Friday, Mar 31, 2023

Opening Another Front?

Opening Another Front?

Underlying the entire conflict is a crisis of faith. The Baloch find little reason in their history to trust Islamabad. And Islamabad has never trusted the Baloch. But can the Pakistan Army afford another operation against its own people?

As the people of Pakistan celebrated Id-ul-Azha, there was an unexpected and uncertain lull in violence in the province of Balochistan. In the days before the annual Muslim 'festival of sacrifice', the Pakistan Army had moved nearly a division into the Sui and Bugti areas, following crippling attacks on the Sui gas purification plants and pipelines. There were heightened anxieties that this was the beginning of a new and brutal crackdown in this sprawling, restive and backward province.

Balochistan has been simmering for decades, but temperatures have risen drastically over the past year. 103 people died and over 300 were wounded in insurgency-related violence in 2004. Things were brought abruptly to a boil in Sui after the Army sought to cover up the brutal gang-rape of a woman doctor at the Sui Refinery in the night of January 2-3, allegedly by an officer and personnel of the Army's Defense Security Guards (DSG) who are charged with the protection of the sprawling gas installation. While the status of women leaves much to be desired in Balochistan, the incidence of rape is extraordinarily low, and tribesmen react with extreme violence to this particular crime.

Nevertheless, the ferocity of the attacks on the critical gas infrastructure was symptomatic of a wider and more intense anger than the reaction provoked by the rape incident. Just between January 7 and January 12, for instance, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao disclosed that as much as 14,000 rounds of small arms, 435 rounds of rocket and mortars, and 50 to 60 rounds of multi-barrel rocket launchers had been fired by the rebels. At least 15 persons had been killed in these attacks and there was extensive damage to the main purification plant and pipelines. 

The pipeline has been frequently attacked in the past, but supplies have seldom been disrupted for more than a couple of days. This time around, however, it is estimated that a complete restoration of supplies would take nearly a month. Sherpao also disclosed that gas supply to 22 per cent of total consumers in the country had been stopped. According to analyst Rashed Rahman, moreover, the power and fertilizer sectors, almost the entire industrial sector in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), some industries in Punjab and Sindh, and even commercial and domestic consumers have been deprived of gas supply either completely or at certain peak hours. 

A spokesman for the Sui Southern Gas Pipelines Ltd. disclosed that gas-distribution company had been "forced to implement a 14-hour load management schedule for gas consumers in Sindh province". The Punjab province was also facing a shortage of 460 million cubic feet in its daily requirement of 1,650 million cubic feet according to the Sui Northern Gas Pipeline Ltd, which is responsible for the distribution of gas to 2.25 million consumers in about 430 cities, towns and villages in the provinces of Punjab, the NWFP and the Federal capital, Islamabad.

Stung, President General Pervez Musharraf had warned the rebels, "Don't push us… It is not the '70s. We will not climb mountains behind them, they will not even know what and from where something has come and hit them."

By January 17, Nawab Akbar Bugti, the sardar (chieftain) of the Bugti tribe that dominates the Sui region, was complaining, "There are activities in the area which suggest that they intend only a war against us. For the last two days there has been a full military build-up in the area. According to my information, 36 trucks loaded with army men have reached [the area] and more are coming from different [army] cantonments. At Sibi air base, six gunship helicopters have landed. Today [Thursday] aircraft and helicopters have been flying in our skies for ground checks. They have also brought tanks and 12 artillery pieces." 

It was Nawab Bugti who had widely publicized the rape incident, and had publicly named the alleged perpetrator, one Captain Emad and three soldiers of the DSG, and intelligence sources indicate that the bulk of the subsequent attacks on the Sui infrastructure had been executed by members of the Kalpar sub-tribe of the Bugti tribe. During combing operations in and around Dera Bugti, some 80 persons were reported to have been arrested and an unspecified number of weapons seized. On January 20, troops demolished houses allegedly used by the tribesmen to launch the rocket attacks and secure areas near the gas field. 

