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Monday, January 30, 2006

Trouble in Pakistan’s energy-rich Balochistan

As Islamabad moves to exploit its geo-strategic capital in the mineral-rich southwestern Balochistan province, tribal leaders and regional nationalists make it clear they are ready to shed blood to gain more control over the region’s natural resources.

By Naveed Ahmad in Islamabad for ISN Security Watch (30/01/06)

Since 2002, a total of 843 attacks and incidents of violence have been reported in different parts of Pakistan’s Southwestern Balochistan province, including 54 attacks on law-enforcement agencies, 31 attacks on gas pipelines, 417 rocket attacks on various targets, 291 mine blasts, and 50 abductions. In the same period, a total of 166 incidents of violence were reported in the Kohlu district, including 45 bomb blasts and 110 rocket attacks, according to a senior official of Frontier Corps (FC) paramilitary force.

Normally, a region experiencing violence of this magnitude would feature prominently in major international media publications. But for the most part, what is going on in Balochistan - this far-flung, underdeveloped, but resource-rich Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan and Iran - has been largely ignored by the foreign press.

The most eventful year for the defiant nationalist forces in the province has been 2005, which started and ended with major military operations.

The Pakistani military launched its first operation in Balochistan in mid-January last year, after reports that a female doctor had been raped inside a residential compound belonging to a petroleum company led to retaliation by local tribesmen. The Bugti tribesmen launched a rocket attack on the facility and found themselves engaged in a showdown with the Pakistani military. After heated negotiations in April last year, the military-led government and the tribesmen agreed to a ceasefire.

However, on the night of 13 December last year, the ceasefire came to an explosive end when rebels from the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) fired two rockets at the Quetta garrison where Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf was staying on the first leg of a two-day visit to the province. Though the military successfully managed to stop the media from reporting the incident, the worst was yet to come.

The following day, the tribesmen struck again, this time firing eight rockets at a camp in mineral-rich Kohlu, where General Musharraf was visiting the newly built garrison and inspecting paramilitary troops. Three of the rockets landed close to the venue, but there were no casualties. The BLA quickly claimed responsibility for the attack. Then, on 15 December, a helicopter carrying the top brass of the Frontier Corps for an aerial view of the volatile region was hit by machine gun fire, injuring the top commanding officers. The BLA again claimed responsibility.
The emergence of the BLA

The BLA, which first emerged in the 1970s, originally consisted mainly of Marri tribesmen, but its composition later changed to include Bugti and Mengal tribesmen. Today, the BLA boasts many members from an educated, middle-class background. And Baloch nationalist leaders say the present conflict has succeeded in uniting, for the first time, the educated Baloch and the tribesmen.

It is the first time the two largest Baloch tribes have set aside their differences to join hands in the struggle. In the 1970s, the Bugtis sat on the fence while the Marris led the Soviet-inspired armed insurrection. More than 6,000 Balochis and around 3,000 soldiers were killed in the bloody conflict, which ended with military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq declaring amnesty. Thousands of Marri tribesmen received weapons training in Afghanistan in the 1970s, and today they rank as strategic planners in the BLA fold. The group has an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 men in its ranks.

Though the identity of its leadership remains secret, the BLA is reportedly led by a man known as “Ballach”, a Moscow University graduate and the younger son of tribal elder Khair Baksh Marri.

In addition to having its own flag and national anthem, the BLA also operates a website, which carries reports of its actions. Due to the porous Afghan and Iranian borders, the BLA men face little trouble in getting sanctuary and weapons, ranging from sophisticated pistols to anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

During a visit to Balochistan earlier last year, ISN Security Watch found the BLA members to be well-trained and well-armed, with machine guns, rocket-launchers, Motorola wireless sets, and Thuraya satellite phones receiving information about the movement of government troops.

Nawab Akbar Bugti, a former senior minister in Balochistan and purportedly one of the most defiant of the tribal elders, told ISN Security Watch: “Why do you ask me whether what the BLA is doing is right or wrong? The question to ponder is why so many people in Balochistan support the BLA?”

The BLA is fighting against domination by the larger Punjab province by denying them natural resources, he told ISN Security Watch by telephone from his hometown of Dera Bugti. Home to half of the country’s population and having the highest literacy rate and most fertile land, Punjab is by far the most prosperous province. Since no political party can form a government in Islamabad without securing a win in the populous Punjab, some of the other regional politicians blame the Punjab for their low standard of living.

Balochistan's deprivation is further aggravated when it comes to federal funding, as funding is allocated based on population - a formula that granted Balochistan 85 per cent less funds than Punjab in the last fiscal year.

Furthermore, because the majority of influential federal politicians, bureaucrats, and generals hail from Punjab, most major development projects and industrial estates have been directed there.

