Balochistan: Pakistan's Next Headache?
The international community is anxiously waiting to see if the forthcoming elections in Pakistan can provide a solution to Islamic insurgency and stabilize the country. While the impact of Pakistan's instability on post-NATO Afghanistan is widely discussed, it is important to examine sources of domestic instability in Pakistan that are not directly related to Afghanistan but which might have implications for the transatlantic community.
Balochistan, a province which accounts for more than half of Pakistan's area but less than five per cent of its population, could be the next major trouble spot in the country and the region. Unlike other provinces in Pakistan, it is not inextricably linked to the rest of the country, though it is a net supplier of mineral resources to other provinces. Its peoples' sentiment toward Islamic nationalism and extremism is best captured in the words of the late Nawab Akbar Bugti: "I have been a Baloch for several centuries. I have been a Muslim for 1400 years. I have been a Pakistani for just over 50." Like the people of East Timor, South Sudan, and Eritrea, the Balochs have struggled for decades. Theirs is, in fact, one of the longest running insurgencies in the world.
However, there are obstacles to Baloch independence. Punjab and Sindh provinces, which are historically and linguistically closely related and together account for about half of Pakistan's area and more than three-fourths of its population, both have an abiding interest in the country's integrity as well as the means to protect their interests militarily.
Pakistan's recent decision to transfer the operation of Gwadar port in Balochistan to a Chinese company is going to add to the difficulties of the Balochs. China is likely to develop a keen interest in Balochistan as a means to establish another access point to the Indian Ocean. This would give the beleaguered Pakistani government a boost: The presence of a permanent Security Council member, with few human rights concerns, would limit the capacity of Baloch insurgents to challenge the Pakistani state by damaging economic enterprises.
The feasibility of an independent Balochistan therefore depends on the interests of external powers that are not comfortable with Pakistan and the growing influence of China. With the rest of the world fixated on elections in Pakistan and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, 2013-14 could present a window of opportunity for the Balochs to launch a fresh struggle before China strikes deep roots in Balochistan.
Ultimately, this would not be a bad turn of events for the West. Firstly, an independent Balochistan would provide a shorter land route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, which would bypass both Iran and Pakistan and also weaken Russia and China's stranglehold over Central Asia. Additionally, unlike Pakistan, an independent Balochistan would not be in a position to hold Afghanistan as a hostage. Secondly, the vast and sparsely populated Baloch territories in Iran and Pakistan are mineral rich and have long coastlines close to the Persian Gulf. So, both militarily and economically, an independent Balochistan would not pose so many problems for the West as they currently face in Afghanistan.
The transatlantic community's response to a fresh Baloch rebellion in Pakistan (and possibly Iran) is the key to the future of Balochistan. At this stage the transatlantic community can do four things. First, reverse the decades old policy of overlooking the excesses of the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies and help Balochs raise their longstanding grievances regarding human rights violations on international platforms. Second, engage with the Baloch leadership diplomatically and familiarize them with the international law and state system. Third, encourage Japan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to invest in the future of Balochistan and secure their long term national interests. Saudi Arabia and Turkey can, in turn, influence opinion in West and Central Asia. Fourth, ally with ethnic Baloch nationalists against the Taliban. This will help them reclaim important territory along the Afghanistan border lost to the Taliban and also help them strike a cordial relationship with Afghanistan, a key neighbour.
In short, it is in the transatlantic interest to support Balochistan's cause and, in doing so, limit Iran, Pakistan, and China's influence in South West and Central Asia.
Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.