still had to put its troops in harm’s way. As a result, it continues to suffer significant losses. Similarly, more than two years after having attacked Afghanistan, the US still continues to face armed resistance from various quarters. At home, in Wana, despite US assistance and provision of employing advanced military gadgetry, only a few hundred guest militants have played havoc with the army’s plans of making its intervention in the area short and localised. The highly optimistic generals are now beginning to reassess the enormity of the task.

Were a military campaign launched in Balochistan, troops would face much the same problems. The army is sure to be embroiled in a long and protracted campaign. A highly camouflaged opposition will also ensure high armed forces and civilian casualties and significant infrastructure degradation. To expect a smoother escapade would be highly unrealistic.

Finally, let me highlight another worrisome aspect of the military intervention: role of foreign powers in the potential operation. The presence of external influences in Balochistan is no hidden secret. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), in large part, has been funded by external interests who have sought to maintain a clout in the affairs of the province. External powers interested in maintaining an influence in the province would see an opportunity in the military operation. If nothing else, they could make the ground situation messier by strengthening BLA’s hand. The situation would also provide external actors with an opportunity to penetrate deeper into the province’s affairs. This is a development Pakistan could certainly do without.

Balochistan is a political problem and it has to be resolved politically.


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