Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Balochistan crisis and the International Dimension...

The International Dimension in the Balochistan Conflict

Maryam Sakeenah

The international dimension of the Baloch conflict is linked to the immense strategic importance of the province. It is rich in natural resources, has a long coastline providing a link to warm waters for the landlocked Central Asian countries to the north. The Gwadar port has tremendously increased the region’s importance. According to analyst Frederic Grare, there are almost 20 countries that are in need of the trade facilities the development of the Gwadar port promises. The proximity to China, Afghanistan and Iran and the increased importance of South East Asia in the context of the War on Terror has brought international attention and focus on Balochistan. The Chinese have invested in the Gwadar port as it can provide a convenient link to ‘monitor US military activities in the Persian Gulf region.’
Recently there have been efforts to materialize the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline, which will pass through Balochistan. The estimated cost of the project is $ 4 billion.[1] For India, the gas pipeline is essential for its growing energy requirements as it aspires to become the regional power. The pipeline project can generate employment in the heavily populated region along its route, and attract international investment in Pakistan. It can also act as a means to develop friendly and enduring bilateral ties among the countries involved, particularly the traditional rivals India and Pakistan. The United States is not supportive of this project owing to its hostility against Iran over its alleged pursuit of a nuclear armament programme and its ‘support to terrorism’ in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. The pipeline project will turn South Asia into an energy rich zone, bringing benefits for both Central Asia and more importantly, China_ the emerging world economic giant. This is not in the interests of Washington.   

The ongoing unrest in Balochistan and the volatile security situation has brought about a halt to the development projects, particularly the Gwadar port. The pipeline issue is in a stalemate, shelved till the security situation improves. The killing of Chinese engineers working at Gwadar on the eve of the Pakistani President’s visit to China is an indicator of the precariousness of the situation. Reportedly, a number of multinational companies find the situation in Balochistan an unwelcoming and rather hostile milieu for investment and are considering pulling out.  

The War on Terror has added complex dimensions to the issue:
“In the post 9/11 world, a struggle for their rights will pit the people of Balochistan against a trigger-happy army on the hunt for ‘terrorists.’ The religious parties, not quite without support, may oppose this and the Pashtuns of the region may be egged on to act against their provincial brethren... certain American agencies and individuals with decades-old links with the Pakistan Army may even supply intelligence and surveillance aid to their friends in such a conflict. With Afghanistan also under the American grip, this can happen quite easily.”[2]

With claims of Al Qaeda leadership operating from Balochistan, international attention and involvement in the region is still likely to increase. The kidnapping of UN official John Solecki by Baloch rebels, the cold blooded murders of politicians, civil servants and bureaucrats demonstrates the sway the miscreant rebels hold in the region, the rampant insecurity and lawlessness and the ineffectiveness of the government’s writ in the area. 

The Pakistan government has very often mentioned the interference of Afghanistan and India in the province. There have been allegations of the Baloch Liberation Army receiving financial assistance and training from Indian Intelligence Agencies, notably the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). India happens to be the only country that has officially expressed its concern over the Balochistan conflict, and called for international attention, highlighting the Pakistan Army’s ‘atrocities.’ During Afghan President Karzai’s 2005 visit to Pakistan, the Pakistani president shared with him evidence of the RAW’s involvement in militant and terrorist activities in Balochistan.’[3] The role of Iran has also raised suspicions in Islamabad. Iran suspects that the Gwadar port, so close to the Iranian territory, may be used by the US_ Pakistan’s strategic ally and partner_ as a base for monitoring Iran. Some suspect that Washington has an interest in using Balochistan to consolidate its military presence in the region in order to monitor and threaten Iran and China. There is also a competition among international contenders to control the oil and gas supply from Central Asia that will pass through the Makran Coast.[4] How much of this is speculation and suspicion, and how much is fact, however, remains to be seen. 

There are, however, a number of questions that surround the situation and seek answers. For one, the leadership of the Baloch Liberation Army reportedly has international connections, and it is not clear where it receives support, weapons supply, training and finances. Other than that, there also exists a record of the involvement of Soviet intelligence agency_ the KGB, in Balochistan during the decade of Russia’s war in Afghanistan. There is evidence of the fact that the KGB had indeed helped arm Baloch rebels and instigated insurgency to destabilize Pakistan which at that time was helping Afghan mujahideen. KGB secret offices still operate in Balochistan and have close ties with the BLA. 
Yet more stunning is an investigation report by five eminent researchers. It begins thus: “Deception and treachery. Live and let die. The ultimate zero sum game. Repetition of bloody history: Call it what you may, something is happening in Balochistan that defies comprehension on any conventional scale...”[5]
The report discloses the active involvement of Russian, America, Indian, Afghan and Iranian intelligence agencies in the province. These help arm and finance the militant groups, primarily the BLA. The story goes back to the days when Soviet intelligence officials landed in the region prior to and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These KGB officials have thorough and indepth knowledge and experience of the nature of the conflict in Balochistan. As a strategy of vengeance against Pakistan’s active support to the Afghan jihad, Russia began to use its intelligence arsenal to fund and support sabotage activities in Balochistan in order to weaken the federation. The Balochistan Liberation Army was hence the brainchild of the KGB. The BLA went underground after the signing of the Geneva Accord in 1988, but re-emerged with a new leadership following the onset of the War on Terror which focussed international attention and increased American presence in the region. The Russian KGB officials, having known the area and its people well_ perhaps better than most Pakistanis do_ assisted the Americans to ‘set up shop’ in Balochistan. The CIA and KGB have a relationship of co-operation on the issue of Balochistan, the report maintains.

