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A Seething Fury

Balochistan, which has long remained on the periphery of Pakistan's projects and perceptions, is one of the theatres of conflict where "dialogue with those who are up in the mountains" is presently unraveling.

A Seething Fury
A Seething Fury
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Among the most pressing of tasks that currently engages the new regime in Islamabad are the worsening internal security situation and the challenge of halting Pakistan's slide towards state failure. To that end, the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani has sought to initiate a dialogue with an array of anti-state actors presently orchestrating violence across the country. The strategic and resource-rich Balochistan province, which has long remained on the periphery of Pakistan's projects and perceptions, is one of the theatres of conflict where "dialogue with those who are up in the mountains" is presently unraveling. 

Gillani has stated that his government is working for 'national reconciliation' and has already ordered an end to military operations in Balochistan. As part of a new strategy to bring peace to the conflict wracked province, a series of 'confidence building measures' (CBMs) have been initiated by Islamabad. Among others, these include:

  • During his visit to the province on May 2, 2008, Gillani announced that no Army action would be carried out in Balochistan until a strategy is formulated in consultation with representatives of the provincial government to deal with the issue of law and order in the province.

  • The federal government has decided to withdraw the Frontier Corps (FC) from Gwadar and provincial capital Quetta and hand over the responsibility of managing law and order to the Police in the two cities.

  • The government has announced the withdrawal of cases against political prisoners and ordered their release. 

  • The federal government has constituted two committees for Balochistan, one for missing persons and the other for internally-displaced persons. (Kachkol Ali, leader of the opposition in the previous Balochistan Assembly, claims that the number of displaced people has exceeded 100,000, with children suffering the most through an aid blockade imposed by the government)

  • The former Chief Minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal was released from prison on May 9, 2008, after Gillani asked the Federal and Provincial governments to withdraw all cases registered against him. 

FC troops were reportedly seen withdrawing from their positions on May 4, 2008. FC sources disclosed that more than 600 FC troops had been withdrawn from 28 check-posts in Quetta, adding that about the same number of troops had also been recalled from the Gwadar district. Sources indicated that the Chief Security Officer of Gwadar, who belonged to the FC, had been replaced by a Deputy Inspector-General of Police. However, officials said that FC troops would remain stationed in troubled areas like Dera Bugti and Kohlu to protect sensitive installations, including the Sui Gas Plant and the pipeline network supplying natural gas all over the country.

The truth, however, is that the federal government's plans for Balochistan -- whether military, economic or political -- stand in irreducible opposition to perceptions of local interest among the people of the province. At the moment, there is little evidence of the insurgents' responding favourably to the proposed CBMs. 

One of the Baloch nationalist parties has, in fact, challenged the government's claim that military operations have ended. Hasil Bizenjo, Secretary General of the National Party, told Gulf News that "It is a lie that the military operation has been halted in Balochistan." He said, though a new government has been installed, hundreds of dissidents and political activists still languished in prisons and "torture cells". "The military and paramilitary troops are still active on the mountains, their intelligence networks are still operational and hounding people struggling for their rights," he asserted. Bizenjo, whose party boycotted the 2008 general elections, claimed that not a single political prisoner has been released. "Only those cases of treason have been withdrawn in which the government had not arrested any people," he stated. According to him, "More than 900 people are missing in Dera Bugti district and more than 750 in its neighbouring Kohlu district." Bizenjo insisted that he "did not understand" the reasons behind the government's "false claims", when it has not even ordered withdrawal of troops from places like Dera Bugti, Kohlu, Gwadar, Dilbadin and Khuzdar.

The central leader of the Jamhori Watan Party (Brahmdagh Bugti faction), Nawabzada Jamil Bugti, son of the slain Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, stated, on May 5, 2008, that the arrest and trial of those involved in Balochistan military operations, rehabilitation of internally displaced people and immediate release of thousands of detained Baloch youth are preconditions, if the rulers want to make the reconciliation process result oriented. Refusing to hold talks with Senator Babar Awan, Secretary of the Balochistan Committee set up by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), he contended that negotiations are possible only if a murder case is registered against President Pervez Musharraf for killing his father and other Baloch people, and Security Forces are withdrawn from Dera Bugti and other areas. He expressed the hope that, in the present scenario, no Baloch leader would engage in the reconciliation process, adding that they had a bitter experience of surrendering arms in the 1970s. Addressing a Press Conference in Quetta, he stated military operations were still continuing in Dera Bugti and other parts of the province. "We will not surrender our weapons because it is against the Baloch tradition. We remember the fate of Nawab Nauroz Khan Zarakzai and other tribesmen who were brought from the mountains under oath and then hanged by Army ruler Ayub Khan in the 1960s," Jamil Bugti concluded.

Nawabzada Talal Akbar Bugti, another son of Akbar Bugti, has rejected Prime Minister Gillani's offer of negotiations conditional on laying down arms, saying "that the Baloch people will only do so after they have achieved their rights and gained complete autonomy." 

Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, a veteran leader and chieftain of the Marri tribe has described President Musharraf as a "gangster with an ego," and has also rejected the CBMs. 

The proscribed Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) has also rejected the government's invitation for a dialogue. We regard the government's offer for talks as its defeat, since previously it was not even ready to recognise the existence of the BLA, BLA spokesman Beebarg Baloch said. The government's claims of holding talks with Baloch insurgents are a "pack of lies" and the new Balochistan Governor, Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi, and Chief Minister, Nawab Aslam Raisani, are "fooling themselves" by offering talks, the BLA he said, on April 16, 2008, adding, "Neither has the government contacted us nor are we interested in talks."

Further, Baloch political groups are claiming that the CBMs are mere hogwash since "no cases have yet been withdrawn, no one has yet been released and the names of the members of the Committee on Missing Persons have not yet been announced. The Prime Minister also announced plans to replace 6,000 Army personnel with the Frontier Constabulary, but the Army is there with its full strength." 

On the face of it, it seems that the province has relatively calmed down after the assassination, on August 26, 2006, of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti by the military. The momentum of the Baloch insurgency declined relatively in 2007, as some leaders either fled Pakistan or were neutralized by the state. At least 450 persons, including 226 civilians, 82 soldiers and 142 insurgents, were killed in 772 incidents in 2006. Violence in 2007 was at relatively lower levels, with about 245 persons, including 124 civilians, killed in the year (Institute for Conflict Management data). Balochistan Inspector General of Police Saud Gohar, however, said that terrorism and subversive activities increased in the province by 19 per cent during 2007. About 186 people were killed and 445 injured in 540 incidents of terrorism and sabotage in 2007. He said that the Police had recovered more than 1,000 weapons and 18 kilograms of explosives during 2007. 

According to the Institute for Conflict Management database, in year 2008 (till May 9) approximately 78 persons had been killed and 242 others wounded in 188 incidents of insurgency-related violence in Balochistan. There have been approximately 126 bomb blasts in 2008 (till May 9) in which more than 43 persons died and 215 others wounded. Through 2007, at least 332 people died and 457 were injured in more than 125 bomb blasts. 

Whatever the actual figures may be, it is evident that insurgency continues to simmer, and there has been a steady stream of bomb and rocket attacks on gas pipelines, railway tracks, power transmission lines, bridges, and communications infrastructure, as well as on military establishments and government facilities. The rebels are still capable of carrying out acts of sabotage on a daily basis across the province and a political solution to the insurgency is nowhere in sight. Acts of violence are, importantly, not restricted to a few districts, but are occurring practically across the province, including the provincial capital Quetta. Currently, all 27 districts of Balochistan are affected either by a sub-nationalist tribal insurgency or, separately, by Islamist extremism. Most of the violence in Balochistan is, however, 'nationalist' and there is no co-operation between Islamist militants in pockets in the North and the Baloch nationalist insurgents. The shadow of Afghanistan continues to hover over Balochistan, with (mostly Pashtoon) Islamist militants concentrated in the north of the province, who are orchestrating violence on both sides of the Afghan border in their areas of domination. There are regular reports of the presence of al Qaeda-Taliban operatives in North Balochistan. 

The federal and provincial governments undoubtedly face a challenging task. Chief among the policy dilemmas is whether to abandon the military track altogether or pursue a combination of both military and political initiatives. While a dialogue with the rebels is imperative for the coalition government in Islamabad and military operations alone cannot bring peace to the province, it is also the case that there has been a clear disconnect in the past between Islamabad and the insurgents regarding a peace process. Considering the intense animosity -- enormously deepened by the military excesses of the recent past -- between Islamabad and the Balochis, it will take much more than a partial troop withdrawal and unreciprocated CBMs to reverse course in the province and engage politically with the insurgents. 

Underlying the entire conflict is a crisis of faith. Islamabad has never trusted the Baloch. And the Baloch find little reason in their history to trust Islamabad. Worse, recent developments in the province have immensely intensified Baloch apprehensions. Protests against the federal government's acquisition of vast tracts of land for mega military ventures, such as the Gwadar Port and City project, already feed the insurgency, and the Pakistan Air Force's (PAF) recent plan to take over 70,000 acres of land has caused further furor in Balochistan. The PAF is reportedly attempting to acquire 70,000 acres of land along the Coastal Highway in the Lasbela district to establish its new weapons' testing and firing range. The previous Provincial government had reportedly allotted the land to the Defence Ministry at an insignificant price of PKR 600 an acre. The Ministry, according to Dawn, had already paid approximately PKR 50 million and asked the provincial government to eject local people from their ancestral lands. While the locals have refused to vacate the areas, contending that they had been living on these lands since centuries, sources said the "firing range would also adversely affect the Rs. 250 million National Hingol Wildlife project launched by the World Bank." Criticising the action of the previous government, Speaker of the Balochistan Assembly, Aslam Bhootani, who was elected from the area, contended that the land had been allotted to the Defence Ministry at too low a price and without consulting the local people, who were its real owners. 

