A fully-fledged nationalist insurrection has blown up out of the long-simmering unrest in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest, most sparsely populated province and the richest in natural resources.
The fifth nationalist conflict in the province since independence in 1947 is taxing the resources of the Pakistan army, leaving them overstretched for counter-terror operations.
The violence is swelling into a greater peril than that posed by the lawless tribes of North and South Waziristan and their sanctuaries for al Qaeda and Afghanistan’s Taliban rebels.
Islamabad consistently downplays the Balochistan conflict as a police action against “miscreants.” It denies the full-scale insurgency spearheaded by the Bugti and Marri tribes in their Kohlu territory and, by the same token, the military crackdown launched against them.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Special Correspondent in Pakistan reports the violence is spreading.
Sunday, April 2, a series of blasts killed five people and wounded several more in a government farm in Kohlu and a Pakistan Petroleum Limited camp.
The week before, tribesmen blew up a gas pipeline and fired more than 200 rockets at a major Pakistani security force in the area. At least one person was killed in heavy fighting between paramilitary forces and militants in Kohlu district.
Some sources said security forces had launched the attack using helicopter gun ships to smash hideouts of Marri tribal militants. There were clashes using heavy weapons in different parts of the district, and a gas well in the Pirkoh field was set on fire. Thousands of people have moved out of the troubled district. One reporter saw huge craters and fragments of bombs lying beside a wrecked school in the village of Mararar in March.
Police said they had arrested 57 tribesmen, mostly members of the Marri and Bugti tribes, on charges of terrorism.
The rebels regularly blow up gas pipelines, railway lines and electricity installations as well as army bases and government buildings. Their leaders say they have several thousand men under arms fighting an estimated 30,000 Pakistani troops.
The potentially richest yet poorest part of Pakistan
Its geo-strategic position makes Balochistan, the westernmost province of Pakistan, an exceptional geo-strategic asset, wedged as it is between Iran to the west, Afghanistan to the northwest, to the northeast and east by the Pakistani provinces of the North West Frontier, Punjab and Sind, and south by the Arabian Sea.
Balochi gas fields are among the richest in the world.
Anti-government violence has soared as president Pervez Musharraf pushes forward his plans to develop the province’s oil and gas fields and build an oil pipeline across the province. A deep sea port is under construction at Gwadar on the Sea of Oman to expand trade with China.
The government accuses Baloch rebel tribes of opposing any development.
Nawab Akbar Bugti and Balach Marri, two tribal leaders say they were not opposed to development, but will fight to the end Pakistani government’s campaign to suppress, dispossess and deprive them of their rights. They want more autonomy and most of all, a bigger slice of revenues from the Balochi gas fields, which they claim as their due share. They bitterly resent the sell-off to international corporations of tracts of land along the miles of spectacular coastline from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea in South Balochistan.
The Pakistan Army, led by President General Musharraf, is accused of using development projects to extend its grip on provincial government by planting ex-military officials in administrative posts.
Irrespective of which side has the right of it, a major conflagration is undeniably in progress and rocket and bomb attacks in Sibi, Harnai, Naushki and Turbat suggest that the fire is spreading to new areas in the province.
The ongoing military crackdown was launched in the second week of December, 2005, when eight rockets slammed into a Frontier Constabulary (FC) camp outside Kohlu during a visit by President Pervez Musharref to the town, which is administrative headquarters of the Marri tribal area.
The next day, the FC Director General and the Inspector General suffered gunshot wounds while surveying the scene of attack. This was the signal for the FC, backed by regular troops stationed in the Sui area, to unleash a massive operation against 'miscreants' in the Marri and Bugti tribal areas.
Both Balochistan Governor Owais Ghani and Chief Minister Jam Yousuf have stated that 1,000-2,000 Fararis (rebels) are holed up in camps targeted by the security forces. They have tried to allay fears of civilian casualties by saying that no civilians are to be found in the vicinity of the Farari camps.
Militarization in the name of development
Since the areas under siege are sealed off by the military troops, the only source of information on the situation is official spokesmen or Baloch nationalist leaders.
Pakistan opposition parties, the Sharif-led Muslim League, the Bhutto-led Peoples Party and the Qazi led Jamaat-e-Islami are loudly criticizing the government operation, demanding it be halted and negotiations opened with the Baloch leadership.
The Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy at a recent meeting in Islamabad demanded an end to the military crackdown and a parliamentary committee’s recommendations for the Balochistan issue gathering dust since last June implemented.
The Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Balochistan made sweeping proposals to expand the province’s share of gas royalties, clear arrears in payments, institute reforms to expand provincial autonomy and step up the development of gas resources.
However, an adamant Musharraf insists that those resisting the military operation in Balochistan were foreign agents who are opposed to development in the province and they should be dealt with an iron hand.
The chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Ms Asma Jahangir, who led an HRCP fact finding mission to Balochistan in January, told DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s correspondent that the ongoing militarization of the province in the name of development had triggered the crisis.
“The people of Balochistan believe that the real motive behind the setting up of new cantonments in the province was to completely take over their natural resources particularly in Kohlu and Dera Bugti“, she added.
Asma said the government claimed it was engaged in a low-level insurgency against “miscreants.” “However, our findings are very different,” she stressed. “Having visited the troubles areas of the province, particularly Dera Bugti and Kohlu, we found evidence of a fully-fledged military operation being carried out. There have been helicopters flying over and bombing. The disproportionate use of force, mass arrests of civilians and the lack of accountability of state agencies amount to a grotesque violation of the most basic rights of citizens”.
Nawab Akbar Bugti, proclaimed a lawbreaker by the government, insists that the joint army and air force military operation has killed more than 300 people since December 15, 2005, mostly women and children. The Baloch leader added that over 50,000 regular Army troops are currently deployed in Balochistan, in addition to estimated 30,000 paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) personnel.
Though officials emphasize that military action is limited to dissidents' camps and the insurgent tribesmen attacking government installations or troops, non-official and independent sources describe a far more sweeping impact that is forcing many civilians to flee their homes. Seasoned political observers diagnose a large-scale security nightmare blowing up for the Musharraf regime. They fear he is making the same mistakes in Balochistan as he made in East Pakistan, which provoked its secession in December 1971. Above all, they see the burgeoning conflagration as going beyond the single issue of Balochistan and becoming a testing-ground for Pakistan’s future political direction.
Will the country evolve into a stable and progressive state? If this is desired, then the Balochs must be granted the rights denied them and not further alienated and made more violent by the use of military force.
The clock is ticking for the Musharraf regime.