The Baluchistan question in
the Afghanistan-Pakistan crisis
by Raja Karthikeya
delivered at the
Baluchistan International Conference, Washington, D.C.,
Nov. 21, 2009
Every generation faces a definitional conflict. A conflict
that defines it, and shapes the way it looks at the world
and the way it looks at itself. For our generation,
and especially for the millions of youth in the subcontinent,
that conflict is the one currently raging in Afghanistan
I call the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan definitional
for two reasons: Firstly, It is a conflict – not
between religions, cultures or civilizations… it
is a conflict between two worldviews. One of these is
parochial, regressive and in the delusion of recreating
a past that never existed, seeks to clamp down on freedom
as we now it, seeks to strangle the culture of tolerance
and pluralism that we have practiced for centuries in
South Asia, and seeks to undermine the diversity that
embellishes Islam in the subcontinent. The other worldview
is that of you and I…which struggles to stay alive,
in a sea of conspiracy theorists and fiery rabble-rousers.
This conflict of worldviews will define the direction
in which the subcontinent is headed for decades to come.
The second reason is that in this conflict, under the
guise of religion, explicitly political goals are being
pursed and geo-political agendas are being given life. At
the heart of this conflict defined by these two factors-
a clash of worldviews and political interests lies...
The Baluch people find themselves at the crossroads
of three countries that make news for all the wrong reasons – Pakistan,
Afghanistan and Iran. Evan as religious extremism and
sectarianism rear their head in the region, the secular
nature of the mainstream Baluch movements is remarkable.
I will now address the Baluch question from each vertex
of this triangle, primarily from a security perspective.
Let us talk first about Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan
was never a Baluch war, the Baluch now find themselves
the victims of this war. One issue on which there is
no disagreement, neither in this room or in the international
community – the war in Afghanistan is intimately
linked to Pakistan’s interests – and if
I were to put it more explicitly, the Pakistani Army’s
The Pakistani Army’s interests have been a major
source of instability both inside Pakistan as well as
the region. Looking back a bit in history, while the “One
Unit” experiment which amalgamated all the provinces
of West Pakistan into one single province from 1954-1970
was of a disaster in federal governance, the Army’s
rule from 1958 onwards turned it into a catastrophe.
Subsequently, when a widely popular Baluch insurgency
started in the ‘70s, the Adour Khan regime provided
sanctuary to the Baluch fighters. While history has glossed
over this period, the Pakistani Army has not forgotten
it. And therefore, among Pakistan’s primary motivations
for taking on the might of the USSR through the Afghan
jihad were two – to ensure that a regime in Kabul
could ask for Pashtunistan and to ensure no regime in
Kabul could affect Islamabad’s interests in Baluchistan.
In extending support to the nascent Taliban movement,
Pakistan finally succeeded in these objectives. The Taliban
were the first regime in Kabul in over 90 years to not
rake up the Pashtunistan question with Pakistan…(we
are not talking about the merits or demerits of ethnic
issues here…we are merely discussing the facts
of history). And when Pakistan decided to conduct nuclear
tests in the Chagai Hills of Baluchistan, the Taliban
regime in Kabul did not protest the proximity of the
location to its borders or the potential fallout of the
tests. In short, as long as the Taliban were in Kabul,
Pakistan had a firm grip on the Pashtun and Baluch peoples.
Further, declassified archives show that in every war
with India, (’65 and ’71 being the most significant
ones), Pakistan had been afraid of an Afghan attack or
Afghan support to the movements in the Pashtun borderlands
which include Baluchistan. But when Gen. Musharraf staged
the Kargil operation in Kashmir in 1999, the Pakistani
Army had no more reason for fear… Because, Kabul
was now suppliant… In other words, Pakistan’s
interests in Afghanistan far exceed the theories of “strategic
depth” and traverse the Pashtun and Baluch questions.
And what of the situation in Pakistan itself?
Since 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban, the government
of Gen. Musharraf quietly allowed retreating Taliban
leadership to ensconce themselves in Quetta… Quetta,
which has never been part of the restive frontier,
was thus converted into a sanctuary for the most hardcore
of Taliban leadership and finds itself being pushed
into a frontline for the war. International media (the
New York Times being a case in point)’s attempts
to expose this early on were resisted by the administration
under Gen. Musharraf. And despite repeated appeals
of the US, no sincere effort was made to capture Afghan
Taliban leadership in Pakistan. That selective judgment
is exercised by the Pakistani Army and its organs in
capturing terrorist elements who promote suicide bombings,
is rather ironic.
