How the Death of a Leader Creates a Bigger Problem for Pakistan

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When Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed in a military operation in Pakistan's restive Baluchistan province on Saturday, Pakistan's security forces may have thought they were ridding themselves of a particularly annoying problem that has plagued Islamabad for the past two years. As it turns out, they only made things worse.

Bugti, 79, was one of three Baluch tribal leaders leading an armed uprising against the central government that has seen more than 400 officials and military personnel dead in recent months. The violence has led to the displacement of thousands of ethnic Baluch, the interruption of vital gas supplies (Pakistan's principal gas pipeline runs through the center of the province), and the diversion of President Pervez Musharraf's already overstretched army. The fight is about resources. The province of Baluchistan, which is rich in oil and gas, is also home to a fiercely independent and distinct ethnic group that spans parts of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The largely impoverished Baluch see little benefit from those resources, and Bugti had long demanded royalties from the central government for development of the neglected region.

But Bugti was not simply the leader of a 300,000-strong tribe of alienated Baluch. He was also a former provincial governor, a former chief minister and the moderate leader of a well-recognized political party. Not since the Supreme Court-ordered hanging of former Prime Minister and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto following a military coup in 1977 has such a mainstream political leader been killed at the behest of the Pakistani government. As the spontaneous riots spreading across the country can attest, Bugti was not just a local, or even a Baluch hero, but a nationally respected politician whose cause resonated throughout the country.

In using force to take out the small problem of an avowedly secular and anti-Taliban insurgent group (with reasonable demands, if not reasonable means), the military-led government of President Pervez Musharraf may find that it has simply highlighted the larger issue of military rule on the day before Musharraf's hand-picked Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz faces a vote of no-confidence in Parliament. As an editorial in Dawn, a highly respected English-language newspaper points out, Bugti's death will only lead to a sharp deterioration in the already heated government-opposition relations: "It doesn't do the state any good to be remembered as an executioner of former prime ministers and chief ministers."

Pakistani security forces may have thought that in killing Bugti they could curtail growing anti-government sentiment in Baluch areas indifferent to his cause. Instead, many Baluch will see his death as proof that the federal government will never give them the fair treatment they feel they are owed. Around 500 people have been detained in riots throughout the province, and schools have been ordered closed for three days in anticipation of more unrest. Train service in and out of the area has been restricted. More alarmingly, Baluch protestors in Quetta, the provincial capital, and Karachi, the capital of neighboring Sindh province, have been targeting Punjabi-owned properties and businesses, exacerbating already volatile ethnic divisions throughout country. Large segments of Pakistan's army come from Punjab, home to the nation's capital, Islamabad, and other groups in Pakistan often resent Punjabis for the perceived benefits of government preference.

A coalition of opposition groups, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), has called the attack on Bugti a tragedy, saying that General Musharraf's choice of a military operation over dialogue only proves that the military dictator has become a security risk for the country. Not only that, says Samina Ahmed, South Asia Director of the International Crisis Group, the government's military response to the question of states' rights comes at a very delicate moment. For the past several years, Musharraf has been struggling to bring the historically autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas under central control. The notoriously lawless region, running along the mountainous border with Afghanistan, is said to shelter Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership and militant training camps, though the Pakistani government denies this. Local tribal leaders have been fiercely resistant to calls to join the Pakistani federation; Bugti's death and the accompanying military action will only strengthen that resolve.

At an ARD press conference Sunday attended by Pakistani journalists, a member of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party said: "Bullets don't solve problems; they create problems," pointing out that a "martyred" leader will only strengthen the insurgency's cause. Bugti was prepared for just that. This past May Bugti spoke with TIME by satellite phone from the mountain refuge that eventually became his tomb. "It's better to die — as the Americans say — with your spurs on," he said. "Instead of a slow death in bed, I'd rather death come to me while I'm fighting for a purpose." Bugti got his wish. And President Musharraf now has a much bigger problem on his hands.

With reporting by Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi and Tim McGirk