The Balochistan conundrum | Ali Ahsan

In his 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard,” former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski described the critical importance of Eurasia — Eastern Europe to Far East — to US grand strategy and interests. Much of the book focused on the role of Central Asian states that can be used to ensure that no one entity (China, Russia, Islamists) would dominate the region and challenge US primacy. Not surprisingly, post-9/11 neoconservative interventionism by US in Afghanistan tried to create a foothold in the region, albeit with mixed results. This policy has not changed much in the past 14 years.

The US maintains a small but noticeable presence in post-9/11 Afghanistan amid a NATO-ISAF drawdown as it aims to ‘pivot’ and ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific region. Russia has tried to assert itself in its near-abroad, especially with Ukraine, but is at risk of socio-economic turmoil. China has gained tremendous influence across much of Eurasia, including Central Asia. Brzezinski’s ‘chessboard’ remains in vogue, albeit with Beijing becoming a major player. This is where Pakistan in general, and Balochistan in particular, appears as a few important squares on the board.

Geopolitics or geoeconomics?

Many have written about Balochistan and its myriad issues like gross lack of development, decades of state indifference, history of violence by insurgents and other non-state groups, tribal-ethnic politics, and of course, its geostrategic location as a crossroads between West, Central, and South Asia. It is no surprise that the nearly $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has again rekindled interest in Pakistan becoming a major trading and logistic hub for China’s western regions, with Balochistan again becoming important through Gwadar port. China aims to connect Gwadar to Xinjiang’s Kashgar with a nearly 3,000 km long network of motorways and railroads, as well as constructing necessary power plants, industrial units and other infrastructure along the way throughout Pakistan.

This comes in line with China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) development strategy that aims to connect it with Central Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Europe through both land and sea. The current Chinese economic model is facing tremendous challenges of sustainability. China’s rising urban living standards and consumer spending has meant the old industrialised export-driven economy is being replaced by a more service-oriented one. Its densely populated eastern provinces have developed rapidly but its western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang remain largely underdeveloped and tense.

Many Chinese scholars have described this ‘westward march’ as a ‘strategic necessity’ for Beijing so as to relieve itself from a prospective tense rivalry with US in the Eastern Asia-Pacific region. By focusing westward in terms of development and trade incentives, China would hope to enhance cooperation and avoid unnecessary flare-ups. This comes at a time when Beijing has increasingly asserted itself on disputed islands in the South and East China Seas much to the chagrin of Japan, Taiwan and ASEAN states. India too has viewed Chinese moves with suspicion as ‘encirclement’ of India in its own backyard, especially in Indian Ocean.

The Xinjiang headache

Decades of strict state policies in Xinjiang have led to a simmering Uyghur militancy that combines Uyghur / Turkic nationalism and Islamist tendencies with increasingly violent tactics. Many of these groups are now based in the tribal belts of the Pak-Afghan border regions and enjoy support from various Jihadi groups in the region. China’s current focus on stabilising its restive western regions requires tremendous economic development and also the neutralising of violent groups like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

China has historically followed and championed a policy of ‘non-interference’ in another country’s domestic affairs. This cold pragmatism has meant China has dealt with whatever regime or government is in charge, regardless of its domestic conduct, as long as it helps Chinese interests. However, as China begins to influence regional behaviour, subtle tweaks in the above policy were bound to happen. One example would be China’s tacit facilitation of peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul to stabilise Afghanistan and ramp up the pressure on ETIM. In fact, during the early months of Operation Zarb-i-Azb, many strikes were carried out specifically on ETIM in FATA, earning Chinese praise. CPEC’s success entirely depends on how Pakistan can stabilise itself internally. This also would explain China’s increased eagerness to stabilise Afghanistan but also facilitate Pakistan doing the same.

The Tri-state area

It shouldn’t be a surprise how critical Balochistan has become for Pakistan’s strategic goals and China’s CPEC enterprise, but this seemingly desolate part of Pakistan certainly has its own transnational challenges. It is essentially a tri-state area in which the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran meet and effectively divide the province’s Pakhtun population in the north/north-east and Baloch in the west and north-west. This tri-state area is rife with gun-running, drug trafficking, human smuggling, and illicit trade cartels worth billions of dollars as well as the usual insurgent and jihadist groups plaguing this region. All three states have been competing to gain some advantage in this harsh frontier.

Pak-Afghan ties have been slightly warmer in recent times (though they seem to be heading for a deep freeze once again) as both sides try to seek a common ground in order to handle jihadist groups and encourage dialogue with Afghan Taliban. But there is no doubt that despite existing mutual mistrust, any political solution to decades of instability in Afghanistan will require Pakistan’s cooperation and good faith. For Islamabad, its fears of being encircled by Indian interests on both sides remains a significant motivation to ensure that whoever is in charge of Kabul remains neutral at the very least, much to India’s annoyance. Southern Afghanistan, especially Nimrooz province, has a significant Baloch population which has struggled for a proper voice in national affairs.

At the same time, the coming Iran-West rapprochement over Tehran’s nuclear programme after years of talks and tacit cooperation in the Middle East means Pakistan’s western-most neighbour could be mainstreamed back into regional politics. Given its own restive Sistan-Baluchestan province facing violence from militants who frequently cross the Pak-Iran border to conduct attacks and seek refuge, Iran wants to stabilise its own Baloch territories and expects Pakistan to do the same — Mullah Omar Irani’s Jaish al-Adl, said to be based around Turbat, remains a bone of contention between Tehran, Islamabad, and others like the GCC sheikhdoms who prefer Iran getting bogged down internally.

