Balochistan in focus: The three theories about why Akhtar Mengal was back in Pakistan

In the slow burn of Balochistan, why did Sardar Akhtar Mengal decide to enter now: to rouse the flames further or to douse them?

There are at least three theories about what he was up to in Pakistan, and interlinked to that, what the powers-that-be, the security establishment, will allow him the space to do in Balochistan.

The first theory is the most obvious: as with the moves and machinations of most political players in the country at the moment, is Mengal’s return also animated by election-year calculations?

Mengal belongs to the relatively moderate camp – Baloch and Pakhtun parties including the BNP-M, National Party and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party – that boycotted the last election and created the vacuum that was subsequently filled by what is widely believed to be a corrupt, self-serving, ‘imposed leadership.’ Wanting to avoid such a development in the future, is Mengal’s return inspired by the prospect of being able to come into power in the next general election?

Certainly – but only if the sarkar, aka the establishment, allows it.

Many say Mengal’s arrival in Islamabad may be the curtain raiser of a behind-the-scenes reconciliation with the military establishment. Indeed, in a province where the game of sardars being lured in and out of power by the sarkars has continued for decades, is the armed state once again cutting deals with those it grudgingly considers a desirable option under the circumstances?

No doubt, the army is thinking hard about a post-election scenario for Balochistan. And observing how the ill-conceived violence of the state in trying to stem the latest armed insurgency has given rise to a cadre of educated, middle-class, non-tribal insurgents, the army is beginning to worry that it may lose another generation of moderate youths to violence. Creating another set of Allah Nazars – the most well-known of the non-tribal insurgents – hardened by the jackboot of the security establishment stamping down on youths and their loved ones is something the army wants to at least try and avoid.

The army, then, realises perhaps that the best-case scenario in the near future may in fact be to allow the moderates a ‘level playing field,’ grant them a ‘supportive’ caretaker government and accept someone like Mengal as chief minister if the moderates win. For the moderates too, not wanting to boycott another election, it is important not just that they can contest elections without the fear of intelligence agencies and separatist militants but also that they are guaranteed that the “present lot” of leaders, Nawab Raisani and ilk, will not be propped up again.

But given how precarious things have become in Balochistan, a suitable outcome may be difficult even for the all-powerful army to engineer.

For starters, given the state’s violent response to the latest Baloch insurgency and decades of use of force in the province, even mainstream politicians and political parties that have never before asked for separation are divided on the question of whether participation in elections will bring meaningful changes in Balochistan, and are forced to protect their pro-Balochistan credentials by speaking of a possible divorce, as Mengal himself did last week in Islamabad.

For instance, according to one senior official of the Balochistan Frontier Corps, the army was shocked to hear Mengal claim during a TV interview that nothing less than UN-guaranteed negotiations in Balochistan would be acceptable to the moderates. “We thought he was coming here to talk about electoral prospects within constitutional limits but is he pushing the extremists’ agenda now?” the officer asked.

Which brings us to the second theory about Mengal’s return: that he does indeed come with the blessings of what are considered anti-Pakistan elements. Those close to Mengal reveal that he has held across the board discussions and developed consensus with all hues of leaders, from the National Party, the Jamhoori Watan Party and other Baloch nationalists to the Baloch diaspora in Dubai that favours freedom rather than reconciliation with the Pakistani state. Two months ago, Mengal is also said to have met the exiled leader of the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army, Harbiyar Marri, in London.

A senior leader of the BNP affirmed: “Those who want freedom are tired of all the injustices pointed out in the six points. Remove them and it will itself be a breakthrough.”

But can Mengal truly claim to speak for the armed resistance in exile, whose leaders have rejected political offers in the past? He claims yes. And as far as the military establishment is concerned, insiders say it may in fact be reaching out to Mengal – whose BNP was the most vocal in condemning the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti – precisely in order to reach out to exiled leaders like Brahumdagh Bugti, the young successor of the assassinated governor and chief minister of Balochistan.

Finally, the most ominous theory of all: Mengal and the military establishment both realise that the key to ending the stalemate in Balochistan rests in ending the insurgency itself – or at least in creating a convincing perception that militant groups are splintering. Either side is thus asking the other for guarantees that it will put a stop to the activities of their pet militant groups.

Mengal, for instance, wants the army to crack down on, and cold storage, pro-ISI, pro-Pakistan militant groups like the Baloch Musallah Difa Tanzim that operate in Khuzdar and other areas. The security establishment in return wants Mengal to prevail upon his brother Javed Mengal – the son-in-law of Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, a cock-fighting enthusiast who openly calls for Balochistan’s independence – to stem the anti-state activities of the Lashkar-e-Balochistan, which Javed allegedly heads from exile in London. There are also those who believe that apart from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s murderous campaign, which is motivated by sectarian differences, there are also those killing people in Balochistan simply because they are not ethnic Baloch. Baloch militants trying to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the province, it is agreed, must also be reined in.

Both sides thus concur that Mengal’s six-point solution can work only under a guarantee that military action on both sides will taper off.

In the final analysis, then, whether mainstreamer-turned-nationalists like Mengal will be successful depends most on the state itself and on the approach of non-state actors on both sides – that is, on whether they will surrender arms.

In reality, however, the one thing the army can do to non-violently coax the Baloch separatists to lay down arms, it will not do: say sorry for the assassination of Nawab Bugti and convince them that it was not the act of the army at large but of one individual. The army has instead picked the violent option: to end the insurgency through a systematic campaign of weakening the other side, one insurgent at a time. “The army may be able to quash this fifth insurgency with violence, but the methods used all but guarantee there will be a sixth one,” said an observer.

As things stand today, some people say Balochistan now decisively belongs to the separatists under Allah Nazar; others claim “Balochistan ab Allah ke nazar hai” (Balochistan can’t be saved without God’s intervention). But the message is the same: it is Pakistan that is in trouble. And why not? What if elections do take place in Balochistan and are reasonably free and fair, but the moderates still lose?

That outcome, perhaps, may be final proof that Balochistan is lost for good.

(From the News, Pakistan)

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