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The Baluchistan question in the Afghanistan-Pakistan crisis

by Raja Karthikeya
delivered at the Baluchistan International Conference, Washington, D.C., Nov. 21, 2009

Raja Karthikeya

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 and Pakistan.

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... Baluchistan.

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 interests.

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 undeserved reputation.

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.