Commentary: Pakistan’s Baluchistan Issue

May 10, 2012

The Baluch’s live in some of the poorest conditions in Pakistan and have the lowest per capita income among the four provinces.

Earlier this year, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representative recognizing Baluchistan’s right to self-determination. The bill’s co-sponsors where, Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Steve King (R-IA).

The legislation said in part, the Baluchs “have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country; and they should be afforded the opportunity to choose their own status.”

Congressman Rohrabacher, in defending his legislation said, “The Baluchi, like other nations of people, have an innate right to self-determination…The political and ethnic discrimination they suffer is tragic and made more so because America is financing and selling arms to their oppressors in Islamabad.”

The Obama administration, ever aware of maintaining a delicate balance with Pakistan, stressed its independence from the legislation.

Leading figures supporting the cause for an independent Baluchistan state are the previously mentioned Mr. Rohrabacher and M. Chris Mason, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington DC.

Both men believe that Baluchistan is misunderstood in the United States, and therefore, the cause for an independent Baluchi state is not receiving the necessary amount of attention. Incidentally, I lived in Baluchistan for a little over two decades.

Relations with the Central Government

Baluchistan contains vast natural resources, but despite being the major supplier of resources to other Pakistani provinces, the Baluchs themselves are denied these resources and Baluchistan is backwards as a result as it lacks access to education, social services, and equal participation in the federal government. There are very few government workers from Baluchistan in Islamabad.

Baluchistan is believed to have some 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 6 trillion barrels of oil reserves. Evidently, it can provide 80% of the country’s natural gas needs but only 6% of its households have piped gas.

The Baluchs live in some of the poorest conditions in Pakistan and have the lowest per capita income among the four provinces.

Further, Islamabad controls tourism, environmental policy and the educational curriculum. Baluchistan’s literacy is the lowest among the four provinces. Frédéric Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes three fundamental issues behind the nationalist movement advocating for Baluchistan’s independence: expropriation, marginalization, and dispossession.

Expropriation relates to the Baluchs claim that their resources are exploited by the Punjabi-dominated central government. For example, Baluchistan exports 40% of their natural gas, coal, and electricity, but Baluchistan lacks these resources, and the amount it gets for these resources is dismal (for gas, the price ratios are 27:170:190 respectively for Baluchistan, Sind, and Punjab).

Marginalization particularly relates to unfair distribution of ongoing developmental projects (e.g., the development of its Gawadar port). Baluchs fear their marginalization in the labor forces of such projects, laborers imported from the other provinces diminishes the local content. Islamabad, however, rejects this view and holds the tribal chiefs as the ones responsible for putting a leash on the Baluchs and maintaining illegal supremacy over them.

Grare writes concerning dispossession, “The government is willing to construct military garrisons in the three most sensitive areas of Baluchistan—Sui, with its gas-producing installations; Gwadar, with its port; and Kohlu, the ‘capital’ of the Marri tribe, to which most of the nationalist hard-liners belong. The Baluch, already feeling colonized by the Punjabis, feel dispossessed by these projects.”

Baluchistan is enduring its fourth episode of insurgency. Past insurgencies were in 1948, 1963-1969, 1973-1979 and 2004, the last two being the more powerful.

Grare describes the resentment felt by Baluchs towards Pakistan’s central government, “Long-standing resentments caused armed conflict in 1948, 1958, and 1973. Today, these resentments persist because of the central government’s suppression of nationalistic aspirations; the absence of economic and social development in Baluchistan despite its possessing almost 20 percent of the country’s mineral and energy resources; and the exclusion of the provincial authorities and local population from decisions on major regional projects, most notably the construction of the Gwadar port. Non-Baluch have also won major jobs and contracts from the armed forces and have benefited from land speculation. Whether because of or in spite of its strategic interests in Baluchistan, the Pakistan government has not integrated the province into the state. As a matter of fact, the Baluch believe that Baluchistan today is a colony of Punjab, the most populated and powerful province of Pakistan.”

Role of the Pakistan Army in Baluchistan

Baluchistan joined Pakistan reluctantly. From the beginning, clashes erupted between Pakistan and the province’s guerillas. The Pakistan army was sent into the province to subdue it.

Each insurgency has left scars that have yet to heal. The current wave of insurgency began with the rape of a female doctor by Pakistani army officers. The (now late) veteran politician Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti voiced his anger and demanded punishment of the army officers according to Baluch tradition. This prompted an attack on Dera Bugti, the country’s largest natural gas reservoir. To counter the attack, Baluch guerrillas fired rockets towards former President General Pervez Musharraf’s helicopter during his visit to Quetta.

Following this attempted assassination, a fully-fledged army operation began in the province, particularly in Kohlu and Dera Bugti. In 2005, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and several Bugti and Marri militants were killed, further fueling the insurgency.

Islamabad, however, had always viewed such struggles as foreign conspiracies that were separate from the question of independence for Baluchistan.

The current wave of insurgency is significant because the government has had to deal with simultaneous crises, the rise of the Taliban on the Afghan-Pakistan border and lawlessness in Punjab and Karachi.

Should the U.S. support Baluchistan Cause?

Over the past year, a number of U.S. congressmen, minority Afghan groups, Baluchi nationalists, and supporters outlined a framework for US alternatives in Central Asia.

Advocates for an independent Baluchistan in the United States have yet to receive wide support for their initiative, but the campaign for the alternative approach is maturing and receiving more attention in the international press and within NGOs.

Supporters of the new approach vary but they unanimously reject the two cornerstones of the Obama administration’s Central Asian strategy of normalizing relations with the Pakistani government and the Pakistani military and incorporating the Taliban into the Afghan political system.

Conclusion

Pakistan faces unprecedented internal and external challenges. Among them, army operations against the Taliban, lawlessness in Sind and Punjab, working with the United States to combat terrorism, uncertainty in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s long running rivalry with India. Internally, Pakistan faces endemic poverty, economic stagnation in several sectors and the development of democratic institutions.

Islamabad cannot afford or adequately deal with another insurgency in Baluchistan.

Which, owing to the province’s vast land, hostile terrain, arid climate, and a population unwilling and non-reconciliatory to the idea of embracing Pakistan, have been difficult to suppress.

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