Balochistan: Pakistan's internal war

November 23, 2006

Open warfare erupted between Baloch nationalists and the Pakistani military in December 2005 following decades of what the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) described as a "simmering insurgency". An HRCP investigation conducted in December 2005 and January 2006 detailed ongoing summary executions, disappearances, torture and indiscriminate bombing and artillery attacks against the people of Pakistan's south-western province of Balochistan. Baloch nationalist fighters, mainly from the Bugti and Marri tribes, continue to attack Pakistani military and paramilitary forces and sabotage gas pipelines and other infrastructure on a daily basis.

General Pervez Musharraf's government asserts that the insurgency is an attempt by some tribal chieftains (sardars) to prevent economic development in Balochistan and maintain their traditional power. Baloch nationalists, however, point to the ongoing expropriation of Balochistan's natural resources, exclusion from development projects, political marginalisation, transmigration and continuing militarisation as reasons for the insurgency.

On April 30 the Musharraf regime banned Baloch nationalist leaders from travelling outside Pakistan. On May 1 the Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for blowing up a railway bridge in the Kohlu district of Balochistan, cutting the line between the provincial capital, Quetta, and Iran. In the same month the Musharaff government banned the BLA as a terrorist organisation. On August 26 the Pakistani military killed Nawab Akbar Bugti, sardar of the Bugti tribe (one of Balochistan's largest tribes) and a leader of the Baloch national liberation movement. Hundreds of people were arrested after rioting erupted throughout Balochistan in response to the killing.

Catalyst for war

Two incidents are widely recognised as being the catalyst for the current state of open warfare in Balochistan. The rape of a female doctor at Sui hospital by a Pakistani army officer and several soldiers of the Defence Security Guards (DSG — charged with guarding Sui's gas installations) on January 2, 2005, sparked an increase in insurgent attacks. The handling of the rape allegations by the Pakistan government only inflamed the initial sense of outrage.

Dr Shazia Khalid worked for Pakistan Petroleum Limited, which operates the Sui gas fields. Both PPL and the government tried to cover up the rape. The officer accused of the rape was given time on the government-run Pakistan Television to argue his version of events and Musharraf, Pakistan's president, publicly affirmed the officer's innocence. Khalid was later forced into quasi-exile by the Pakistani regime.

In response to the rape, between January 7-11, militants of the Bugti tribe attacked the Sui gas fields, which produce much of Pakistan's natural gas, causing disruption to supplies for over a month. The government responded with house-to-house searches by 7000 regular troops plus Frontier Corps personnel (FC — a despised paramilitary unit), supported by armour, artillery and gunships. The houses of those "suspected" of launching the attack were bulldozed. More than 1500 insurgent attacks were mounted between January 7 and April 3, 2005, throughout the province, culminating in a pitched battle between the FC and Bugti tribespeople.

The second incident was a December 14, 2005, insurgent rocket attack on an FC camp on the outskirts of Kohlu in the Marri tribal area that Musharraf was visiting. The following day insurgents fired on a helicopter carrying the FC's inspector-general, Major-General Shujaat Zamir Dar, who was injured in the attack. Hours, later Pakistani forces launched major attacks on farari camps (rebel bases) in the province.

According to the late Nawab Akbar Bugti, Pakistani military forces in the region increased after December 14 to 50,000 regular army troops and 30,000 FC. By February 2006, some 300 civilians had been killed, including more than 120 children, and 4000 Baloch had been arrested. Accurate information on Pakistani army deployments are difficult to come by as the military continue to deny that large-scale operations are even happening and the region is closed to outside journalists.

These events were, however, only manifestations of the historical treatment of Balochistan by the national government and the response of Baloch nationalists. Baloch nationalism and the grievances of Balochistan stem from a history of exploitation and marginalisation of the Baloch by the central, Punjabi-dominated, federal government.

Key issues for the Baloch national liberation movement include: resource distribution, including jobs for Baloch, and the associated issue of transmigration; the expansion of Pakistani military cantonments and militarisation of the province; and whether independence or autonomy is the aim of the insurgency.

The government's treatment of the Baloch can partly be explained by Balochistan's strategic and economic importance to the Pakistani state.

Balochistan's place in the Islamic Republic

Bordering the Arabian Sea, greater Balochistan is divided among three countries — Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Pakistan's Balochistan province, located in the south-west, has 43% of Pakistan's territory but only 5% of its population (around 6,500,000 people). It also contains a substantial amount of Pakistan's energy and mineral resources and produces over 40% of the country's primary energy, including almost half of its total gas production. Large deposits of coal, copper, silver, platinum, aluminium, gold and uranium are situated within its borders.

Balochistan is ethnically divided between the Baloch (45%) and the Pashtun (38%), with a further 17% of the population being mixed or other ethnicity. The Pashtun are concentrated in a belt in the north-west of the province roughly stretching between Qila Abdullah near the Afghan border, Quetta and Loralai to the east.

The Ras Koh ranges, near the border with Iran and Afghanistan, is where Pakistan conducts its nuclear tests. A proposed gas pipeline linking Iran, Turkmenistan and India will pass through the province.