Though natural gas was first discovered in 1952 in Sui in Balochistan, the Baloch capital, Quetta, did not have any natural gas until the 1980s, and only then because an army garrison needed it. But by that time, natural gas had already been supplied to even the most remote villages in Punjab. Today, Sui gas from Balochistan provides 38 per cent of the country’s supply, yet only six per cent of the province’s 6.5 million people have access to it.

“People feel that they won’t get their rights through democratic and legal means,” Dr. Abdul Hayee Baloch, a leader of the Balochistan National Party, told ISN Security Watch.
The military mindset

General Musharraf has shown zero tolerance of this tribal defiance. Largely backed by the US because of his collaboration in the “war on terror”, the general has ordered his troops to eliminate the miscreants. And while the military operation launched to punish the defiant tribesmen was initially a limited one, it soon broadened to include other tribes sympathetic to the Baloch nationalist leaders.

Facing stiff resistance from the BLA’s guerrilla tactics, the military resorted to using gunship helicopters and fighter jets to bomb the remote mountain areas. According to the tribal Marri Ittehad Group, 80 people have been killed in those remote operations. The government has kept silent over the number of fatalities.

In the meantime, as military operations in Balochistan intensify, militant attacks on government installations, petroleum pipelines, rail tracks, and power grids are on the rise. The Baloch nationalist forces claim that innocent women and children have been killed by the military. The BLA website has published photos of the blood-soaked dead bodies of children and women they said had been killed in the military operations. The military refutes the charges and claims to have only launched “surgical strikes”.

Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Naeem, the commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, told reporters in Quetta that nine out of 15 militant camps had been dismantled in the Kohlu district alone. During a targeted action against tribesmen, nine FC personnel were killed and 14 others injured, while some 50-55 tribal militants were killed in operations in Kohlu and Dera Bugti, Naeem said. The government claims that 12 militant camps are still operating in the gas-rich Dera Bugti district, with two having been dismantled so far.

Though information from the remote mountainous regions is sketchy, and the media has only very limited access owing to the government’s expressed “security concerns”, the anti-Musharraf opposition and human rights activists largely subscribe to the nationalists’ claims. Opposition parties claim that the government is planning to build three expensive military outposts at Kohlu, Gawadar, and Sui. The country’s strategic planners say these military outposts, called cantonments, are needed for greater security in the province in light of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US and increasing Indian influence in neighboring Afghanistan and Iran.

“With India continuing to increase its presence in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, we have no choice but to secure Balochistan against external threats by building additional cantonments,” Lieutenant General Senator Javed Ashraf Qazi, Retd, told ISN Security Watch.

In addition, the elusive al-Qaida leadership provides the Pakistani military with an excuse for larger bases in the once-abandoned province.
Renewed geo-political significance

Covering nearly 350,000 square kilometers, Balochistan is by far the largest of four provinces in the country, though it is home to less than 7 per cent of Pakistan’s population. More than 80 per cent of Balochistan, designated as a tribal area, is governed through special laws that locals complain are highly discriminatory. The police are ill-equipped and poorly staffed, and smuggling and banditry are a major means of subsistence.

In addition to the long, treacherous, and porous borders with Afghanistan and Iran, Balochistan also has a 770km Arabian Sea coastline. This least developed Pakistani province also provides the country with some of its most vital ores, such as uranium and gold, as well as an abundance of natural gas and oil. The recent unrest has roots Musharraf decision to award some lucrative oil and gas exploration in the Kohlu region to companies outside the region. Soon after that, the events of 9/11 revived the geo-political significance of the country’s abandoned province.

When the Soviet troops marched through the streets of the Afghan capital, Kabul, in the late 1970s, Islamabad used Balochistan to house large numbers of ethnic Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan and set up religious seminaries for their education. Those same students later made up the main body of the Taliban that overran Kabul in 1996. After 9/11, the US again appropriated various naval, air, and other facilities in the Pasni, Panjgur, Shamsi, and Quetta areas in Balochistan to attack the Taliban regime. At the same time, Islamabad announced a number of mega development projects in Balochistan and also voiced its intention to establish new military garrisons there. In addition, the government initiated an ambitious deep seaport project in the tiny city of Gawadar, which would be linked to Karachi by a coastal highway. The Chinese engineers are now in the final stages of work on the seaport.

Iran has also been dragged into the quagmire, with Pakistani officials claiming that the Iranian town of Mand is a prominent sanctuary for rebel activity. In addition, Iran had raised serious concerns in 2001 with the handing over to US forces three Pakistani bases in Balochistan at the start of the war in Afghanistan.

India is also not oblivious to the situation in the Pakistani backyard. Pakistani officials claim that two Indian consulates close to the border in Iran and Afghanistan are providing weapons and financial support to the BLA in revenge for the Kashmir insurgency. Tehran and New Delhi both deny the allegations. India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman has twice “advised” Islamabad to exercise restraint in the military operation against Baloch tribesmen.

