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Pakistan’s Baluch insurgency

by Selig S Harrison

THE slow-motion genocide being inflicted on Baluch tribesmen in the mountains and deserts of southwestern Pakistan does not yet qualify as a major humanitarian catastrophe compared with the slaughter in Darfur or Chechnya. “Only” 2,260 Baluch fled their villages in August to escape bombing and strafing by the US-supplied F-16 fighter jets and Cobra helicopter gunships of the Pakistan air force, but as casualty figures mount, it will be harder to ignore the human costs of the Baluch(1) independence struggle and its political repercussions in other restive minority regions of multi-ethnic Pakistan(2).

Already, in neighboring Sindh, separatists who share Baluch opposition to the Punjabi-dominated military regime of General Pervez Musharraf are reviving their long-simmering movement for a sovereign Sindhi state, or a Sindhi-Baluch federation, that would stretch along the Arabian Sea from Iran in the west to the Indian border. Many Sindhi leaders openly express their hope that instability in Pakistan will tempt India to help them, militarily and economically, to secede from Pakistan as Bangladesh did with Indian help in 1971.

Some 6 million Baluch were forcibly incorporated into Pakistan when it was created in 1947. This is the fourth insurgency they have fought to protest against economic and political discrimination. In the most bitter insurgency, from 1973 to 1977, some 80,000 Pakistani troops and 55,000 Baluch were involved in the fighting.

Iran, like Pakistan, was then an ally of the United States. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who feared that the insurgency would spread across the border to 1.2 million Baluch living in eastern Iran, sent 30 Cobra gunships with Iranian pilots to help Islamabad. But this time Iran is not a US ally, and Iran and Pakistan are at odds. Tehran charges that US Special Forces units are using bases in Pakistan for undercover operations inside Iran designed to foment Baluch opposition to the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Much of the anger that now motivates the Baluch Liberation Army (BLA) is driven by memories of Pakistani scorched earth tactics in past battles. In a climactic battle in 1974, Pakistani forces, frustrated by their inability to find Baluch guerrilla units hiding in the mountains, bombed, strafed and burned the encampments of some 15,000 Baluch families who had taken their livestock to graze in the fertile Chamalang Valley, forcing the guerrillas to come out from their hideouts to defend their women and children.

‘Indiscrimate bombing’

In the current fighting, which started in January 2005, the independent Pakistan Human Rights Commission has reported that “indiscriminate bombing and strafing” by F-16s and Cobra gunships are again being used to draw the guerrillas into the open. Six Pakistani army brigades, plus paramilitary forces totalling some 25,000 men, are deployed in the Kohlu mountains and surrounding areas where the fighting is most intense.

Musharraf is using new methods, more repressive than those of his predecessors, to crush the insurgency. In the past Baluch activists were generally arrested on formal charges and sentenced to fixed terms in prisons known to their families. This time Baluch spokesmen have reported large-scale kidnappings and disappearances, charging that Pakistani forces have rounded up hundreds of Baluch youths on unspecified charges and taken them to unknown locations.

The big difference between earlier phases of the Baluch struggle and the present one is that Islamabad has so far not been able to play off feuding tribes against each other. Equally importantly, it faces a unified nationalist movement under younger leadership drawn not only from tribal leaders but also from an emergent, literate Baluch middle class that did not exist three decades ago. Another difference is that the Baluch have a better armed, more disciplined fighting force in the BLA. Baluch leaders say that rich compatriots and sympathisers in the Persian Gulf provide money needed to buy weapons in the flourishing black market along the Afghan frontier.

President Musharraf has repeatedly accused India of supplying weapons to the Baluch insurgents and funds to Sindhi separatist groups, but has provided no evidence to back up these charges. India denies the accusations. At the same time New Delhi has issued periodic statements expressing concern at the fighting and calling for political dialogue.

India brushes aside suggestions that it might be tempted to help Sindhi and Baluch insurgents if the situation in Pakistan continues to unravel. Indian leaders say that. on the contrary, India wants a stable Pakistan that will negotiate a peace settlement in Kashmir so that both sides can wind down their costly arms race. But many India media commentators appear happy to see Musharraf tied down in Baluchistan and hope that the crisis will force him to reduce Pakistani support for extremist Islamic insurgents in Kashmir.

Unlike India, Iran has its own Baluch minority and fears Baluch nationalism. The Baluchistan People’s party, one of the leading Baluch groups in Iran, said on 5 August that a radical Shia cleric, Hojatol Ibrahim Nekoonam, recently installed as the justice minister of Iran’s Baluchistan province, has launched a campaign of military and police repression spearheaded by the Mersad clerical secret police, in which hundreds of Baluch have been rounded up and, in many cases, executed on charges of collaborating with the US.

Apart from being smaller in number, the Baluch in Iran are not as politically conscious or as well organised as those in Pakistan, and their principal leaders dismiss the idea of secession or of union with the Baluch in Pakistan. The Baluchistan People’s party is part of a coalition with groups representing other disaffected minorities in Iran — the Kurds, Azeri Turks and Khuzestani Arabs — which is seeking a federal restructuring in which Iran would retain control over foreign affairs, defence, communications and foreign trade, but cede autonomy in other spheres to three minority autonomous regions.