Balochistan comprises almost all of Pakistan's coastline — 756 kilometers on the Arabian Sea. It provides Pakistan with an exclusive economic zone of 180,000 square kilometres potentially rich in mineral resources. It is also home to two of Pakistan's three naval bases, one of which, Gwadar, is being developed as an alternative to the base at Karachi in Sindh, which is viewed as vulnerable to the Indian navy. US military operations in southern Afghanistan are launched from bases in Balochistan and both the Taliban and al Qaeda purportedly operate out of the more remote areas of the province.

Despite being the repository of so much of Pakistan's natural resources and the site of major development projects, Balochistan has benefited little from the exploitation of its wealth.

Plundering Balochistan

A central demand of Baloch nationalists is the equitable sharing of revenue from the province's natural resources. A case in point is Balochistan's production of natural gas, which is crucial to Pakistan's economy. Despite accounting for 36-45% of Pakistan's gas production, the province consumes only 17% of what it produces. The remainder is sold at a much lower price to the rest of the country than gas produced in Punjab and Sindh. That the federal government returns only 12.4% of the gas royalties actually due to the provincial government compounds this inequality.

Gas was discovered in Sui in 1953 and supplied to cities in the Punjab by 1964. The Baloch capital of Quetta only received a gas supply in 1986, and then only because the federal government had decided to station a military garrison there. In total only four of Balochistan's 26 districts have been supplied with gas.

Insurgent attacks on gas pipelines are common and have caused the shutting down of industrial production in the Punjab for lengthy periods.

Development and transmigration

Balochistan is the site of a number of major development projects. A key grievance of Baloch nationalists is the marginalisation of their people from the benefits of these projects.

Gwadar port, on the Arabian Sea near the border with Iran and close to the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, is being developed with Chinese assistance and epitomises the national government's approach to "development" in the province. Development of Gwadar will provide a port, warehousing and industry to more than 20 countries. Completion is expected in 2010, when the port will be able to receive oil tankers of over 200,000 tonnes. Along with an associated industrial development and free-trade zone, Gwadar will be linked to Central Asia by a road and rail network currently under construction. China has also discussed with Pakistan on the building of a 60,000-barrels-per-day oil refinery at Gwadar.

Almost all the construction contracts were awarded to non-Baloch, mainly Punjabi, firms. Despite thousands of jobless Baloch engineers and technicians being available, only low-grade jobs are offered to Baloch workers. The rest of the positions are filled largely by Punjabi and other non-Baloch workers. Of the 600 personnel that worked on the first stage of construction, only 100 were Baloch, and they were mainly day-labourers. No effort has been made by the central government to train the local population so they can obtain jobs at Gwadar.

Once the Musharraf government's plans for the port are complete, the population of Gwadar and surrounding districts will rise from 70,000 to 2 million, overwhelmingly transforming the ethnic makeup of the region as Punjabi, Sindhi and other workers are moved into the area.

This is not an uncommon situation for areas under development in Balochistan, or in civil administration or the military where Baloch are significantly under-represented. Less than 1% of the 30,000 FC personnel in Balochistan are Baloch and only 3% of the coastguard is ethnic Baloch. Nawab Akbar Bugti articulated the fears of the Baloch people in January 2005 when he accused the Musharraf government of "trying to change the Baloch majority into a minority by accommodating more than five million non-locals in Gwadar and other developed areas".

Militarisation and Islamisation

In order to force this situation onto the Baloch, the federal government has increasingly militarised their province. The large influx of troops from December 2005, when the most recent hostilities erupted, only accelerated this process.

There are military/police roadblocks throughout the province and the Pakistani intelligence service is reportedly creating militias among local opponents of nationalist leaders. The military currently has two cantonments (large military bases) in the province at Quetta and Sibbi.

Of central concern to the nationalists is the stated aim of the federal government to create three more cantonments at Gwadar, Dera Bugti and Kohlu. This measure is viewed by the Baloch as a further attempt to deprive them of the natural resources in those areas and enhance the military's ability to suppress their struggle.

Hand-in-hand with this use of force is an ideological push by the Musharraf regime to break the loyalty of the Baloch to their tribal leaders. The Baloch nationalists are strongly opposed to the influence of the mullahs and also oppose the Taliban (who currently operate out of Balochistan).

The Musharraf regime has attempted to promote Islamic fundamentalism in the province to break the hold of the sardars.

In rigged 2002 provincial elections, the army and government ensured the victory of the fundamentalist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Coalition for Action) in Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province. Although it no longer holds power there, the MMA is heavily supported in Balochistan by the Musharraf regime.

Through the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA), the federal government continues to establish madrassas (religious schools) to bolster the mullahs' influence. The lack of secular education is more noticeable in Balochistan than in any other province, with 50% of children compelled to attend the religious schools. This is not surprising given that the national budget for the MRA is around 1.2 billion rupees whilst the secular education ministry is allocated 200 million. It is leading to what Baloch nationalists call the "Talibanisation" of Balochistan.

Supporting the influence of the mullahs and fundamentalist organisations against the Baloch nationalists has another benefit for Musharraf. It allows him to posture on the world stage and try to convince foreign governments of the risk of the spread of fundamentalism in the region. He has also launched an international disinformation campaign equating the Baloch national struggle with Islamic terrorism and linking nationalist militants with al Qaeda and the Taliban.

[Part two of this article will appear in GLW #693.]

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