March Issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Published 12 years ago

The families of the missing persons in Balochistan have been running from one provincial capital to another for years to seek justice, but it took an inconsequential resolution in the US capital, Washington DC, for the families to get some local attention.

Suddenly, Balochistan has become the most talked-about issue on Pakistan’s evening talk shows. Every tin-pot politician and media guru seems to have become an authority on Balochistan. The truth is that most politicians relevant to Balochistan are living either in Islamabad or Karachi, perhaps out of fear or convenience. And most media pundits, who lecture incessantly, may have never visited the trouble-spots in Balochistan. The media debate on Balochistan is, at best, simplistic. There is excessive focus on the return of exiled leaders, like the former Balochistan chief minister Akhtar Mengal, as well as Harbiyar Marri and Brahamdagh Bugti.

While their return may help reduce tensions, the issue is much more complicated. Solving the Balochistan conundrum involves drastic political, administrative, economic and social measures that need to be taken in the short and long term. Even before one delves into specific proposals, the biggest hurdle is the mindset of the army, particularly its intelligence and security agencies that virtually run Balochistan.  They simply need to let go of their hold on the province and transfer power to the provincial government, not just in letter but also in spirit.

The ‘agencies’ are omnipresent all over the country but their presence is more palpable in Balochistan. Nothing moves without them. When asked formally, and on record, the ‘agencies’ do not acknowledge their involvement in the province’s kidnappings. However, in numerous background interviews they brazenly accept their role and also seek kudos for ‘controlling the law and order’ in the problematic province. They maintain that the law and order situation has improved tremendously from last year, when at least two people were targeted daily. It is obvious from the interviews of officers, ranging from field operators to the high command, that the ‘kill and dump’ strategy was devised to deter the insurgents. The fact that many of the victims were kidnapped openly, and their bodies dumped in bazaars in broad daylight, was to pass on the message of ‘deterrence’ loud and clear.

The powers that be simply failed to take into account the fact that the state cannot compete with insurgents vis-a-vis their tactics. “The state must endorse a semblance of the law, even if it is biased and partial,” says Baloch nationalist Senator Manzoor Gichki. “This is how the British fought the Irish rebels and the Indians for over a century.” Surely, the prosecution is deeply handicapped in proving charges against the insurgents. But the state can always have more special laws and courts to deal with the situation.  It is obvious that the policy remains unchanged.

Nearly half of the 80,000 strong, Balochistan Frontier Corps (FC) is now deputed on internal security. Over the years the FC has become part of the problem. A long tour comprising thousands of miles across the length and breadth of Balochistan, embedded with the FC, demonstrates the extent of their power, and the FC truly relishes power. While driving down from Quetta to Dera Bugti in an FC convoy, I saw soldiers using a long cane to lash out at anybody who dared not give way on the road. The FC convoy violated every traffic rule, sometimes driving on the wrong side of the road while travelling through small towns. Local police remains subservient to the FC which seems to have become the ‘judge, the jury and the hangman.’

It was embarrassing to learn that FC officials, throughout the route, confessed to running an organised racket to smuggle oil worth billions of rupees. Tankers are charged a fee at every FC check post from Taftan, all the way to Sindh and the Punjab. FC soldiers confessed that the money is distributed evenly. Obviously, they were not sure how far the money reaches, maybe even up to their commanding officers. When Director General FC, Major General Obaidullah Khattak was confronted with the issue, he vouched that nothing was happening as far as his headquarters were concerned. At least he was honest enough not to vouch for FC actions outside his headquarters.

The FC is also accused of conniving with the smugglers of various goods, vehicles, arms and even drugs.  But even though the FC is accused of gross misappropriation, it is also the only force in Balochistan that has the capacity and equipment to deal with the province’s insurgency-like situation. The police is in control of just 5% of the province and the rest — known as the B area — is supervised by an ancient tribal system of levies devised by the British to control the natives. Sardars ensconced in the government favour the levies system, as each one of them have recently received a quota to hire personal servants as levies.

