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Independent Balochistan – key to Af-Pak problem?

January 8, 2012

The killing of 24 Pakistan soldiers by NATO in November of 2011 has a seething Pakistan refusing to cooperate with their American ‘allies’. This means that Pakistan will stop all supply convoys moving from Karachi to Khyber and beyond. Any army is hugely dependent on supplies and that includes food and ammunition to everything else including the precious mail from their loved ones. Pakistan chose to skip the Bonn convention on Afghanistan which was attended by more than a hundred countries. The US has not taken this lightly. They have made it clear that Pakistan needs to cooperate though it must be said that Washington has ‘regretted’ the incident more than once. A $700m aid has been frozen and Pakistan has been made to understand that they will be left out in the cold if they refused to cooperate.

The supplies will resume sooner rather than later. Things will return to some semblance of normalcy and the war in Afghanistan will go on. But what this incident has taught the West is that they cannot rely on Pakistan as a ‘partner’ in their war on terror. Pakistan is not a reliable partner and if at all, this is an enemy nation whose interests are in direct conflict with those of the West.  The truth is that were Pakistan to coolly assess the situation they would realize that their best interests are served if they go along with the plans of the West for the region. But it has been proved over the decade that they do not want to see reason. They are looking at a scenario where the West withdraws from Afghanistan and therefore would not want NATO to have it comfortable in Afghanistan. The fiercely independent and lately radical streak of the Afghans does not help matters either.

What NATO needs most desperately is a sea port in the vicinity to ferry supplies to their troops in the landlocked Afghanistan. Karachi is their port of call as Iran of the Ayatollah’s won’t give them access. There is another option but that has deep Chinese imprint on it. The port nearest to American bases in Afghanistan is not Karachi but Gwadar in Balochistan and its little sister Pasni. Gwadar was an Omani colony till 1958 when Pakistan bought it back for a few million dollars. Gwadar has now been developed as a deep water port by the Chinese and their investment in Gwadar has been around $200 million. China sees Gwadar as a strategic outpost overlooking the Persian Gulf. Gwadar has strategic ramifications. The recent Iranian threat of shutting out the Strait of Hormuz has the West reeling. Balochistan has become more important than ever.

Pakistan took over Balochistan some nine months after its creation on August 14, 1947. For those crucial nine months Balochistan was a free country. It was in the name of Islam that this sparsely populated land acceded to Islamic Pakistan. Balochistan makes 44% of the land mass of Pakistan but has only 5% of its population. This rugged, barren landmass inhabited by tribes is a resource rich region. Balochistan is rich in oil and gas and has the largest copper deposits in the world. This is also the land where gold is aplenty. This is a very rich barren land.

Numerically the Baloch are weak. Add to that the division in tribes and you have a disparate people swamped by the overbearing Punjabis who dominate the army and rule the nation state of Pakistan. The simple tribal people who look up to their Sardars (tribal chiefs) are now being told by the army, dominated by the Punjabis as to how to live and what they will get as royalty from the resource rich land. Water is scarce and this rugged land has seen little development over the six decades of independence. The tough life of these tribal has made them think. They feel cheated and want their hokook (rights).  What they have got is bullets and the murder of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti along with his associates in 2006 by the Pakistan army has left them seething.

Map of Greater Balochistan

But the elements of discord between the Balochs and the Punjabi dominated Pakistan surfaced soon after independence. The revolt by Abdul Karim Khan in 1948 when his clan was forced to surrender their Kalat was the first rebellion by the fiercely independent Balochs. In 1958 Nawab Nowroz Khan started a guerilla war against the Pakistan state when the representation of the tribal chiefs was reduced by Islamabad. He died in Pakistani jail. Pakistan state built military bases in Balochistan and this was resented. The Sui gas fields were a strategic assets and it became incumbent on Pakistan to have greater military presence in Balochistan. The Marri, Bugti and the Mengal tribes resisted these army forays and the army retaliated by destroying their land. The One Unit policy was abolished by Yahya Khan and Balochistan as a province took shape in 1970 which included Gwadar. Intermittent guerrilla warfare by the major Baloch tribes has seen conflict between the Pakistan army and the Baloch nationalists. In 2009, the Baloch National Movement president Ghulam Mohammad Baloch and his associates Lala Munir and Sher Mohammad were handcuffed and taken and later their bodies were found riddled with bullets.

