It's a classic case of calm before the storm. The AfPak chapter of Obama's
brand new OCO ("Overseas Contingency Operations"), formerly GWOT ("global war
on terror") does not imply only a surge in the Pashtun Federally Administered
Tribal Areas (FATA). A surge in Balochistan as well may be virtually
Balochistan is totally under the radar of Western corporate media. But not the
Pentagon's. An immense desert comprising almost 48% of Pakistan's area, rich in
uranium and copper, potentially very rich in oil, and producing more than
one-third of Pakistan's natural gas, it accounts for less than 4% of Pakistan's
173 million citizens. Balochs are the majority, followed by Pashtuns. Quetta,
the provincial capital, is considered Taliban Central by the Pentagon, which
for all its high-tech wizardry mysteriously has
not been able to locate Quetta resident "The Shadow", historic Taliban emir
Mullah Omar himself.
Strategically, Balochistan is mouth-watering: east of Iran, south of
Afghanistan, and boasting three Arabian sea ports, including Gwadar,
practically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz.
Gwadar - a port built by China - is the absolute key. It is the essential node
in the crucial, ongoing, and still virtual Pipelineistan war between IPI and
TAPI. IPI is the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, also known as the "peace
pipeline", which is planned to cross from Iranian to Pakistani Balochistan - an
anathema to Washington. TAPI is the perennially troubled, US-backed
Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, which is planned to cross
western Afghanistan via Herat and branch out to Kandahar and Gwadar.
Washington's dream scenario is Gwadar as the new Dubai - while China would need
Gwadar as a port and also as a base for pumping gas via a long pipeline to
China. One way or another, it will all depend on local grievances being taken
very seriously. Islamabad pays a pittance in royalties for the Balochis, and
development aid is negligible; Balochistan is treated as a backwater. Gwadar as
the new Dubai would not necessarily mean local Balochis benefiting from the
boom; in many cases they could even be stripped of their local land.
To top it all, there's the New Great Game in Eurasia fact that Pakistan is a
key pivot to both NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of
which Pakistan is an observer. So whoever "wins" Balochistan incorporates
Pakistan as a key transit corridor to either Iranian gas from the monster South
Pars field or a great deal of the Caspian wealth of "gas republic"
The cavalry to the rescue
Now imagine thousands of mobile US troops - backed by supreme air power and
hardcore artillery - pouring into this desert across the immense,
800-kilometer-long, empty southern Afghanistan-Balochistan border. These are
Obama's surge troops who will be in theory destroying opium crops in Helmand
province in Afghanistan. They will also try to establish a meaningful presence
in the ultra-remote, southwest Afghanistan, Baloch-majority province of Nimruz.
It would take nothing for them to hit Pakistani Balochistan in hot pursuit of
Taliban bands. And this would certainly be a prelude for a de facto US invasion
What would the Balochis do? That's a very complex question.
Balochistan is of course tribal - just as the FATA. Local tribal chiefs can be
as backward as Islamabad is neglectful (and they are not exactly paragons of
human rights either). A parallel could be made with the Swat valley.
Most Baloch tribes bow to Islamabad's authority - except, first and foremost,
the Bugti. And then there's the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) - which both
Washington and London brand as a terrorist group. Its leader is Brahamdagh
Bugti, operating out of Kandahar (only two hours away from Quetta). In a recent
Pakistani TV interview he could not be more sectarian, stressing the BLA is
getting ready to attack non-Balochis. The Balochis are inclined to consider the
BLA as a resistance group. But Islamabad denies it, saying their support is not
beyond 10% of the provincial population.
It does not help that Islamabad tends to be not only neglectful but
heavy-handed; in August 2006, Musharraf's troops killed ultra-respected local
leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, a former provincial governor.
There's ample controversy on whether the BLA is being hijacked by foreign
intelligence agencies - everyone from the CIA and the British MI6 to the
Israeli Mossad. In a 2006 visit to Iran, I was prevented from going to
Sistan-Balochistan in southeast Iran because, according to Tehran's version,
infiltrated CIA from Pakistani Balochistan were involved in covert,
cross-border attacks. And it's no secret to anyone in the region that since
9/11 the US virtually controls the Baloch air bases in Dalbandin and Panjgur.
In October 2001, while I was waiting for an opening to cross to Kandahar from
Quetta, and apart from tracking the whereabouts of President Hamid Karzai and
his brother, I spent quite some time with a number of BLA associates and
sympathizers. They described themselves as "progressive, nationalist,
anti-imperialist" (and that makes them difficult to be co-opted by the US).
They were heavily critical of "Punjabi chauvinism", and always insisted the
region's resources belong to Balochis first; that was the rationale for attacks
on gas pipelines.
Stressing an atrocious, provincial literacy rate of only 16% ("It's government
policy to keep Balochistan backward"), they resented the fact that most people
still lacked drinking water. They claimed support from at least 70% of the
Baloch population ("Whenever the BLA fires a rocket, it's the talk of the
bazaars"). They also claimed to be united, and in coordination with Iranian
Balochis. And they insisted that "Pakistan had turned Balochistan into a US
cantonment, which affected a lot the relationship between the Afghan and Baloch
As a whole, not only BLA sympathizers but the Balochis in general are adamant:
although prepared to remain within a Pakistani confederation, they want
infinitely more autonomy.
How crucial Balochistan is to Washington can be assessed by the study "Baloch
Nationalism and the Politics of Energy Resources: the Changing Context of
Separatism in Pakistan" by Robert Wirsing of the US Army think-tank Strategic
Studies Institute. Predictably, it all revolves around Pipelineistan.
China - which built Gwadar and needs gas from Iran - must be sidelined by all
means necessary. The added paranoid Pentagon component is that China could turn
Gwadar into a naval base and thus "threaten" the Arabian Sea and the Indian
The only acceptable scenario for the Pentagon would be for the US to take over
Gwadar. Once again, that would be a prime confluence of Pipelineistan and the
US empire of bases.
Not only in terms of blocking the IPI pipeline and using Gwadar for TAPI,
control of Gwadar would open the mouth-watering opportunity of a long land
route across Balochistan into Helmand, Nimruz, Kandahar or, better yet, all of
these three provinces in southwest Afghanistan. From a Pentagon/NATO
perspective, after the "loss" of the Khyber Pass, that would be the ideal
supply route for Western troops in the perennial, now rebranded, GWOT ("global
war on terror").
During the Asif Ali Zardari administration in Islamabad the BLA, though still a
fringe group with a political wing and a military wing, has been regrouping and
rearming, while the current chief minister of Balochistan, Nawab Raisani, is
suspected of being a CIA asset (there's no conclusive proof). There's fear in
Islamabad that the government has taken its eye off the Balochistan ball - and
that the BLA may be effectively used by the US for balkanization purposes. But
Islamabad still seems not to have listened to the key Baloch grievance: we want
to profit from our natural wealth, and we want autonomy.
So what's gonna be the future of "Dubai" Gwadar? IPI or TAPI? The die is cast.
Under the radar of the Obama/Karzai/Zardari photo-op in Washington, all's still
to play in this crucial front in the New Great Game in Eurasia.