“The government of India has been watching with concern the spiraling violence in Balochistan and the heavy military action, including use of helicopter gunships and jet fighters by the government of Pakistan to quell it,” Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna was quoted as saying. “We hope the government of Pakistan will exercise restraint and take recourse to peaceful discussions to address the grievances of the people of Balochistan."

Pakistan shrugged off the warning, saying India would do best not to interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs.
Exploits of a medieval tribal system

Initial allocations for the government’s development projects amounted to Rs 140 billion (about US$2.33 billion), the largest sum of federal funds pledged to Balochistan since its independence from British rule in 1947. The other projects included a naval base, a water reservoir, and a network of roads and tunnels.

These massive, back-to-back development projects, in what was until only recently an extremely neglected region, sparked suspicion among nationalist circles that the mineral rich areas would either be separated from the province or a heavy influx of outsiders would reduce their influence in the region.

The nationalists want Islamabad to recognize Baloch rights over their coastline, oil, gas, and other resources. Despite its vast resources, the province lags miserably behind in all human development indicators.

However, the nationalist Baloch leaders have always capitalized on the tribal people’s lack of awareness of their rights, patronage from tyrant tribal chiefs, and Islamabad’s negligence to create a sense of Pakistani identity among them. The nationalist leaders have a vested interested in ensuring the federal government has little control over the province, and the tribesman, suffering from deprivation, support them.

Historically, the military-led governments have used the tribal elders for domestic and regional exploits, such as the insurgency against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In return, the government gives the tribesmen a free hand to operate drug and other smuggling rings, police their own people, and dispense justice as they please. The Afghan-Baloch-Iranian border has now become a major human trafficking hub and a notorious drug smuggling route to the western world. An estimated 80,000 people find their way to the Middle East via Balochistan’s Makran coastline and the neighboring Iranian port each year, according to a senior Interior Ministry official.
Fearing ethnic marginalization

Most Baloch people suspect that once the mega projects are completed, they could become victims of demographic marginalization. The Baloch population is already losing in numbers to the Pashtun ethnic group in districts bordering Northwestern Frontier Province and Afghanistan. Baloch politicians generally use the example of Karachi as a city that followed a markedly non-Baloch pattern of development when a seaport was built by the British in the 19th century.

“Fifty years ago, Karachi had half a million people, all of them locals,” said Sardar Ataullah Mengal, one of the three major tribal chiefs in Balochistan, who recently ended his 18-year exile in London and is now living in Karachi. “Today, Karachi has 14 million people, 80 per cent of them outsiders.”

The nationalist leaders believe the government is trying to turn Gawadar into another Karachi. They believe that one day, five million ethnic Balochis may become a minority in their own province.

Though the Baloch nationalists and the supporters of militancy represent a very small portion of the population, their actions make them a significant factor. The Baloch tragedy is a two-fold one. Firstly, the Baloch people have yet to find a leadership that could free them from the clutches of an unfair tribal system and unite them on a single political platform. The so-called nationalist movement acts on behalf of exploitative and vested tribal leaders who have worked in their own way to deliberately keep the people illiterate and the province under-developed. The second problem lies with the successive authoritarian regimes of Pakistan, which do not believe in the diversity and federal system of the country. Such regimes prefer to do business with tribal leaders instead of democratic forces that could bring the Baloch youth into the national mainstream and encourage them to develop a stake in the country’s political system.

Leading human rights activist IA Rahman told ISN Security Watch: “As for Balochistan, the only significant development over the past 40 years is a national consensus on the denial of its rights for a longer period than has been the fate of any federating unit in Pakistan.”

Even moderate tribal elder Sardar Shahbaz Khan Mazari blames General Musharraf for provoking the Baloch nationalists to violence. “You know the way he talks […] He’s so arrogant […] that’s not acceptable,” he said. In a public speech earlier this year, Musharraf said: “If they [the Baloch nationalists] do anything, I will hit them so hard they won’t know what hit them.” To that Mazari responded: “Musharraf […] has not just antagonized the people but even the senior army hierarchy, the retired ones, who consider him an upstart.”

The general’s decision to stay on as army chief while at the same time serving as the country’s president has created an authoritarian regime that has led to the disillusionment of nearly all sectors of society. And the military he leads chooses to impose administrative solutions to the most sensitive political issues, thus resulting in bloody militancy. Many analysts say that while Musharraf is busy earning kudos from the US for his efforts in the global “war on terror”, the conflict in his own backyard is turning bloodier by the day.

Naveed Ahmad is ISN Security Watch’s senior correspondent in Pakistan. He is an investigative correspondent for newspaper The News and monthly Newsline. He often contributes to reputed foreign publications. He was awarded the Hawaii-based East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship in fall 2000 and the Washington Press Center’s “Conflict Resolution and Nuclear Non-proliferation” fellowship in 2004. He serves on the panel of the Global Journalists Program, which is associated with the International Press Institute and U.S. National Public Radio.
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