Friday, June 03, 2005

The Ongoing Baluch Insurgency in Pakistan

Source : Jamestown Foundation
By Tarique Niazi

On May 14, four bombs went off in Gwadar, a coastal town in Pakistan’s western province of Baluchistan, where around 500 Chinese engineers and workers are busy building a deep-sea port. [1] On May 3, 2003, a bomb blast at the same site killed three Chinese engineers and wounded nine of their compatriots. Pakistan has since assured Beijing that it will take stringent measures to improve security. Yet threats to port and personal security are far from over. The menace has in fact grown too strong for the Pakistani government to combat it effectively. It was in the midst of this worsening security situation that Islamabad indefinitely postponed the port’s planned inauguration by the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who was scheduled to open it during his recent visit to Islamabad on April 5-7. [2] Since the Chinese government approved its feasibility study in May 2002, Baluch nationalists have been voicing their opposition to the port with violence. Each May, they rock the port area with bombs to express their rejection of it. The May 14 bombing was part of this “anniversary violence.” Baluch nationalists believe that Islamabad is selling them out to regional or global powers in exchange for securing Punjab, where the overwhelming majority of the ruling class comes from.


Nationalist Violence in Baluchistan


The violence that was set off by the building of the port has now spread all across the province. It is, however, largely concentrated, besides Gwadar, in naturally endowed areas of Khuzdar, Kohlu, and Dera Bugti. Last August, five soldiers from the Pakistan Army were killed in Khuzdar. Months later (on December 10), a military truck was bombed in the capital city of Quetta, killing 11 people including two soldiers. Of all the places, the Dera Bugti area has seen the worst of the violence, where 20,000 troops are stationed to fend off Baluch tribesmen. In March this year, 8 soldiers and 50 tribesmen were killed in a clash between the members of the Bugti tribe and government troops. [3]


Gwadar occupies strategic waterways that connect energy-rich Central Asia with the rest of the world. Khuzdar, Kohlu, and Dera Bugti sit on the largest chunk of Pakistan’s 24 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas reserves. [4] Dera Bugti is Pakistan’s energy capital, the three gasfields – Sui, Uch, and Pir Koh – together account for almost half of the nation’s total annual production of 0.875 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which is valued at $3 billion. [5] All four areas are divided among as many major tribes: Gichkis (Gwadar), Mengals (Khuzdar), Marris (Kohlu), and Bugtis (Dera Bugti). They are all united in their resistance to what they claim is colonization of their land and its resources.


The federal government, wittingly or unwittingly, is fanning the flames of resistance by unsuccessfully attempting to crush it with violence. It is pushing hard for setting up garrisons in Khuzdar, Kolu, and Dera Bugti. Gwadar is already a garrison area, which the government has officially designated as “the most sensitive defense zone.” In addition, Pakistan Navy has built a naval base at Ormara, Baluchistan, which became operational in 2001. Another airbase at Pasni, Baluchistan, was leased to the U.S. during its invasion of Afghanistan in November 2003.


This militarization of the province reprises Baluch memories of a shared past that is filled with their colonizers’ failed attempts at their subjugation and expropriation of their natural wealth. Last in the long string of such colonizers were the British who wisely chose to leave them alone. Under their almost two-hundred-year colonial rule, Baluchs remained a free nation. They flaunt their four thousand year history of struggle and freedom and throw it at their latter-day “colonizers” – namely the Punjab-dominated government in Pakistan.


The resistance is being led by several insurgent groups that have emerged throughout the province to defend their land. The three most important are: the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Baluchistan Liberation Front (BLF), and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The BLA is the deadliest of all, and it specializes in targeting military posts, telecommunication lines, energy infrastructure, civil servants, and police chiefs. It was the BLA that killed and wounded 12 Chinese in May 2003. Again, it was the BLA that claimed responsibility for the Quetta bombing of a military truck in December 2004.


Religious Militancy


In an ironic twist, nationalist violence is being reinforced by religious violence. Although Baluch nationalists are secular to the core, they share with religious militants a common enemy: the Pakistani government. Baluch nationalists, for instance, are opposed to the Chinese government for advancing its strategic goals at the expense of their freedom and autonomy. [6] But several religiously inspired groups are opposed to the Chinese government for its putative persecution of the Uigher Muslim minority in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Many members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), including its chief, Hasan Mahsum, were given quarters in South Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan. On Beijing’s prodding, Pakistani troops killed Hasan Mahsum on October 2, 2004. [7] Seven days later, Abullah Mehsud, a veteran of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, avenged the killing of Mahsum by kidnapping two Chinese engineers, who were working on a water dam in the area. One of the hostages was killed on October 14 in a botched military operation.


Also, religious militants inadvertently help Baluch nationalists by keeping tens of thousands of troops engaged away from the latter’s strongholds in Baluchistan. In South Waziristan alone, 70,000 Pakistani troops are on the trail of foreign terrorists. These troops outnumber all the foreign and native military forces in Afghanistan. When tribesmen or religious militants are pressed too hard in their hideouts in northwestern Pakistan, they run to southwestern Pakistan – i.e., Baluchistan. Here they feel far safer because of the immense vastness of the area as compared to South or North Waziristan. Baluchistan, which in territorial terms comprises almost half of Pakistan, is draped with high and rolling mountainous ranges. It is these ranges that have been Baluchs’ natural defense against foreign powers for centuries. In the 1973-1977 Baluch insurgency they defended their territory from their mountain hideouts and eventually brought the Pakistani military to its knees.