It is true that Baloch’s have been participating in Pakistan political process and have represented their state in the Pakistan parliament. But it is also true that they have always felt alienated and abused. The lack of infrastructure, development and basic amenities has meant that there is a strong undercurrent of nationhood among the Baloch’s of Pakistan. This was reflected in the declaration of independence by Khan of Kalat Mir Suleiman Dawood of an independent Balochistan in August, 2009.

The greater Balohistan straddles three nations – Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. This is one region where there has been a strong secular tradition and minorities like the Shia Hazaras and Hindus have seldom been targeted. The largest city Quetta has seen a surge in population after prolonged dry spells left rivers and canals dry. Poverty is rampant even by Pakistan standards and this has led to a sense of being wronged.

The aspiration of an independent nation state of Balochistan is therefore not an unreasonable one. Were the hardy tribal able to get access to the huge resources for themselves they would be a prosperous country. This resource rich land could prosper.

What if the declaration of Suleiman Dawood were to take shape and Balochistan were to cede from Pakistan with the help of the West. This would have regional and maybe international ramifications. The Sistan Balochistan region of Eastern Iran would come under immense pressure. Tehran would then have to focus more on its eastern borders and their engagement in Iraq would be diluted. Jundullah could become more active and a demand for a greater Balochistan would be a natural outcome. Would Baloch dominated Afghan province of Helmand clamor for amalgamation with Balochistan? One fallout of an independent  Balochistan would surely be a demand for a Pashtunistan. The Pathans of Afghanistan and Pakistan have had this desire to come together as one for long. A free Balochistan would surely give rise to such sentiments.

Pakistan as we know it today will then disintegrate. That may not entirely be good news. The problem of safe keeping of the huge nuclear arsenal of Pakistan will be the single biggest headache for the west. In this melee if proliferation did take place and some radical, loony elements got hold of a nuclear device, anything could be possible.

It is however undeniable that the simmering discontent in Balochistan will have to be addressed sooner or later. The stakes are high. A belligerent Iran and a snobbish Pakistan are almost dictating terms. Balochistan and the aspiration of their people cannot be set aside. If only the Pakistan Baloch territory were to claim independence then there might be an exodus from Sistan and Helmand to the land of a free Balochistan. Dissolution of the whole of Pakistan may not be easy. The Chinese have their own plans for Gwadar and they would hate to let this strategic sea port go. It will take a lot of resolve to make something like a free Balochistan happen. While it is true that the three prominent tribes – the Bugti, Marri and Mengal are at the forefront of this fight for a free Balochistan and are perhaps at the back of such outfits as Balochistan Liberation Army, it will take a more sustained and holistic movement for an independent Balochistan to happen.

An independent Balochistan would mean access to sea ports and resources of this resource rich land. It could also mean more meaningful dialogue with a more homogenous Pakhtunistan. The gas reserves of Daultabad in Turkmenistan and those in Balochistan could be marketed as an entity to markets in the east. A truncated Pakistan would have little option but to take a more conciliatory line for its own strategic benefits. The biggest challenge for the West would be to make the Pakistan nuclear arsenal benign either pre-balkanization or post creation of Balochistan. That a radical, nuclear Pakistan is a threat to world peace is a given. Voices of sanity include those that do not want to be a part of this increasingly rabid state. Ultimately, it will be the will of the people of Balochistan which will make this state transform into a nation. Soon  West will have no choice but to go along and make the dreams of theses hardy people  a reality, for regional and world peace.

Further Reading:

Pakistan’s Fatal Shore : Robert Kaplan


Tribes and Rebels: The Players in the Balochistan Insurgency : Muhammad Tahir


Ethnicity and Nationalism in Balochistan: Rahul Mukand


The Roman Gate; South Asia Intelligence Review

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 3:49 am

    Really enjoyed this blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Want more.

  2. hell permalink
    February 10, 2012 12:30 am

    Gawadar historical is not a part of Balochistan second it will be interesting to read your blog on independent kashmir and Mao movment



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