Balach Marri who heads the BLA stayed for several years in Russia where he got a degree in Engineering and developed close ties with Russian officials. Training camps were set-up in 2002 and an insidious plan of indoctrination of Baloch youth began, in order to fan their already existing grievances against the state. The report summarizes the following points as the highlights of the BLA indoctrination programme:[6]
i)                    The Baloch people’s right to independence.
ii)                   The concept of ‘Greater Balochistan’
iii)                 Sabotage as a tool for political struggle
iv)                 Tyranny of Punjab and the plight of oppressed ‘nations’within Pakistan
v)                  Propaganda and media-friendly methods of mass protest
The RAW lent its assistance in training and arming the BLA, as the anonymous KGB officials interviewed in the report disclose: “When we first began the BLA, it was logical to ask RAW for assistance because they have several thousands of ground contacts in Pakistan, many of them in Balochistan. Anyone wanting to set up shop in Pakistan needs to lean on RAW. Our training camps have rapidly increased with time and now there is a big triangle of instability in Balochistan as 45-50 training camps are freely operating, each of them accommodating from 300 to 550 armed militants. A massive amount of cash is flowing into these camps. American defence contractors, Pentagon operatives, CIA foot soldiers, instigators in double-disguise, fortune-hunters, re-hired ex-soldiers and freelancers are reportedly playing a big part in shifting loads of money from Afghanistan to Balochistan. The Americans are invariably accompanied by their Afghan guides and interpreters.”[7]
The forbidding terrain of the region as well as the weak communication links with the rest of the country give these operatives a free hand, and most of the clandestine work carries on undiscovered. The border with Iran is entirely under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who use the route for movement of intelligence and espionage personnel. This route is frequently used for free-flowing ‘international traffic’ of intelligence agents, arms supplies and money. Other than that, the coastline brings in Indian ‘aid’ to keep the insurgency ‘alive and kicking.’[8]

The KGB agents interviewed by the researchers describe the scenario as ‘a pragmatic solution to a strategic problem.’ Moscow’s original interest in the region began from its search for ‘warm waters.’ Russians today want monopoly over the energy resources of Central Asia, and want to keep the CAR states dependent on Russia for oil and gas. The prospective pipeline and access to sea trade through Gwadar would not be in the interest of Russia. The US has a similar interest. An energy-rich South Asia would boost up the Chinese economy, as China already has good relations with Pakistan. Hence Washington leaves no stone unturned to keep Balochistan volatile and its prospects of development as an energy-rich region thin. America deeply resents China’s assistance and involvement in the construction of the Gwadar sea port. 

Gwadar can step up competition with Iranian ports that can be an alternative route for landlocked Central Asia. Iran is also suspicious of America using Gwadar to monitor Iranian territory given the close Pakistan-US alliance. In Afghanistan, there exist numerous elements in the government who have links with India and harbour ill-will against Pakistan. They use their long border with Balochistan to stir up trouble for Islamabad and appease their supporters and allies in Delhi. The BLA currently also receives tremendous support from the Baloch sardars.

It is obvious that the mineral wealth and strategic importance of the region has made Balochistan a theatre for the ‘Great Game’. This is tremendously dangerous for Pakistan as, if left unchecked, it could lead to the bifurcation of the state itself_ which the country has already suffered in 1971. This time, history must not be allowed to repeat itself.

Dr. Noor ul Haq opines, “To eliminate the external factor, the best alternative is to put our own house in order. Internal harmony and strength is to be achieved by a constitutional government established through a democratic process, rule of law and dispensation of justice, economic development and prosperity, abolition of feudalism and empowerment of the people, adequate military strength and proactive foreign policy. This will deter external powers from exploiting internal grievances and interfering in internal affairs.”[9]

[1] Ali, Imtiaz, “The Balochistan Problem”, Current Affairs Digest, Lahore, November 2005.
[2] Singh, Airavat, “The Baloch National Question”, Bharat Rakshak Monitor, Vol.6 (4), Jan-Feb, 2004.
[3] Reported by The News (Islamabad), February 22, 2005.
[4] Grare, Frederic, “Balochistan at the Crossroads”,, June 27, 2008.
[5] Saeedi, Tariq, Pyatakov, Sergei, Nasimzadeh, Ali, Jan, Qasim, Kasi, SM: “The Stunning Investigative Story on the Birth of the Balochistan Liberation Army”, 2006.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Haq, Noor ul, Dr., “Balochistan Disturbances: Causes and Response”, Islamabad Policy Research Institute Journal, Summer 2006, Vol.6 (2), Islamabad.