Afghanistan


Baluch nationalists are also benefiting from the situation in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan has placed almost one-third of its forces along its western border with Afghanistan, which had never been its concern before. Despite committing tens of thousands of troops along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Islamabad has been complaining of “saboteurs” crossing from Afghanistan into Baluchistan. [8] Most recently Pakistan has accused Kabul of having been the shipping point for an arms cache worth 500 million Pakistani rupees (around $8.3 million) to carry out subversion in Baluchistan.


Iran


Pakistan is equally challenged on its southwestern border with Iran, which has been blaming Pakistan for cross-border infiltration. The Iranian government accuses al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militant groups, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its spin-off Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, for their forays into Iran’s Sunni-dominated province of Sistan-Baluchistan. This extreme southeastern Iranian province is awash with lethal arms and illicit drugs. The more extreme eastern fringes of Iranian Baluchistan are effectively lawless land, and thus attractive to both religious militants and Baluch nationalists. The illicit trade of “drugs for arms” between Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan goes on with impunity. The Pakistani government is now raising a 16,000-man paramilitary force to choke off the trading routes for drugs and arms shipments. Most recently the two provinces have been twinned into a “sisterhood.” The Governor-General of Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan, Hussain Amini, during his visit to Quetta last year, signed an agreement to this effect on November 23.


These elevated links helps both Baluch nationalists and Sunni militants. Just as Pakistani Baluchs complain of “Punjabization” of their province, the Iranian Baluchs speak of “Persianization” of theirs. On the other hand, Pakistani Sunni militants, many of whom are suspected of having links with al-Qaeda, see in Iranian Baluchs a Sunni minority persecuted by the Shiite majority. Consequently, they are keen to exploit this constituency in their sectarian war with the Islamic Republic.


The Iranian government, however, seems to have changed its stance towards Pakistani Baluchistan from an “oppressor” under the Shah and a “neutral neighbor” under the early period of the Islamic revolution to an “active sympathizer” in the 21st century. This change reflects Iran’s lack of faith in Pakistan’s integrity as a nation, and its suspicion of Pakistan’s amenability to foreign influences that are unfriendly to Tehran. Unlike the 1970s when the Shah of Iran supplied Pakistan with gunship helicopters to crush the Baluch insurgency, today’s Iran will play a different role should such an occasion arise. Pakistan is aware of Iranian calculations, but its government is overly cautious in pointing an accusing finger at Tehran as instinctively as it does at Kabul. The Pakistan Army, which is the ultimate power base of General Pervez Musharraf, is officered and manned with both hardcore Sunnis and Shiites. Sunnis are already after Musharraf. Thus, he cannot afford to provoke Shiites by speaking his mind on Tehran, which Pakistani and other non-Iranian Shiites view as the “Vatican” of Shiism. Disaffected Shiites at home could be far more lethal for the General as they were to his predecessor General Zia ul-Haq, who died in a mid-air crash in August 1988, which is widely blamed on his two Shiite pilots.


Conclusion


Pakistan’s military initiatives in Baluchistan are at best ill-timed. Unlike the past, Baluch nationalists are now far better armed both diplomatically and militarily. For the past two years, they have been dominating the national news. They have rapidly won the masses and classes to their cause of “Justice for Baluchistan”. Their diplomatic and military successes at home have caught the world’s attention as well. The neighboring countries, stretching from south to central to western Asia, are potential allies of the Baluch resistance. At the same time, the Pakistani government is still struggling to contain religious militancy in various regions of the country. In South Waziristan alone, the government has lost almost one soldier for every militant it has killed. To be exact, 251 officers and men died in South Waziristan as compared to 306 Baluchs. [9] In the middle of this fierce war, opening a new front lacks wisdom. Pakistan needs to revisit its view of the Baluch resistance and use economic and political diplomacy first to defuse it.


Notes:

1. “Four Blasts Rock Gwadar.” The Dawn, Karachi (Pakistan), May 15, 2005.

2. “A New Chapter in Relations” (Editorial). The Dawn, Karachi (Pakistan), April 7, 2005.

3. “Gunbattle in Dera Bugti.” The Nation, Lahore (Pakistan), March 18, 2005.

4. Bashar, Amanullah (2005). “Natural Gas-Coal, Leading Players of the Future.” Pakistan Economist, Feb 25-March 10, 2002.

5. cit opp

6. “Baloch To Go To Any Length for Rights: Khan of Kalat.” The Dawn, Karachi (Pakistan), November 8, 2004.

7. “Two Chinese Engineers Kidnapped in Pakistan.” China Daily, October 9, 2004.

8. “80 Foreign Terrorists Still in Waziristan.” The Nation, Lahore (Pakistan), May 21, 2005.

9. “306 Terrorists Killed in Army Operations.” The Dawn, Karachi (Pakistan), May 22, 2005.

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