Balochistan burning: Great Game over Gwadar Port

By Ameen Izzadeen

While the world media attention Pakistan has been receiving in recent months is largely centred on Islamabad's military operation against the pro-Taliban militants in the North Western Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Area (FATA), the country is also beset by a low-key but potentially dangerous insurgency in Balochistan.

The insurgency has been going on since the 1960s in this impoverished province, which is ironically the richest of Pakistan's four provinces in terms of natural resources. It has gas, gold and copper. But the province benefits very little from these resources. It gets no royalty from gas while other resources are also silently siphoned away. Adding to its woes are tribalism, illiteracy and corruption at administration level.

A Pakistani soldier guards the Gwadar Port

Like most of today's yet-to-be unsolved international crises have their roots in the high-handed and myopic decisions of the British colonialists, the Balochistan problem also can be traced back to the manner in which the British in 1893 drew the Durrand Line that separated Afghanistan from what is today Pakistan. It divided the Baloch population into three countries - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

But today the Baloch separatism is adding to the tension between India and Pakistan, relations between whom have already soured over Kashmir, the Mumbai attack and several other issues.

Why should India maintain 26 consulate offices along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan and Iran? This is the question asked by almost all Pakistani officials whom we met during a sponsored visit to that country recently.

They claim that 14 of these consulate offices are in Afghanistan, while the rest are in Iran close to Balochistan province. Pakistanis feel the allegations that India is fanning the insurgency in Balochistan have some basis, while some officials claim there is evidence to prove Indian involvement in Balochistan and accuse India of using its consulate offices in Afghanistan and Iran as meeting places of Baloch separatists and operation centres for their terror operations.

Also implicating India are statements made by Balochi separatist leaders in exile. For instance, in a statement issued on July 25 in the wake of a controversial India-Pakistan joint communique at Sharm-el-Sheikh during the Non-Aligned Summit last month, Dr. Wahid Baloch, President of Baloch Society of North America, says, "We love our Indian friends and we want them to help us and rescue us from tyranny and oppression. In fact, India is the only country which has shown concern over the Baloch plights, but showing concern is not enough. We want India to take Balochistan's issue to every international forum, the same way Pakistan has done to raise the so-called Kashmiri issue. We want India to openly support our just cause and provide us with all moral, financial, military and diplomatic support."

This statement is testimony to the Baloch separatists' goodwill with India, Pakistanis say. Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani took the matter up with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh at a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NAM summit and managed to include Balochistan, for the first time, in an India-Pakistan joint communiqué. This has, however, caused a political storm in India with the opposition Bharatiya Janatha Party slamming Singh for giving into Pakistan. Singh has, however, defended the inclusion, saying the joint statement was merely taking cognizance of what Pakistan said at the Egypt talks and stressed that India was ready to discuss the issue as it had nothing to hide.

But Pakistani officials who spoke to us confirmed that their prime minister handed over a dossier showing India's role in fanning the insurgency in Balochistan. India, of course, denied this.

In an article in the NEWS on July 29, senior Pakistan journalist Hamid Mir wrote: The situation in Balochistan came under detailed discussion during the first meeting of the foreign secretaries in the evening of July 14 in Sharm el-Sheikh... Pakistani foreign secretary Salman Bashir told Shiv Shankar Menon that India must delink the talks from terrorism otherwise Pakistan will be forced to produce at least 'three Indian Ajmal Kasab's' in front of international media." (Kasab is the Mumbai terror suspect who is being tried in India.)

According to Mir, who was present at Sharm-el-Sheikh, Bashir told Menon that these suspects were directly or indirectly part of the terrorist activities in Balochistan and "Pakistan will easily establish that Indian consulate in the Afghan city of Kandahar is actually a control room of all the terrorist activities organised by the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army."

In the 1970s, a Baloch separatist campaign was ruthlessly suppressed by the then Pakistani leader Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto. Successive governments took measures to appease the Balochs, though the separatism had very little people support. It is a top heavy separatist struggle with Balcohi Sardars (chiefs) leading the campaign, largely to protect their power bases which are threatened by greater democracy in the region and government moves to develop the area and educate the masses. Yet, time and again Balochi separatism has raised its ugly head. Pakistani analysts blame foreign powers for the troubles.
The latest round of escalation began when the previous Musharraf government decided to allow China to build a sea port at Gwadar in Balochistan. The attacks have been largely against the Chinese engineers and workers.

The presence of China in Pakistan's deep sea strategic port has disturbed the United States. Washington fears that the port might be used as a listening post to monitor US military activities in the Persian Gulf.
India, Pakistani analysts say, has a different kind of fear. They say New Delhi fears that the Gwadar port project which is also linked to the Karakoram highway expansion project linking Western China with the Arabian sea could make Pakistan economically strong.

Both China and Pakistan believe that the road will also act as land-locked and resource-rich Central Asia's gateway to the outside world. The Karakoram highway project goes through Pakistan's Frontier Province and the tribal areas — areas that have in recent years witnessed violent clashes between Taliban militants and the Pakistan security forces.

When trade begins to move along this new road, the economic benefit this will bring to both Pakistan and China is enormous. Besides, this will give China a head-start over the United States in trade with Central Asia, especially the oil and gas trade. So a new Great Game is on and Pakistan appears to be paying a heavy price.

The writer was in Pakistan recently on a tour sponsored by the Islamabad Institute of Policy Research, a thinktank that comes under the Prime Minister’s Secretariat

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