Pakistan’s Baluch insurgency

by Selig S Harrison

Serious troubles have erupted in the Pakistan province of Baluchistan since the assassination of an opposition leader in August. Pressure for independence is growing in this region bordering Iran and Afghanistan, which challenges Pakistan’s authority.

THE slow-motion genocide being inflicted on Baluch tribesmen in the mountains and deserts of southwestern Pakistan does not yet qualify as a major humanitarian catastrophe compared with the slaughter in Darfur or Chechnya. “Only” 2,260 Baluch fled their villages in August to escape bombing and strafing by the US-supplied F-16 fighter jets and Cobra helicopter gunships of the Pakistan air force, but as casualty figures mount, it will be harder to ignore the human costs of the Baluch independence (1) struggle and its political repercussions in other restive minority regions of multi-ethnic Pakistan (2).

Already, in neighboring Sindh, separatists who share Baluch opposition to the Punjabi-dominated military regime of General Pervez Musharraf are reviving their long-simmering movement for a sovereign Sindhi state, or a Sindhi-Baluch federation, that would stretch along the Arabian Sea from Iran in the west to the Indian border. Many Sindhi leaders openly express their hope that instability in Pakistan will tempt India to help them, militarily and economically, to secede from Pakistan as Bangladesh did with Indian help in 1971.

Some 6 million Baluch were forcibly incorporated into Pakistan when it was created in 1947. This is the fourth insurgency they have fought to protest against economic and political discrimination. In the most bitter insurgency, from 1973 to 1977, some 80,000 Pakistani troops and 55,000 Baluch were involved in the fighting.

Iran, like Pakistan, was then an ally of the United States. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who feared that the insurgency would spread across the border to 1.2 million Baluch living in eastern Iran, sent 30 Cobra gunships with Iranian pilots to help Islamabad. But this time Iran is not a US ally, and Iran and Pakistan are at odds. Tehran charges that US Special Forces units are using bases in Pakistan for undercover operations inside Iran designed to foment Baluch opposition to the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Much of the anger that now motivates the Baluch Liberation Army (BLA) is driven by memories of Pakistani scorched earth tactics in past battles. In a climactic battle in 1974, Pakistani forces, frustrated by their inability to find Baluch guerrilla units hiding in the mountains, bombed, strafed and burned the encampments of some 15,000 Baluch families who had taken their livestock to graze in the fertile Chamalang Valley, forcing the guerrillas to come out from their hideouts to defend their women and children.

‘Indiscrimate bombing’

In the current fighting, which started in January 2005, the independent Pakistan Human Rights Commission has reported that “indiscriminate bombing and strafing” by F-16s and Cobra gunships are again being used to draw the guerrillas into the open. Six Pakistani army brigades, plus paramilitary forces totalling some 25,000 men, are deployed in the Kohlu mountains and surrounding areas where the fighting is most intense.

Musharraf is using new methods, more repressive than those of his predecessors, to crush the insurgency. In the past Baluch activists were generally arrested on formal charges and sentenced to fixed terms in prisons known to their families. This time Baluch spokesmen have reported large-scale kidnappings and disappearances, charging that Pakistani forces have rounded up hundreds of Baluch youths on unspecified charges and taken them to unknown locations.
The big difference between earlier phases of the Baluch struggle and the present one is that Islamabad has so far not been able to play off feuding tribes against each other. Equally importantly, it faces a unified nationalist movement under younger leadership drawn not only from tribal leaders but also from an emergent, literate Baluch middle class that did not exist three decades ago. Another difference is that the Baluch have a better armed, more disciplined fighting force in the BLA. Baluch leaders say that rich compatriots and sympathisers in the Persian Gulf provide money needed to buy weapons in the flourishing black market along the Afghan frontier.

President Musharraf has repeatedly accused India of supplying weapons to the Baluch insurgents and funds to Sindhi separatist groups, but has provided no evidence to back up these charges. India denies the accusations. At the same time New Delhi has issued periodic statements expressing concern at the fighting and calling for political dialogue.
India brushes aside suggestions that it might be tempted to help Sindhi and Baluch insurgents if the situation in Pakistan continues to unravel. Indian leaders say that. on the contrary, India wants a stable Pakistan that will negotiate a peace settlement in Kashmir so that both sides can wind down their costly arms race. But many India media commentators appear happy to see Musharraf tied down in Baluchistan and hope that the crisis will force him to reduce Pakistani support for extremist Islamic insurgents in Kashmir.

Unlike India, Iran has its own Baluch minority and fears Baluch nationalism. The Baluchistan People’s party, one of the leading Baluch groups in Iran, said on 5 August that a radical Shia cleric, Hojatol Ibrahim Nekoonam, recently installed as the justice minister of Iran’s Baluchistan province, has launched a campaign of military and police repression spearheaded by the Mersad clerical secret police, in which hundreds of Baluch have been rounded up and, in many cases, executed on charges of collaborating with the US.

Apart from being smaller in number, the Baluch in Iran are not as politically conscious or as well organised as those in Pakistan, and their principal leaders dismiss the idea of secession or of union with the Baluch in Pakistan. The Baluchistan People’s party is part of a coalition with groups representing other disaffected minorities in Iran — the Kurds, Azeri Turks and Khuzestani Arabs — which is seeking a federal restructuring in which Iran would retain control over foreign affairs, defence, communications and foreign trade, but cede autonomy in other spheres to three minority autonomous regions.

Comments are closed.