US President George Bush arrived March 3 in Pakistan, where he is expected to discuss Islamabad's role in the effort to defeat the Islamic militant insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a prominent expert has asserted that Islamabad's repressive policies in the restive province of Baluchistan are undermining efforts to contain Islamic radical activity in the strategically important region.
Bush is scheduled to meet with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on March 4. Pakistan has faced growing international pressure over its allegedly lax stance on Taliban and al Qaeda militants. Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently presented Musharraf with evidence of Pakistani involvement in arming and training Taliban guerillas, who have been increasingly active in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Karzai also relayed information that top Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, were operating freely on Pakistani territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Musharraf rejected the evidence as outdated.
Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah was quoted by Daily Times of Pakistan as saying Mullah Omar has been spotted "time and again" in Quetta, Baluchistan's capital. The mountainous and arid province, located along the Pakistani-Afghan border, is Pakistan's largest in terms of area, but it is sparsely populated. The region has experienced a marked rise in nationalist-separatist activity in recent years. For instance, on March 1, suspected nationalist gunmen assassinated a pro-government politician, Nasrullah Kakar, near Quetta, while an explosion damaged a pipeline in Sui.
Security conditions in Baluchistan are "rapidly deteriorating," according to Sabina Ahmed, the South Asia Project Director at Crisis Group. Over the last year, there have been 4,000 arrests and at least 150 civilian deaths -- many of them women and children. Government forces have used harsh methods to combat nationalist insurgents, leading to large-scale population displacement. In one of Baluchistan's districts, Dera Bugti, an estimated 85 percent of the residents have fled, Ahmed said.
Ahmed, speaking at a recent Open Forum at the Open Society Institute in New York, cautioned that Baluchistan's violence would probably continue to escalate, adding that the "the human cost is going to be enormous." Ahmed called attention to a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report, released last January, that assailed the government for employing excessive force in Baluchistan.
Baluchistan is the poorest province of Pakistan, with 45 percent of the population living below the poverty line. At the same time, the region has an abundance of natural resources. Baluch nationalist leaders maintain the province should enjoy a far greater share of the profits generated by energy development.
Musharraf and other officials in Islamabad have cast the Baluch nationalist movement as under the control of Islamic radicals. The HRCP report calls such allegations "absurd." Ahmed echoed the HRCP's analysis, asserting that Baluch nationalists have a secular orientation, adding that Islamic radicalism is "the greatest threat to their secular culture."
In alienating Baluch nationalists, Ahmed added, Pakistan is complicating efforts to defeat the Islamic radical insurgency in Afghanistan. "They [Baluch nationalists] are the only way to counter the Taliban" in Baluchistan, Ahmed said. In addition, the HCRP report indicated that the government's campaign against Baluch nationalists was diverting resources from operations designed to contain Islamic militants.