Almost prophetically, over 14 years ago, Abul Maali Syed, evolving scenarios for Pakistan in the year 2006, predicted, in his book The Twin Era of Pakistan: Democracy and Dictatorship (New York: Vantage Press, 1992):
Who would have believed that Balochistan, once the least populated and poorest province of unified Pakistan, would become independent and the third richest oil-producing country after Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? Who would have thought that this vast terrain was impregnated with vast reservoirs of oil and gas? The development in Balochistan was neglected and whenever a tribal chief spoke about the plight of their people, the Pakistan government shoved the barrel of a gun at him and silenced him. Today, having lost East Pakistan, Balochistan, Sindh, and part of Seraiki belt, Pakistan is still entangled with Pakhtoon tribes on her northern border and is no more in a strong position to hold on to the Pakhtoon area much longer.
While this scenario is still far from realization, a cursory glance at Balochistan in 2006 clearly shows that the situation in this strategically important and largest province of Pakistan is following an ominous trajectory, with Baloch nationalist violence escalating into what could soon become a major insurgency. The law and order situation in Pakistan’s resource-rich but poorest Balochistan province continues to spin out of the government’s control amidst a massive military operation being carried out against the rebel Baloch nationalists, who, as yet, are just demanding greater political autonomy and a bigger share of revenues from their huge gas reserves and other natural resources.
Balochistan has been in the news for over a year now because of frequent clashes between armed Baloch nationalists and the Pakistan Army, which have already led to a massive military operation in parts of the province that are under the influence of the Bugti and Marri tribes. The government says that local tribal chiefs and the nationalists are responsible for ‘creating a law and order situation’ because they are opposed to development in the province. The tribal chiefs and nationalists, however, complain that they are constantly being denied their due share of the income from huge gas coffers and that they have been excluded from both the development as well as the political process to the advantage of the Pakistan Army which is using development to extend its presence and influence in the province.
The current operations in the Marri and the Bugti areas started after President General Musharraf’s visit to Kohlu, the administrative headquarters of the Marri tribal area, on December 15, 2005. On his arrival, eight rockets slammed into a Frontier Constabulary (FC) camp on the outskirts of Kohlu. The following day, the Director General and the Inspector General of the FC were injured in firing while surveying the area. The FC, backed by regular troops stationed in the Sui area, launched a massive operation against ‘miscreants’ in both the Marri and Bugti areas. The military as well as the government continues to emphasise that no military operations are underway, and only the paramilitary FC is engaged in rooting out miscreants. Both Balochistan Governor Owais Ghani and Chief Minister Jam Yousuf have stated that 1,000-2,000 fararis (rebels) are holed up in camps that are being targeted by the security forces. They have tried to allay fears regarding civilian casualties stating that no civilians are to be found in the vicinity of the farari camps.
Since the areas under siege have been sealed off by the troops, the only sources of information on the situation are official spokesmen or Baloch nationalist leaders. Irrespective of whether one chooses to take on board all that both the sides are saying, it is undeniable that a major conflagration is in progress. The latest reports of Kohlu being deprived of power by the blowing up of electricity pylons, as well as rocket and bomb attacks in Sibi, Harnai, Naushki and Turbat, suggest that the fire is spreading to new areas in the province. The security forces may claim to be confining themselves to targeting the farari camps, but in aerial strafing and bombing, avoiding collateral civilian casualties is beyond the scope of even the most sophisticated armies. While the fighting rages and spreads in Balochistan, voices of concern from other parts of the country are steadily getting louder.
The opposition parties in Pakistan have criticized ongoing operations, demanding an immediate halt and the initiation of negotiations with the Baloch leadership. The Nawaz Sharif-led Muslim League and the Benazir Bhutto-led People’s Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami, led by Qazi Hussain Ahmad, have all condemned the military operations in Balochistan, in the process delivering dire warnings of the dangers of trying to resolve essentially political problems through the use of force. In a joint resolution adopted by the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) at its emergent meeting in Islamabad in the last week of January 2006, the opposition parties demanded that the government call off the Balochistan operation, dust off the parliamentary committee reports on the Balochistan issue, and try to re-engage the Baloch leadership with the weapon of negotiations rather than the language of weapons.
An adamant Musharraf, however, insists that those resisting the military operation in Balochistan were ‘foreign agents’ who are opposed to development in the province and would have to be dealt with an iron hand. Consequently, as things stand, the fifth civil-military war in Balochistan since independence in 1947 has escalated to a worrying degree. The sputtering insurgency led by the Baloch nationalists is fast being transformed into an all-out internal war between the forces of the Centre backed by the Punjab-dominated military establishment and the Baloch people.
