All Eyes on the Prize!

(From Viewpoint Online)

Based on the fast-changing circumstances in the region, the next five years will be highly crucial for the future of Balochistan and it is up to the Pakistani establishment, political parties, and most importantly the army, to see the writing on the wall. As they say, all eyes are on the prize!

Sadly, by now the Balochistan situation had become a playground for competing regional interests. Afghanistan assisted by USSR wished to convert what had been purely an act of tribal resistance against federal despotism into a war of liberation. —– The USSR’s role was more ambivalent. Despite the contention of those convinced that the Russian wished to grab Balochistan in their century –long obsession to find a warm water port, the USSR played a relatively minor role in the course of events. (Sherbaz Khan Mazari, 1999).

Commenting on the events of 1970s after the Z. A. Bhutto’s army action in Balochistan, the prominent political leader Sherbaz Khan Mazari deplored the Pakistani establishment’s heavy-handed treatment of Balochis in his book “A Journey to Disillusionment” (Oxford Press, 1999).

Ten years after publication of this political autobiography, Balochistan is still burning. There have been six insurgencies in the province since independence and all have been dealt with an iron hand. Amazingly, the largest province of Pakistan in terms of its area, rich in natural resources but also the poorest,  Balochistan remains no more than a nuisance for Islamabad as dialogues were rarely considered a viable option to redress provincial grievances, a typical colonialist and military approach.

As it happens, all internal issues have a capacity to become international conflicts if not resolved timely. Luckily, the role of external forces was not on a large scale in Balochistan during the past insurgencies as it is today. The Soviet factor faded away with its withdrawal from Afghanistan and finally downsizing itself into the new nation state of Russia.

In 2011, however, the story is a lot different with involvement of regional and global forces heavily in this strategically located area with a potential of vast oil reserves and mineral resources. The only superpower of the day, the United States and the aspiring superpowers, India and China are now active in the area in addition to the two neighboring countries, Iran and Afghanistan who also have their stakes in the area.

With these complex and potentially dangerous geopolitical developments, global players have found a new hot spot on the shores of the Arabian Sea. China has a longstanding ambition to make a seaport hub in Balochistan for its oil and gas supplies from Iran and Central Asia to boost its industrial enterprise. Probably that is why it has been investing hugely in building the new Gawadar seaport. India is also building an airport in the neighboring Afghanistan as a counter strategy.

Pakistan has shown interest in the proposed Iran, Pakistan and India venture, IPI, to establish a gas pipeline from Iran to India going through Pakistan against the wishes of the United States that opposes any move supporting Iran perceived by Washington as an aspiring nuclear power of the future.

To counter IPI, however, another pipeline project has been in the offing which has recently been signed by India, Afghanistan and Pakistan to supply gas from Turkmenistan. This Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India project, TAPI, has been eagerly supported by the U.S. How important America considers this project is evident from the following statement of its Deputy Assistant Secretary of State on South and Central Asian Affairs, Susan Elliot: “The road ahead is long for this project but the benefits could be tremendous and are certainly worthy of the diligence demonstrated by these four countries so far.”

With this international wheeling and dealing, the increasing secessionist tendencies in Balochistan are hardly a good omen especially when Pakistan has been trying to resolve internal issues with force rather than engaging stakeholders in a meaningful dialogue with the parties involved. The former President General Musharraf, in his typical macho style, made the situation even worse when he killed the well respected Balochi leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, triggering a new wave of resistance in the province. His grandson Brahamdagh Bugti has been leading a resistance movement, the Baloch Liberation Army (LBA) from Qandahar in Afghanistan since then.  A number of Balochi leaders were kidnapped and killed in 2009 ostensibly by the ISI including the two prominent leaders of the Balochistan National Movement Ghulam Mohammad Baloch and Lala Munir Ahmed, and Sher Mohammad Baloch, a leader of the Balochistan Republican Party.

In the wake of these developments dissidence has been developing even within the rank and file of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.  Their party president in the province and senator Lashkari Raisani has recently resigned from his position saying he cannot stand aloof from these changes. Additionally the Balochistan Governor Nawab Zulfiqar Magsi has criticized the federal government saying he is not being consulted on important decisions of the province and if the situation continues the province might secede from the center.

Another issue relates to the constitutionally guaranteed provincial autonomy which has not been provided yet. Despite the deadline to provide these autonomies under the 1973 constitution, the federal government still controls major provincial sectors.

To its credit however, in November 2009 the PPP government offered a comprehensive Development Package for Balochistan that includes economic, political and development measures. Talking to a delegation of senators from Balochistan, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said last Friday his government had dedicated maximum resources for the province (Daily Times, January 1, 2011). The Package, criticized by Balochi leaders as another round of political rhetoric, includes economic, political and educational plans. At the time of political distrust and hostilities, plans on the paper need practical outcomes that PPP has to show in comparatively a short span of time. A national strategy has to be developed involving all political parties and the military to resolve the following and other major issues of Balochistan:

1. Sharing Natural Resources

The province has long been complaining about its due share in its natural resources. Baluchistan has been a major source of natural gas for domestic and industrial needs of the country.  Its natural resources including coal¸ copper and gold are being exploited without sharing a reasonable amount of revenue with locals.

2. Poverty and Employment

Balochistan is largely a rugged mountainous area where economic resources and employment opportunities in business and industries are limited. The area, however, offers a wide array of opportunities for developing industries, fisheries-related projects, and sea port ventures that could be developed. The high unemployment rate and poverty needs to be addressed by providing employment to the local youth in new development projects.

3. Basic Facilities

Common citizens of Balochistan have been deprived of healthcare facilities and basic water resources for too long. Priority should be given to provide these basic facilities including development of roads throughout the province.

4. Education

A universal and free high school education has to be provided to all children in Balochistan (and other provinces) as their basic right. A network of technical colleges would be able train the youth for the upcoming Gawadar seaport and other development projects in the province.  Establishing more universities throughout the province in a phase wise program should also be considered seriously.

5. Human Rights

According to political sources over 800 people are missing in Balochistan including common citizens, students, activists, political leaders and workers. It is imperative to release these people and restore trust before initiating a dialogue with political leaders in the province.

6. Provincial Autonomy

If there is a choice between separation and provincial autonomy, Islamabad should consider it wisely. Provincial autonomy is a paramount issue which is also on the list of major demands of the resistance movement in the province.  

7. Empowerment and Local Governance

Political empowerment starts from a local level where people resolve their own issues with consensus working with the provincial government. This gap should be filled and local elections should be held in the interior Balochistan.

8. Trust and Collaboration

It looks the province has been politically isolated by the establishment and all important issues of the province are decided by the powerful bureaucrats in Islamabad or the army without any input from the provincial administration.

With this backdrop, the Obama administration has announced to review the ongoing war in Afghanistan in July 2011 and make a decision on how to proceed to withdraw its forces by 2014. While winding up in Afghanistan, however, there are other “opportunities” in the surrounding region for the goliath who already has two air bases in Dalbandin and Panjgore in Balochistan and the most modern army across the border.

Based on the fast-changing circumstances in the region, the next five years will be highly crucial for the future of Balochistan and it is up to the Pakistani establishment, political parties and most importantly the army to see the writing on the wall. As they say, all eyes are on the prize!