Iran has historically eyed any Baloch political moves with tremendous suspicion and harshness both pre- and post-1979. In fact, Manuchehr Zelli — a former Iranian diplomat and envoy to Pakistan in 1970s — openly told US scholar Selig S. Harrison that the Baloch ‘cannot be trusted’ in the latter’s book “In Afghanistan’s Shadow: Baluch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations.” Things did slightly change after the Khomeinist take-over in Iran but now any Baloch political moves were regarded as a ‘superpower conspiracy’ though not without substance as Western media reports confirmed Israeli agents recruiting informants in Jundullah — a Sunni Baloch insurgent group that caused significant attacks on Iranian forces in Sistan-Baluchestan and often accused of hiding across the border in Pakistan. US has also kept its eyes and ears on Iran with its own intelligence activities, often with active role of GCC states and, if Iran is to believed, Pakistan too. But despite Pak-Iran tensions, both sides have tried to cooperate with each other as the capture and execution of Jundullah commander Abdolmalek Regi in 2010, and the killing of notorious Lyari gangster Baba Ladla in August 2015 on the border has shown. Now with the coming Iran-West rapprochement, it would certainly make sense for both China and Pakistan to offer Iran a CPEC slice. This would certainly explain Iran’s willingness in this regard whilst at the same time also entertaining Indian desires for its Chahbahar port — barely 20 miles west of Gwadar — for leverage. At the same time, Iranian Baloch hope the moderate soft image of Tehran with President Hasan Rouhani also brings genuine socio-political recognition and economic development in Sistan-Baluchestan

Lessons from the past

Pakistan, in the meantime, has to take a good hard look at itself over what it can and cannot do in Balochistan. Chinese interest in Gwadar during the General Musharraf regime fell into disarray as some controversial moves by Islamabad marooned the deep water project. Alleged rigging in the 2002 elections to counter Baloch/Pakhtun nationalists in Balochistan with Islamists, natural resources’ royalty disputes, mishandling dissent over Gwadar amid fears of altering the province’s demography ended up igniting a fifth insurgency in Balochistan with the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti during a military operation in 2006.

During the same period, the Chinese gold-copper mining of Saindak in Chagai District of Balochistan went on. The Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) had been taking in the bulk of the profits and revenues from Saindak since 2002 (50 per cent). In contrast, the Federal Government got 48pc while Balochistan — where Saindak is located and has provided necessary grants and infrastructure — got a measly 2pc. Not surprisingly, this arrangement led to frequent tensions and accusations of exploitation of local resources by the Chinese and the rest of Pakistan. However, the PPP government tried to rectify this and re-arranged the proceedings so that Balochistan got as much as 55pc, as per the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Questions still remain about when it will be properly implemented and control of mines be handed over to Quetta. Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch recently bemoaned “We are unaware of how much gold and copper is being produced and taken away to China by the company.”

Nearly 10 years later, a lot has changed in Balochistan: good and bad. The insurgency has splintered and fragmented to a point where it cannot dislodge state security forces from the province amid allegations of human rights abuse by the state and claims of foreign support for insurgents. Brahamdagh Bugti, a favourite grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti and head of the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP), has hinted at reconsidering his demand for Baloch independence even as behind the scenes talks between the government and exiled separatist leaders continue. Also, Quetta recently claimed that the leader of the violent Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), Dr Allah Nazar, is likely dead following a series of military operations against his group in Makran. The dual policy of approaching disgruntled leaders whilst weakening radical factions, if done right, can benefit everyone in Balochistan.

CPEC and Balochistan

A democratically-elected coalition government in Quetta certainly looks good on paper but questions remains on how it can deliver amid allegations of corruption by elected members enjoying perks and privileges for their ‘loyalty’ and wasting billions of development funds granted by the centre in last decade. The Baloch middle-classes have demanded that CPEC in Balochistan must accommodate and prioritise locals for employment and benefits first rather than migrant workers from other parts of Pakistan. Some have even eyed CPEC as a Sino-Pak colonialist enterprise in which locals are shunned in favour of a lucky few in power with a division-strength security force being raised just to protect CPEC and Chinese interests. However, there have been whispers of nationalist leaders holding extensive talks with federal and Chinese officials for making CPEC in Balochistan successful.

It is also interesting to note that Karachi, Pakistan’s main business hub, is also in the news with an extensive operation by security forces against politically-affiliated criminal groups involved in extortion, target killings, armed robbery, etc. Years of poor law and order has certainly impacted on the megapolis’ society and economy, but CPEC means Karachi also occupies a key role alongside Balochistan. With the Army — always close with the Chinese — at the forefront of internal stability from FATA to Karachi, is it any surprise that it has also been aggressive in its PR to raise its profile at home for being saviours of Pakistan at large? It certainly would be a better sell to ensure that the Army takes all the necessary plaudits for internally securing Pakistan given its main beneficiary would be CPEC.

China and Pakistan’s next moves on this chessboard must ensure they facilitate local empowerment as a top priority to generate necessary goodwill and grassroots support towards making CPEC a success, especially in Balochistan. Only then can both countries gain the benefits of this ambitious enterprise.

The Balochistan conundrum | Ali Ahsan

Ali Ahsan is a Multan-based International Relations researcher.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 25th, 2015

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