Apart from beefing up its forces in the Bugti-Sui areas, ostensibly to guard oil installations, the Army has expanded its base of operations and efforts to consolidate operational capacities are visible, including the buildup of focused intelligence on specific targets that are to be taken up in the next and potentially intensive phase of operations. Sources indicate, moreover, that a Cabinet meeting held on January 17, 2005, had secured near-unanimity on the intensification of military operations against the Baloch rebels, though a 'consensus' on securing a 'negotiated settlement' with Baloch leaders was projected in the Press.

It was the dissent of the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) leaders in the Cabinet that has, however, imposed a measure of caution in this process. The exiled MQM leader (currently in London) Altaf Hussain had also threatened that his party would pull out of the government if there is a crackdown in Balochistan, and another prominent Sindhi leader, the National People's Party (NPP) Chief, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, had turned Musharraf's threat on its head, declaring that the Sindhis would not abandon the Baloch and that "It is no more an era of the 1970s, everyone now possesses lethal weapons."

While the government at the centre would not be affected by an MQM pull-out, the coalition government in Sindh could collapse, and the sectarian violence that long dominated the province could revive. With Sindh and Balochistan destabilized, an opportunistic escalation in NWFP would be a distinct possibility, and the whole situation in Pakistan could acquire a 'house of cards' profile. As commentator Ayaz Amir expressed it, "The Pakistan Army cannot afford another operation against its own people."

There is, however, a strong constituency, particularly within the Army and intelligence, who believe that the 'low-intensity' approach to the Baloch insurgency has failed and that a change in tactics is now necessary.

Nevertheless, attempts at political management have gone side by side with the beefing up of forces in the province. There have been unsuccessful efforts to neutralize the MQM's sway in Sindh by reviving the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and sources indicate that Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief, Lt. Gen. Pervez Kiani, and National Security Advisor, Tariq Aziz had flown to meet the exiled PPP Chief, Benazir Bhutto, in Dubai to try and work out a deal. A deal with the PPP at this stage is, however, impossible, since Bhutto can hardly afford to be seen as bailing out the military regime and supporting a military crackdown.

At the same time, a Parliamentary sub-committee on Balochistan headed by Mushahid Hussain has recommended a 15 to 20 per cent increase in gas royalties (a long-standing grievance has been the pittance Balochistan receives as compensation for its natural resources; Sindh, according to one report, receives Rs. 140 as royalty per million BTU (British Thermal Unit), Punjab, Rs. 80 to 190; Balochistan receives just Rs. 36); 20 to 30 per cent resource allocation for local development; and constitutional changes for greater provincial autonomy. The Committee has emphasized a political solution to the problems of the Baloch.

All this may, however, be too little, too late. Earlier, on December 17, 2004, Ataullah Mengal, a Baloch nationalist leader, Chairman of the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM), and chief of the Mengal tribe, had walked out of the Parliamentary sub-committee declaring that 'nothing could come of it.' Nawab Bugti has also declared that "Military operation and negotiations could not continue side by side."

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 their apprehensions. One of their greatest fears, as articulated by Nawab Bugti, is that "they are trying to change the Baloch majority into a minority by accommodating more than five million non-locals in Gwadar and other developed areas." 

Another is that the power of the Sardars and the relative autonomy long enjoyed in wide areas of the province is being destroyed by Musharraf's plans to transform all 'B areas' into 'A areas', and to bring them under centralized systems of policing and administration. The sheer distance the situation in Balochistan has traversed is reflected in the irony of the fact that Nawab Bugti, one of the most vehement voices of opposition to Islamabad today, was, in fact, the Governor of Balochistan during the rebellion of the 1970s, and sided with the Army in the widespread repression that crushed that movement.

The truth is, Musharraf's plans for Balochistan - whether military, economic or political - stand in irreducible opposition to perceptions of local interest among the people of the province. That puts Islamabad squarely between a rock and a hard place in this strategic and resource-rich land that has long remained on the periphery of Pakistan's projects and perceptions.

Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal