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    South Asia
     Jan 13, 2005
Musharraf blusters as Balochistan boils
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - A battle lasting several hours on Tuesday between Pakistani security forces and insurgent tribals in Balochistan province's Sui region, famous for its natural-gas reserves, is likely to turn into a full-scale insurgency as all the powerful oligarchs of Baloch society support this insurgency. Although President General Pervez Musharraf, speaking on a local television channel, gave a clear warning of a major military operation in retaliation, this is likely only to lead to further troubles.

According to officials, eight paramilitary security men were killed and four were seriously wounded on Tuesday night when armed tribesmen attacked the Sui gas fields, the biggest in Pakistan. Authorities say the tribesmen want more royalties from the gas taken from their lands.

Heavy fire was exchanged, during which Bugti tribals, numbering about 10,000, used rocket launchers, mortars and automatic weapons. The armed men seized control of some buildings in Sui field for several hours, oil managers said. Damage to a compressor interrupted the gas flow to customers in Punjab and Sindh provinces. In a press release issued late Tuesday, Pakistan Petroleum Ltd announced the suspension of gas supplies.

Behind the insurgency
Insurgency in the region in the past has been attributed to the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). Its name cropped up in the 1980s as a pro-Moscow underground militant organization committed to the establishment of an independent greater Balochistan state comprising all Baloch lands in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

However, in the past few years the BLA's activities have been restricted to firing rockets into Quetta army cantonment. The reason for this extremely low profile is the group's unpopularity among the masses. In the mid-1980s, a few dozen students of the Baloch Student Organization carried out terror actions under the BLA tag. However, later on a very small faction with strong pro-Moscow leanings used this platform to raise the call for a separate Baloch state.

Balochistan is geographically the largest of Pakistan's provinces, but population-wise it is the smallest. However, the province is endowed with some of the world's richest reserves of natural energy (gas, oil, coal); minerals (gold, copper), and it has strategic mountainous borders and passes adjoining Iran and Afghanistan on the west and miles of precious maritime coast stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea in the south.

In the last week of December, the federal government granted four petroleum-exploration licenses, two jointly to Oil & Gas Development Co (OGDC) and Mari Gas Co, and two exclusively to OGDC. The two companies plan to invest US$29.32 million initially, with a further investment of $16.5 million if needed, in the four blocks.

The Baloch regions of the province can be divided into three sub-regions, each with its own dynamics, culture and social conditions:

  • The belt comprising Hub, Lasbella and Khizdar is heavily influenced by the cosmopolitan city of Karachi, which is just a 45-minute drive away. Hub is heavily industrialized, but while most industries are owned by Karachiites, the labor force is local, and industrialization has brought major changes in their lifestyle. This influence goes up to Khizdar, where except for a few pockets, people by and large have moved away from the influence of tribal leaders. Rather than nationalist parties, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People's Party led by Benazir Bhutto are the two main popular forces.
  • The coastal belt comprising Makran and Gwadar, where foreign influences (non-Baloch) have always been strong. For instance, in some areas the rulers in the past were of Iranian descent. Many powerful tribes migrated here from Sindh. The region is characterized by powerful underworld mafias that rule the sea and dominate trafficking activities, ranging from gold to narcotics.

    The political trends are mixed: the religious Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman; the nationalist Jamhori Watan Party; the Balochistan National Front; the Pakistan People's Party and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League all have their separate pockets of influence. However, the real power lies with the big-wigs of the coastal mafia, although in recent times their influence has been curbed to some extent, notably after the killing of two Chinese workers last year. Gwadar is being turned into a modern port city, with the help of China, and already real-estate prices have skyrocketed. Sites have been earmarked and purchased for business centers, warehouses, factories and international hotel franchises. In private conversations, Baloch tribal leaders express their doubts over urbanization as they fear another Karachi or Hub will emerge, which, among other things, will reduce the influence of the tribal leaders.
  • Eastern Balochistan is completely tribal, and chiefs such as Nawab Khair Bux Mari and Nawab Akbar Bugti are the main movers and shakers. This region is the nucleus of the insurgency. Eastern Balochistan is notorious for its lawlessness, and the writ of the state is weak in the face of the tribal networks that have been established. The Sui gas fields are situated in the areas dominated by Nawab Akbar Bugti, while Kohlu is Nawab Khair Bux Mari's domain.