Taking notice of the Balochistan imbroglio, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Asma Jahangir, led a fact finding mission to Balochistan in January 2006 to collect first hand information and to verify the flood of reports being received by the Commission about the use of heavy weaponry against the Baloch nationalists by the Pakistan Army and the scale of armed conflict in parts of Balochistan. Giving a first hand account of the actual happenings in Balochistan, Jahangir told this writer that the ongoing militarization of the province in the name of development had provoked the current crisis. "The people of Balochistan believe that the real motive behind the setting up of new cantonments in the province was to completely take over their natural resources, particularly in Kohlu and Dera Bugti."
Commenting on the government’s repeated denials of having launched a military operation and its claims that it was only trying to deal with a law and order situation in Balochistan where a ‘few miscreants’ were involved, Jahangir stated: "However, our findings are very different. Having visited the troubled areas of the province, particularly Dera Bugti and Kohlu, we found evidence of a full-fledged military operation being carried out. The Army is also involved in the operations because there have been helicopters flying over, there has been aerial firing and in some places also bombardment. The disproportionate use of force, mass arrests of civilians and the lack of accountability of state agencies amount to a grotesque violation of the most basic rights of citizens." Jahangir also disclosed that, since just December 31, 2005, the military operation inflicted at least 50 civilian fatalities, including women and children, besides causing injuries to dozens. She said the local population had been subjected to indiscriminate bombing and the dead even included some Hindus, many of whom had been forced to leave their homes due to the fighting.
The chief of the Bugti tribe, Nawab Akbar Bugti, however, insists that the military operation jointly being carried out by the Army and the Air Force since December 15, 2005, had killed over 300 people, mostly women and children. The Baloch leader added further that over 50,000 regular Army troops are currently deployed in Balochistan, in addition to over 30,000 personnel of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC). The latest phase of violence has taken a serious turn because the military operation has been extended beyond the Kohlu area. Though official circles are emphasising that military action is limited to the dissidents’ camps and the tribesmen attacking government installations or the troops, unofficial and independent sources talk of the brutal impact on ordinary people who have been forced to migrate to other areas. The information on military operations being provided by the Army’s spokesman is not corroborated by independent news sources.
The stepping up of military activity in Balochistan appears to herald the collapse of the peace process that was initiated by the government last year, which was meant to push for a political solution. Despite the fact that the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Balochistan constituted by the centre had already submitted its recommendations to the government in June 2005, no step has been taken towards their implementation. The Committee had made sweeping proposals for enhancement of gas royalties to the Province and clearance of arrears, amendments to the Concurrent List, changes in the National Finance Commission Award, provincial autonomy, and the development of gas-rich areas. Unfortunately, however, the political negotiations track is dead, and the only dialogue being conducted in Balochistan is the dialogue of opposing firepower. Where that will lead can only make one shudder.
Most political observers in Pakistan disagree with the commando-style handling of the Balochistan situation by Musharraf and fear that the use of brute force may inflame the state of affairs and the localised insurgency could escalate into a major security nightmare for the General, who comes from the Special Service Group (SSG) of the Army. The Baloch nationalists are clearly gaining support against a military dictator who they accuse of exploiting their rich natural resources without providing benefits to the Baloch population. As a matter of fact, the ‘armed terrorists’ in Balochistan, Musharraf often refers to, are not foreigners but Pakistani citizens. Observers say they may well be highly unpatriotic, even treasonous, yet they are still to be accorded the rights due to any other Pakistani citizen. They argue that the mistake made by the establishment in East Pakistan is now being repeated in Balochistan.
The matter of solving the Balochistan dispute is no more about settling a single problem, such as the exploitation of the province’s natural resources, the setting up of new cantonments, or the continuing hostility and tension surrounding the natural gas reserves. The matter is fundamentally about Pakistan’s basic political direction, whether or not the country is to become a stable and prospectively progressive state. If this is, in fact, the case, the only way to deal with the problem is to give the people of Balochistan the rights that have been denied to them. The use of brute force will only cause further alienation, leaving them with no option but to fight for their genuine economic and political rights. The clock is ticking and the Musharraf regime must move swiftly for a political situation, where the strong are just and the weak secure.
Amir Mir is Senior Pakistani journalist affiliated with Pakistani Monthly Newsline and Dubai-based Daily Gulf News. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
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