Tension Simmers in Pakistani Province
The Pakistani government's economic development plans for Baluchistan -- the country's poorest, yet strategically most sensitive province -- threaten to provoke an armed uprising by local tribesmen. The prospect of ongoing instability could have a considerable economic and social impact on countries throughout Central Asia.
Earlier in April, the risk of a large-scale clash between government troops and local tribesmen appeared acute. Both sides had built fortified military positions along a highway and in the surrounding hills outside the town of Dera Bugti, not far from the Sui gas field. On April 16, though, regional officials announced a negotiated end to the stand-off, and the bunkers and other military strongholds were abandoned.
The confrontation traces its origin to early January rape of Shazia Khalid, a doctor. Local tribal leaders accused a Pakistani army officer of the crime and armed tribesmen took the law into their own hands, disrupting gas supplies from the Sui complex and engaging in other acts of defiance toward central authorities. Officials at first denied the officer's involvement, and a government inquiry subsequently cleared him wrongdoing. But the government's actions did not satisfy local concerns and festering tension eventually exploded. A day-long firefight March 17 between tribesmen and government soldiers left dozens dead and wounded, including a large number of civilian victims of an army artillery barrage, tribal leaders alleged.
Although the latest stand-off was connected to a matter of honor, the tribal resistance to the Pakistani government is deeply rooted in economic issues. Over the past decade, Pakistan has been trying to develop several mega-projects in the impoverished province, and in connection with these efforts, President Pervez Musharraf's administration has bolstered the Pakistani military's local presence. The projects have stirred concern among regional residents and their political leaders, prompting Baluch nationalist leader to call for a detailed political agreement that would cover economic and military expansion projects.
Bordering Afghanistan Iran and the Arabian Sea, Baluchistan is Pakistan's largest province, with an area of more than 300,000 square kilometers. At the same time, it is Pakistan's least populous territory, with only about 7 million inhabitants, or roughly 4 percent of the country's overall population. Arid and desolate, Baluchistan is perhaps Pakistan's poorest province. Yet, the territory, given the presence of natural resources, has considerable economic potential. The province is ethnically diverse, as 10 languages are spoken by regional residents.
Leaders of the titular nationality have sought of late to secure a larger share of revenue from energy extraction operations, as well as win a government commitment to reduce the military presence. Baluch nationalists accuse the military of forcefully seizing hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Baluchistan.
Another important source of tension is the development of the Gwadar deep-water port in southern Pakistan on the Arabian Sea coast. Officials see the project, undertaken with substantial Chinese assistance, as the key to establishing Pakistan as a Central Asian trade hub. Local tribal leaders, however, fear that the mega-project -- with its voracious demand for skilled laborers who are not found locally -- will overwhelm their ethnic identity in the region, leaving Baluchis a minority in their homeland.
Since the foundation of Pakistan 57 years ago, autonomy-minded Baluch nationalists have carried out four insurgencies in 1948, 1958, 1962 and 1973-77. All the uprisings were brutally suppressed. In January, right after the tensions flared again, President Musharraf warned the tribesmen that if they continued to resist the government, "you won't even know what hit you."
Negotiations aimed at redressing Baluch concerns collapsed during the summer of 2004 amid accusations of bad-faith bargaining. "We are not asking for alms or charity, we demand our due rights. We want to have control over our national resources," Senator Amanullah Kanrani, a legislator affiliated with the Jamhoori Watan Party told EurasiaNet.
"Islamabad's aggressive and exploitative policies and over-centralization are the obstacles in resolution of Baluchistan issue. All development projects, including Gwadar, are being controlled by the federal government," says Senator Sanaullah Baloch a nationalist politician affiliated with the Baluchistan National Party.
Complicating attempts by nationalist politicians to strike a deal with the central government is an ongoing militant campaign conducted by a shadowy organization called the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA). Officials in Quetta insist the group is receiving outside assistance to conduct insurgent actions. "There are foreign hands involved but we cannot name them now," Raziq Bugti, spokesman for the provincial government of Baluchistan told EurasiaNet. According to government statistics, some 244 bomb blasts killed more than 50 people and injured another 211 during a year-long period ending last March. During the same period, there were 766 rocket attacks that killed 5 people and injured 66. The BLA claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, which often targeted strategic installations, including gas distribution networks, railway tracks, water pipelines and power stations.
Many analysts point to the possibility of outside financial support for the insurgency. "There appears to be some external funding to Baluch groups that has made possible their large-scale purchase of arms," said Selig Harrison, Director of the Asia Program at the Washington, DC,-based Center for International Policy.
Harrison maintained that the settlement of the dispute in Baluchistan was critical for the future stability of Pakistan and for regional stability and cooperation. "In the absence of agreements providing for provincial autonomy of the type envisaged in the 1973 Constitution [of Pakistan], I doubt that such stability is possible," he said.
At a March 7 seminar in Harrison said that "there are accusations in Pakistan that Iran is funding and arming the Baluch guerrillas today as a reprisal for Pakistan's help for US Special Forces units believed to be operating undercover in Iran."
According to Senator Baloch withdrawal or downsizing the number government security troops in the province would boost confidence. "All powers and authorities regarding Gwadar [sea port], natural resources and mineral wealth must be handed over to Baluchistan's [provincial] government," he added.
Government officials, meanwhile, appear to believe that discontent in Baluchistan will fade over time, as the benefits from economic improvement projects become more widely distributed. "For the first time the government is talking of accommodating Baluch grievances. We are investing 130 billion rupees [about US $ 2 billion] in the provinces' development," said Bugti, the regional government spokesman. "If the development pace is hastened, the resistance will gradually diminish."
Abubaker Saddique reports on South Central Asia.