In September 2006, Lt. Gen. Orakzai signed peace deals
with the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan. At least
one of the reasons for the peace deals seemed to be the
decision to divert forces to fight the Baluch insurgency
that had gone on the upswing after the killing of Nawab
Akbar Khan Bugti earlier in 2006. Only war could be fought
at a time – in this case, it would be against the
Baluch insurgency rather than Taliban. We all know how
those peace deals of 2006 with the Taliban turned out.
But importantly, that decision of 2006 is illustrative
of how the Pakistani Army is willing to risk the threat
to the stability and identity of the Republic of Pakistan
from the Taliban, in its efforts to maintain control
over Baluchistan. It's a misguided strategy, and I’m
understating it when I say so.
Within Baluchistan itself, the results of the war in
Afghanistan are all too obvious. There are rapid demographic
chances taking place with the influx of Pashtuns and
victims of war from Afghanistan. Inter-ethnic friction
is building. During the food crisis last year, the control
of the grey market for food commodities by one ethnicity
caused much bad blood. And the Army has used this friction
to stir inter-ethnic division, particularly through the
Frontier Corps Constabulary.
Therefore, here I must say, that it is important for
us to decide as to who exactly is a Baluch. Is it a person
Baluch by ethnicity? By language? By residence? Or is
it anyone who believes in the just rights of the Baluch
people? I believe that it should be the latter.
Let us now talk about Iran. The Baluch are a tiny minority
in Iran, and yet Baluch groups are seen as the single
biggest internal security threat to Iran. Not Kurds,
not Ahwazi Arabs…but Baluch. This situation is
largely the consequence of Jundullah's actions.
Jundullah today is no more representative of Baluch than
Bin Laden is representative of Muslims. Jundullah has
long deviated from whatever agenda it proclaims. And
it defies me as to why the group’s leader, Abdel
Malek Rigi who claims to be concerned about Baluch rights
in Iran, has nothing to say about Baluch rights in Pakistan.
The Iranian regime is of course, no friend of the Baluch.
Branding captured Baluch as “enemies of God”,
denying them Iranian identity, accusing them of being
drug dealers while the Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers
posted in the region themselves fill their coffers from
profits from the drug trade…Islamabad has worked
in tandem with Tehran in cracking down on the Baluch
insurrection in recent years, bringing to mind the Baluch
insurgency of the ‘70s in which the Bhutto government
took the assistance of the Shah of Iran (the Shah lent
Pakistan Chinook helicopters to rapidly deploy and airdrop
its forces in troubled areas, which turned out to be
a militarily significant factor). Over the past
decade, Islamabad has arrested and handed over Baluch
activists to Iran – but only when it is convenient.
This situation has fostered distrust between Iran and
Pakistan and brought the two countries to the brink of
hostilities – as we saw in the summer of 2009 in
the wake of the Zahedan bombing. Thus in both Iran and
Pakistan, the Baluch are being seen as an element that
endanger their bilateral ties and as a symbol of the
sectarian divide between the two countries – an
Pulling the threads of the various arguments here together,
we are faced with the question: Why should this issue
matter here and now to the international community? Because
in the wake of the recent US operations in southern Afghanistan
such as Operation Khanjar in Helmand, the Pakistani Army
has started talking of overflow of Taliban as a result
of these operations into Baluchistan and that this could
result in inflaming further the insurgency in the province.
Thus, a dangerous attempt is being made to conflate the
Baluch insurgency with that of the Taliban. This attempt,
coupled with the fact that a portion of the Counter-Insurgency
equipment and funding from the US is seemingly being
used to fight the Baluch insurgency, means that the Baluch
are bearing the brunt of the conflict in Afghanistan
and Pakistan. This conflict calls for the attention of
the international community.
Last but not least, we need to talk about international
actors. In Pakistani media, the Baluch insurgency is
portrayed as being a product of Indian intervention.
I do not know if a Baluch needs to be taught how to fight.
Having said that, India, Oman and Afghanistan need to
be acknowledged as stakeholders in the Baluch question
for historical and geo-political reasons. (India lost
a major opportunity to put Baluchistan on the bilateral
agenda after the Sharma-el-Sheikh summit due to its domestic
politics.) Any nation that seeks lasting stability in
South Asia, including and especially the United States,
needs to be interested in the political and human rights
of all nations that were a victim of colonial borders,
including Baluchistan, and extend them all possible support.
Raja Karthikeya is a foreign policy
researcher based in Washington DC. He writes often
in South Asian and international media on security
issues in South Asia and Iran with a focus on the role
of ethnic political and nationalist movements in insurgencies
in the region. He also regularly analyses South Asian
politics and security issues as well as US foreign
policy towards the region for Voice of America. He
has served as an International Affairs Fellow at the
US House of Representatives, has been an international
election observer in Afghanistan and has worked in
the private and non-profit sectors in North Africa,
India and Afghanistan.