While there is immense pressure on the government to unveil a peace process in all the conflict zones across Pakistan, for the insurgents in Balochistan, a change in dispensation in Islamabad does not denote any modification of the underlying sources and character of their insurgency. The new regime's initiatives are, consequently, not expected to change the dynamics of the conflict in Balochistan. 

A wide range of entrenched discriminatory practices underlie this dynamic. Robert Wirsing writes in Baloch Nationalism and the Geopolitics of Energy Resources: The Changing Context of Separatism in Pakistan (Strategic Studies Institute, April 2008), that "when it came to jobs, for instance, the gas industry's well-paid managers and technicians were almost invariably drawn from outside Balochistan; local Baloch, inevitably viewed with some suspicion, were mainly employed in low-end jobs as day laborers.... An obvious remedy for the shortage of technically skilled Baloch qualified for employment in the gas industry -- government funding of technical training institutions in Balochistan -- was never seriously considered until recently."

Another significant issue that Islamabad, the insurgents and other stakeholders will have to engage with is how to alter the current fiscal arrangement, which is evidently inconsistent with the concept of provincial ownership of natural resources. As Wirsing notes, further, 

Baloch leaders have been arguing for years that turning the situation around required, among other things, an overhaul of the rules governing intergovernmental fiscal relations — including both those pertaining to how the Central government shares the divisible pool of tax revenues with the provinces, and those pertaining to how the provincial share is divided up among the four provinces… As it now stands, revenues are distributed among the provinces in accord with a strict per capita population criterion. This formula finds favor in the Punjab, and to some extent also in Sindh and the NWFP. It means, of course, that Balochistan, with just short of five per cent of the country's population, inevitably gets a very small share of the pie. Possessing, on the other hand, 43.6 per cent of the country's area, with the unique costs entailed thereby, along with an exceptionally low level of development, Balochistan, say its advocates, requires a different distributional formula. 

Despite significant agreement on the province's grievances against Islamabad, however, unity continues to elude the insurgent movement. There was a measure of expectation that some form of unity would emerge in the aftermath of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti's -- arguably the most powerful insurgent leader -- assassination on August 26, 2006. Islamabad's counter-insurgency strategy has also been a significant factor contributing to the disunity. Mass arrests, long periods of imprisonment and assassination have complemented military operations, resulting in a gradual and strategic decapitation of the insurgents over the last three and half years. After Bugti was killed in August 2006, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, former Chief Minister of Balochistan and head of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), was arrested in November 2006 and tried in the Karachi Anti-Terrorism Court for alleged treason. Mengal was subsequently acquitted of the treason charges in early 2007, but he continued to be held in jail on other charges, until his eventual release on May 9, 2008. Another leader who was neutralized was Nawabzada Balach Marri, purported chief of the Balochistan Liberation Army and one of Nawab Khair Baksh Marri's sons. Balach Marri was killed on November 21, 2007, along with his bodyguards, in a clash somewhere inside Afghanistan, triggering widespread violence in Quetta and other parts of the province. Mystery shrouds Marri's killing, as some reports suggest he was killed in Afghanistan and others stated it was in Pakistan, while no confirmed identification of the perpetrators of the attack is yet available.

Despite the systematic elimination of its leaders, however, decentralization may, in fact, emerge as an effective strategy for the Baloch insurgency, considering its ability to sustain a significant threshold violence.

The protracted nature of the Baloch insurgency makes it clear that Islamabad's overwhelming reliance on a military solution has failed. However, attempts at political management have also failed repeatedly, particularly in the recent past. For instance, findings of the Parliamentary sub-committee on Balochistan headed by Mushahid Hussain in 2005 are gathering dust in Islamabad. The political track has not found favour within the current establishment either. Balochistan's nationalist parties are reportedly not keen to participate in an All-Parties' Conference (APC), which the PPP Co-chairman Asif Zardari has suggested, to resolve the problem. The February 2008 apology tendered by the PPP to the people of Balochistan, also, does not seem to have had the desired effect. In its resolution, the party had stated: "The PPP, on behalf of the people of Pakistan, apologises to the people of the province of Balochistan for the atrocities and injustices committed against them and pledges to embark on a new highway of healing and mutual respect." 

The founder of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), Sardar Ataullah Mengal, while terming the apology a positive but insufficient step, expressed a lack of hope in the PPP being able to solve the insurgency. "The civil-military bureaucracy has always called the shots here," he noted. He and other nationalist Baloch leaders have indicated that the state of affairs in Balochistan would remain unchanged until the "colonial perception of the rulers" changed and basic issues such as provincial autonomy were addressed. In a similar vein, Yusuf Khan Mustikhan, a central leader of the National Workers' Party, stated that a mere apology could not solve the Balochistan problem and the "core issue of autonomy had to be resolved in line with the expectations of the Baloch people." BNP Secretary General Habib Jalib Baloch asserted, further, "The Baloch have been cheated time and again by the Centre under the disguise of Parliamentary Committees and APCs.

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