    Players in the game
    It is in eastern Balochistan, though, where the real problems lie. Here, Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal, Nawab Akbar Bugti and Nawab Khair Bux Mari are lined up on one side against Pakistan's military on the other.

    During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, which saw anti-US Islamic Iran, pro-Moscow Afghanistan and non-aligned but clearly Soviet sympathizer India on the one side, Pakistan was always reckoned by the former USSR as the strongest US link in the region, but with Balochistan as its Achilles' heel. The pro-Soviet sentiments of Sardar Attaullah, Nawab Bugti and Nawab Mari played an important role in influencing Balochistan as anti-US in a heavily pro-US Pakistan.

    Sardar Attaullah played an important role in instigating an armed rebellion with Nawab Bugti and Nawab Mari in the mid-1970s, during the administration of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It was crushed with brute military force. All three powerful tribal chiefs went into exile.

    The most significant exile was that of Mari, who went to Afghanistan, along with about 12,000 of his men. They established themselves in Kandahar and Hilmand and were courted by the communist government in Kabul and given military training. Mari's son, Nawabzada Balaach Mari, was sent to Moscow, where he graduated as an electronics engineer.

    After the fall of the communist government in Kabul in the early 1990s, the Mari tribes returned to their homes, but they retained their connections with the pro-Moscow world and sympathizers in India. Today, Balaach Mari and his thousands of followers are the real vanguard of the insurgency and carry the ideological torch.

    The most dangerous region in eastern Balochistan is Kohlu, where, in more than 30 camps, hundreds of Mari tribals are engaged in military training and instruction in guerrilla warfare. Special study circles have been established under Balaach Mari's supervision to indoctrinate Baloch youths with separatist (Baloch) ideology and the two-nation theory (the basis on which British India was partitioned in 1947 to create Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India).

    Nawab Akbar Bugti is viewed as a "moderate" and has apparently dissociated himself from any insurgency, yet he is pulling the strings behind 10,000 powerful insurgent tribals in Dera Bugti and Sui.

    While Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal speaks for the rights of Balochistan on the political forum, he does not actively command a strong rebellious youth in his domain of Wad (Khizdar).

    The central government reacts
    On Tuesday night, speaking on a local private channel, Musharraf warned insurgents of a military operation and said that this was not the 1970s when they could hide in the mountains. "They will be struck with weapons and they will not know what has happened to them."

    Later, on another channel, Nawabzada Balaach warned the government, "I have just heard Musharraf threatening us. I tell him, it is not the 1970s either, that through military force they can suppress us. They should learn a lesson from Iraq where the world-best US army has failed to overwhelm the local resistance."

    Behind Musharraf's threats, though, and even though the tribals have seriously challenged state writ, the government is extremely hesitant to use the force it used in the South Waziristan tribal area last year to flush out foreign fighters, for several reasons:
  • Musharraf is already being pushed to the wall by his military commanders on several issues, especially in dealing with India and his pro-US stance.
  • On the issue of Musharraf reneging on an earlier pledge to shed his uniform at the end of last year, political forces are already ganging up against him.
  • With regard to the South Waziristan operations, liberal forces such as the Pakistan People's Party adopted a silent stance, but on Balochistan all political parties can be expected to vent their disapproval.
  • In such an overall negative environment, the chances of a counter-military coup against Musharraf increase. Musharraf came to power in a 1999 coup.

    Despite all of this, Musharraf appears to have little option other than military force, the consequences be damned.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

    (Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

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