In the aftermath of the Bloody Thursday bombings I think it would be a good idea to examine the current conflict raging in Baluchistan and what it bodes for Pakistan’s future.
The conflict in Baluchistan is not widely reported on but it exemplifies all that is wrong with Pakistan. The Baloch are in arms because the Federal government and the Army have long denied them their due share of the provinces vast mineral and natural gas reserves and have always used force to prevent the Baloch’s from exercising their right of provincial autonomy. A case in point is that natural gas from Baluchistan is used to heat the houses of Pakistani’s in the main provinces of Punjab and Sindh while people in Baluchistan are left to freeze in the cold winter months.
There have been several rebellions in Baluchistan all of which were brutally crushed by the Government of the day. The first occurred in 1948 after Muhammad Ali Jinnah ordered the Pakistan Army to march into Baluchistan to force its accession to Pakistan. The second occurred shortly after Army Chief of Staff Ayub Khan had seized power in Pakistan’s first military coup; Khan promised the rebels amnesty if they surrendered, when the Baloch put down their arms Khan had their leaders hanged. This shocking deception left the Baloch with a deep mistrust of the Pakistani State and Army which were and largely still are, dangerously intertwined. The third rebellion broke out in the 1970’s during the rule of the democratically elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a left wing secularist with a prominent populist streak. The Baloch politicians of the day would have made natural allies as they too were left leaning secularists.
Alas Bhutto had a knack for turning potential allies into bitter enemies and he decided to impose Governors Raj in the province so he could exercise complete control. The Baloch once again rose up against the Pakistani State and Bhutto responded by launching a full scale military operation in the province and arresting the Baloch leadership. The rebellion raged throughout the 1970’s and cost thousands of lives on both sides. In 1977 Bhutto was overthrown by his handpicked Army Chief, Zia ul-Haq, who decided to make peace in Baluchistan in order to legitimize his rule. Zia released the Baloch leaders, withdrew the Army, and granted Baluchistan a degree of autonomy that satisfied the populace. Indeed throughout Zia’s brutal 11 year rule Baluchistan remained at peace.
The current rebellion started in 2004 during the rule of Pakistan’s last military dictator Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf was attempting to increase exploitation of Baluchistan’s vast mineral reserves; the profits of which had never in Pakistan’s history flowed to the people of Baluchistan. Musharraf just like Jinnah, Khan, and Bhutto before him ignored the Baloch leadership and triggered a fourth rebellion. Musharraf publicly vowed to crush the rebellion and refused to negotiate with the rebels. The Army swiftly moved in and began fighting the rebels who drifted into the mountains to launch guerrilla attacks against the Army and the Army controlled Frontier Corps.
Like everything else in Pakistan the conflict in Baluchistan is a murky and complex one. The Baloch were originally fighting for autonomy within Pakistan but after facing the Army’s brutality they have instead began calling for an independent Baluchistan. The Baloch rebels have borne the brunt of the States crackdown but they have shown an increasing capability to strike at the Army and Frontier Corps as well as other State institutions.
Unfortunately though the rebels have also targeted non-Baloch peoples in Baluchistan. There are hundreds of thousands of Pashtun’s and Punjabi’s in Baluchistan, most of whom have lived there for centuries. The Baloch refer to them as settlers and have killed thousands of them; Pashtun’s for being linked to the Taliban who support the State and push a harsh version of Islam that is alien to Baluchistan, and Punjabi’s because the Army is dominated by Punjabi’s. Over 150 000 Punjabi’s have been forced to flee Baluchistan in the past few years, a figure that is oft quoted in the Punjabi dominated media in Pakistan. And it is a terrible situation, the Baloch sully their own cause by engaging in ethnic cleansing; it is ironic that Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was born in Quetta the provincial capital of Baluchistan to Punjabi parents, has been the foremost advocate of seeking peace in Baluchistan, yet if he was still in Baluchistan he might have been killed simply for being Punjabi.
But the crimes committed by the Baloch pale in comparison to the atrocities of the Pakistan Army. The Army has used indiscriminate aerial and artillery bombardments, oftentimes in civilian areas, and has planted mines throughout Baluchistan. The worst crime committed by the Army though has been the illegal abduction, imprisonment, and torture of suspected rebels. These disappeared persons were held for years in horrific conditions but would eventually be sent home. Indeed the dogged efforts of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to force the Army to release their illegal detainees played a large part in Musharraf’s decision to launch his second Coup in November 2007 which resulted in Chaudhry’s ouster and arrest.
In the last couple of years the Army has shifted towards a more brutal approach. Where ”disappeared” Baloch would eventually be sent home, they now were being dumped by the roadside with bullets in their heads; many of the corpses were tied to placards that say, ‘‘Long live Pakistan! Death to Baluchistan!”. Hundreds of bodies have been discovered in recent years, many of them having been held for years before the Army decided to kill them. These murders leave behind angered family members who will raise their children to hate Pakistan and one day seek vengeance.
And to top it all off there is an ongoing sectarian conflict in the province; mostly taking the form of attacks on Shia’s committed by the LeJ. The LeJ’s top leaders had been arrested after 9/11 and sentenced to death. Yet they were able to easily escape their maximum security prison in the Army base in Quetta, obviously with the connivance of the Army. Why? Because in addition to killing Shia’s they have formed militias that fight against the Baloch rebels, allowing the Army to avoid dirtying it’s own hands to much.
As Baluchistan burns and the Army wages war against its own people there is a consensus within the governing elite in Pakistan that peace is a must in Baluchistan. But the main stumbling block remains the Army that has committed and continues to commit horrific abuses in Baluchistan since 2004. The Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, General Kayani is the most powerful, (and perhaps the most dangerous), man in Pakistan and he alone holds the key to peace in Baluchistan. Yet it was none other than Kayani himself who was in charge of the ISI spy agency from 2004-2007 and was directly responsible for attempting to crush the rebellion. It was none other than Kayani who in 2007 became the Army chief and in 2010 forced the civilian government to grant him an illegal 3 year term extension which has solidified his power within Pakistan. And it was none other than General Kayani who as head of the Army must have approved the shift in policy from abducting and torturing suspected rebels to murdering them and dumping their bodies like so much garbage .
Where does this end? In the immediate future there will likely be an uneasy peace of sorts. The Government desperately needs the revenue that could be generated from Baluchistan’s natural wealth and the Army needs to focus more on fighting the religious militants it helped spawn. But there will almost certainly be a fifth rebellion down the road. The children and grandchildren of those Baloch will grow up and come to seek vengeance on the Army and on Pakistan for the crimes they committed. And when they come with guns in their hands they will be facing a gravely weakened and impoverished State grappling with violence and anarchy in all the provinces. The fifth Baloch rebellion may well prove to be the final blow needed to destroy Pakistan; it is not to late to prevent this future tragedy, but this being Pakistan the right thing is only done when it is to late to do any good. I am reminded of what the old man in Faridkot said when he was asked about the hanging of terrorist Ajmal Kasab last year: ”As you sow so shall you reap.” It’s a lesson that the Army and Government and State of Pakistan need to learn, and one that I suspect they never will.