In an ideal world either the provincial government should be given the authority to run the FC, or the police should be trained and equipped to deal with a very volatile situation. Neither seems to be happening at the moment.

The Balochistan chief minister, Nawab Aslam Raisani, has not proved himself worthy of being entrusted with more power. He has blood feuds running with, among others, the Rinds, Bugtis, Domkis, Jatois and Kalhois, involving scores of murders that have been committed on each side. His personal enmity stretches to nearly half of the Baloch tribes. The FC put its foot down last year when Raisani wanted FC troops to settle scores with former federal minister, Yar Mohammad Rind, whom he accused of murdering his father. Yar Mohammad Rind is the only Balochistan opposition MPA in a house of 65 members, and such is the terror Raisani wields that Rind has not even been able to show his face in the Balochistan Assembly after taking oath four years ago.

The issues of corruption and capacity are serious. Balochistan has less reason to blame Islamabad for everything that goes wrong in the province, especially since the last National Finance Commission (NFC) award reverted most powers to the provinces. The Balochistan government’s budget has swelled from approximately Rs 74 billion in 2009 to Rs 164 billion in 2012 but the development budget has increased from Rs 18 billion to only Rs 31 billion, a mere 19% of the budget which is far less than the average 33% in other provinces. Since there is no opposition, the entire assembly-turned-cabinet, distributes the biggest chunks among itself in the name of development funds.

Since Baloch and Pashtun nationalists boycotted the last elections, the vacuum has been filled by the sardars and the mullahs. No capable professional, particularly in the education sector, wants to come to Balochistan after the random killing of settlers, mostly Punjabis.

At one level, the Balochistan conflict happens to be the most complex issue in the country. A whole gamut of Baloch nationalists, from moderates to extremists, are fighting for their rights – some against Islamabad, others against ‘Punjabi imperialism’ and still others against the Pakistan army and the state.

Amid the Baloch conundrum, the Pashtun factor gets ignored. It is for the first time in recent history that the top slots of the chief minister, governor, provincial assembly speaker, the chief secretary and the IG police are all non-Pashtun. The Pashtuns, who claim to comprise almost half of Balochistan’s population, are down, but not out. An underlying tension prevails between the Pashtuns and the Baloch over the distribution of power, resources and territory; between Pakistani Pashtuns and their Afghan counterparts over business and turf; between nationalists and religious political parties and sometimes also between local militants and Al Qaeda.

A sectarian quagmire exists where the local Shia population, predominantly the Hazara community, is under constant threat from the local Taliban, helped by militant fanatics from as far as Punjab and Waziristan to Kandahar and Khost in Afghanistan.

Add to this a nexus of smugglers of goods, arms and drugs, the land mafia that makes millions when people sell prime property for peanuts and criminals who take contracts for killing people for as little as a few thousand rupees.

The picture gets more complicated when regional and international forces get involved in this power play. A whole set of theories from the ridiculous to the sublime prevail about the classical ‘great game’ over the mineral resources of Balochistan. Enter the British, Americans, Chinese, Arab sheikhs and all those jazzy players backed by multinationals that make James Bond movies so watchable.

One sees traces of various competing powers. The Chinese want to expand their investment in Gwadar by connecting road and rail links for cheaper energy and commercial supplies in the future. The Iranians want to expand their pipeline. The Indians would like to advance their interests in this precarious situation. The Afghan legacy is still present in the shape of massive refugee camps. Replicas of Kandahar exist in Quetta’s localities of Nawankilli, Kharrotabad, Pashtunabad, Killi Khotik Chashma, and Killi Raiti Bulledi. Kandaharis hold jirgas in Nawankilli as if they were in their own country.

If all this does not qualify as a monumental mess, what does?

This article was originally published in the March 2012 issue of Newsline.