Goal of the insurgency

In Pakistan, where the Baluch have been radicalised by their periodic military struggles with Islamabad, many Baluch leaders believe that the goal of the insurgency should be an independent Baluchistan, unless the military regime is willing to grant the provincial autonomy envisaged in the 1973 constitution, which successive military regimes, including the present one, have nullified. What the Baluch, Sindhis, and a third, more assimilated ethnic minority, the Pashtuns, want above all is an end to the blatant economic discrimination by the dominant Punjabis.

Most of Pakistan’s natural resources are in Baluchistan, including natural gas, uranium, copper and potentially rich oil reserves. Although 36% of the gas produced in Pakistan comes from the province, Baluchistan consumes only a fraction of production because it is the most impoverished area of the country. For decades, Punjabi-dominated central governments have denied Baluchistan a fair share of development funds and paid only 12% of the royalties due to it for its gas. Similarly, the Sindhi and Pashtun areas have consistently been denied fair access to the waters of the Indus River by dam projects that channel the lion’s share of the water to the Punjab.

In a television speech on 20 July, devoted mostly to Baluchistan, Musharraf dismissed Baluch charges of economic discrimination and announced a $49.8m development programme for the province, half for roads and other infrastructure projects. The “real exploiters” of the Baluch, he said, are the tribal chieftains, known as sardars, who “have stolen development funds for themselves”. He claimed that the armed forces have been sent into Baluchistan to protect the Baluch from their leaders while development proceeds. Musharraf blamed the insurgency on the sardars, principally Akbar Bugti, who was killed on 26 August when the army blew up a cave where he was hiding. But the current insurgency is not being led by the tribal elders but by a new generation of politically conscious Baluch nationalists.

What makes negotiations on autonomy difficult are the economic issues relating to taxation and to the terms for sharing the resulting revenues from the development of oil, gas and other natural resources. In most proposals for a devolution of power to the provinces, Baluch and Sindhi leaders have argued that taxes collected by the central government should not be allocated, as at present, solely on a population basis, which favours the Punjab; instead, it has been suggested, half should be allocated on a population basis, while the rest should be distributed in accordance with the amount collected in each province. Since the provinces have equal representation in the Senate, even under the 1973 constitution, the upper chamber should be given greater powers, with the Senate, rather than the president or prime minister, empowered to dissolve a provincial legislature or to declare an emergency.

A more extreme demand is that Baluch, Pashtuns, Sindhis and Punjabis should have complete parity in both chambers of the National Assembly as well as in civil service and military recruitment, irrespective of population disparities. All factions among the minorities give priority to radically upgraded representation in the civil service and the armed forces, and all want constitutional safeguards to prevent the central government from arbitrarily removing an elected provincial government, as Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did in 1973. The issue of safeguards against arbitrary central intervention is likely to be a non-negotiable one for the minorities, since they are seeking not only the substance, but also the feeling, of autonomy.

A tiny minority

The Baluch are only 3.57% of Pakistan’s 165.8 million people, and the three minorities combined claim only 33%. Yet they identify themselves with ethnic homelands that cover 72% of Pakistan’s territory. To the Punjabis, it is galling that the minorities should advance proprietary claims over such large areas. For this reason, the prospects for a restoration of the 1973 constitution appear bleak.

In the final analysis, the possibility of a constitutional compromise is inseparably linked with the overall course of the struggle for democratisation. With continued military rule, the Baluch insurgency and the growing movement for Sindhi rights will be radicalised. But it is unlikely that the Baluch could prevail militarily over Pakistani forces and establish an independent state, even with Sindhi help, unless India intervenes as part of a broader confrontation with Islamabad. The prospect in late 2006 is for a continuing, inconclusive struggle by the Baluch and Sindhis against Islamabad, that will debilitate Pakistan.

In the eyes of the Baluch and Sindhis, the US has a major share of the blame for the present crisis because US military hardware is being used to repress the Baluch insurgency, and a cornucopia of US economic aid to Islamabad since 11 September 2001 has kept Musharraf afloat. Military aid to Musharraf since 9/11, including the sale of 36 F-16s, recently approved by Congress, has totalled $900m so far, and another $600m is promised by 2009. Economic aid has not only included $3.6bn in US and US-sponsored multilateral aid but also the US-orchestrated postponement of $13.5bn in overdue debt repayments to aid donors.

Instead of pressing Musharraf for a political settlement with the minorities, as some European Union officials have done, the Bush administration has said that its ethnic tensions are an “internal matter” for Pakistan itself to resolve. Human rights organisations have called for international pressure on Musharraf to pursue a settlement, and critics in the US argue that the diversion of US-equipped Pakistani forces from the Afghan frontier to Baluchistan undermines even the limited operations against al-Qaida and the Taliban that Musharraf is pursuing in response to US pressure. Until Bush’s departure, however, the US commitment to Musharraf is likely to remain firm, barring the outside possibility that he will step down in the face of growing domestic pressure and permit former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to participate in the presidential elections scheduled for next year.

* Selig S Harrison is director of the Asia Centre for International Policy, Washington, and author of ‘In Afghanistan’s Shadow: Baluch nationalism and Soviet Temptations’ (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, 1980)

(1) The Baluch speak an Iranian (Indo-European) language and are Sunni Muslims.

(2) Pakistan is made up of the provinces of Sind, Punjab, Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier province, plus the federal capital Islamabad, federally administered territories and Kashmir (claimed by India).

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