When the world looks at Pakistan, its attention justifiably focuses on the rugged northern border with Afghanistan, a nexus of Taliban activity and the site of an ongoing multi-pronged campaign against the militants. Battling jihadism there is a pivotal plank in the Obama administration's plans to stabilize the war-ravaged region and eventually dial down America's military presence.
But in the shadow of this "Af-Pak" frontier, another conflict has grown new life in recent years and, according to experts, poses a possibly greater existential threat to the Pakistani state. The province of Baluchistan, situated along Pakistan's west and northwest borders with Iran and Afghanistan, comprises more than 40% of Pakistan's landmass but less than 5% of its people. Its unforgiving deserts nearly annihilated the armies of Alexander the Great as they marched home. The native Baluch, descendants of nomadic tribes who roamed these arid wastes, number around five million and have for years complained of marginalization and mistreatment, particularly at the hands of the Pakistani military.
Beneath their homeland's soil lies a treasure trove of natural gas and oil reserves, which, while largely untapped, yield revenues from which the Baluch feel excluded. Successive generations have waged armed rebellions against Pakistani rule in 1948, 1953, through the 1960s and 70s, and now. According to analysts, continued abuses at the hands of security forces and Pakistan's shadowy intelligence agency, the ISI, have intensified separatist feeling to an unprecedented scale. "Baluch nationalism is more broad-based, is a more serious phenomenon than at any time in the past," says Selig Harrison, a leading authority on the Baluch and director of the Center for International Policy in Washington.
The dimensions of the Baluch struggle are made all the more complicated by the region's political geography. Around a million ethnic Baluch live on the other side of the border in Iran and there, too, have long agitated against a repressive state for greater freedoms. During Pakistan's most brutal crackdown on Baluch separatists in the 1970s when civilians reportedly died in the thousands Iran lent Pakistan logistical support, including helicopters. At the time, the two countries were allied together under the U.S.-led CENTO Cold War pact, but following Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 relations changed, with Tehran's Shia establishment increasingly wary of their Sunni counterparts in the Pakistani military leadership. The Iranians loath the Afghan Taliban, who were created in part by elements within the Pakistani state. "There's an inherent set of tensions [between the two countries] based on their prior strategic choices," says Sameer Lalwani, a Pakistan watcher at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
On Baluchistan, the cooperation of old has shifted to a more guarded mutual distrust. On Oct. 18, Jundullah, a Baluch militia based on Pakistani soil struck the Iranian border city of Pishin, killing 41, including a number of senior figures in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. A week later, Pakistani troops detained 11 Iranian agents who had infiltrated across the border, possibly in a mission aimed against Jundullah. They were eventually released, but the incidents spotlighted the uncomfortable place Baluchistan occupies in both Tehran and Islamabad's internal affairs and their dealings with each other.
These tensions may balloon in the future as other regional powers expand their interests in Baluchistan as well. The presence of some 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the province has raised the prospect of significant outside investment, but it has only deepened Baluch anxieties of alienation. China has already set about securing access to Baluchistan's other rich veins of resources: it owns a controlling interest in the massive gold and copper mine at Saindak and has steered the building of a $1 billion blue water port at Gwadar, mostly using Chinese labor. The growing hub of Gwadar, which Islamabad has slated to become a special economic zone, is not only a focal point of Chinese strategic interests in southwest Asia, but also a source of contention for the Baluch, who have been almost entirely frozen out of its development and, as in elsewhere in the province, kept at arm's length by ethnic Punjabis and Sindhis arriving to do business here from other parts of Pakistan.
Baluch separatists claim that they never wanted to be part of Britain's partitioning of colonial India into the independent states of India and Pakistan and that they are the victims of an empire that barely ruled them. The border that splits Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan was a line plotted in 1871 by a British colonial official, ceding territory to Iran's rulers in a bid to win Tehran's support against Czarist Russia. Now, the Baluch in Pakistan and Iran who fear independence may be out of reach campaign for expanded freedoms and guarantees to preserve their language and culture within the Pakistani and Iranian states. Others have taken up arms over the years. Suggestions made by some Pakistani officials linking Baluch separatism to the activities of the Taliban are wrong, says Harrison. Baluch nationalism has always been a secular project; its militant fronts warring with Pakistan, like the Baluch Liberation Army, descend from a tradition of Marxist-Leninist guerrillas that took root in the 1970s. Jundullah, though an avowedly Sunni group, articulates its identity as a rejection of the Shia clerics ruling Iran a political act rather than one born out any particular fervor.
When trying to discredit Baluch separatism, Islamabad often blames its regional rival, India, for abetting and influencing the rebels. Pakistan's wariness of India's hand in its affairs has only grown after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan saw Indian engagement there bloom Pakistani officials say Indian consulates in the Afghan cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad are behind the destabilizing acts of subversion in Baluchistan. Baluch attacks are frequently followed by Pakistani accusations of Indian involvement, though Islamabad, which has a noted record of being a breeding ground for terrorists who make their way to India, has yet to show any evidence of Indian collusion. Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rejected any notion of India backing insurgents. "The people and government of Pakistan know jolly well that this is a false accusation," said Singh.
Meanwhile, Baluchistan simmers. Beyond the standard detachments of border troops, the Pakistani military has kept an occupying army in six major garrisons across the province since 1958. For decades, the Baluch have accused the army of kidnappings, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. In April, three dissident Baluch leaders were reportedly abducted by Pakistani security forces and found days later, their bodies bruised and ridden with bullets, triggering weeks of rioting and violence. A 2008 Amnesty International report, "Denying the Undeniable: Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan," charted at least 600 unresolved disappearances in Baluchistan alone. The 2006 killing of Akbar Bugti at the time, the emotive figurehead of Baluch separatism in a firefight with Pakistani troops gave the current wave of Baluch nationalists a martyred hero to latch onto. "The continued atrocities all over Pakistani Baluchistan has kindled a very strong separatist feeling that will have to be answered," says Harrison of the Center for International Policy.
In a report published earlier this year, Harrison recommends the withdrawal of a chunk of the Pakistani occupying army and a political solution that grants the province greater autonomy and control over its resources. The Baluch desire for autonomy commands a decent level of sympathy among the Pakistani public, but is a non-starter with the military, who view the province as a vital geopolitical bulwark against Tehran, Kabul or New Delhi's interests. The political paralysis in dealing with this remote, restive province is another sign, experts say, of the real power the military holds over the country's weak civilian government. "[Pakistani President Asif ]Zardari and his entourage understand what needs to be done," says Harrison. "But they have no ability to get the armed forces and the ISI to cooperate."
The U.S. has remained mostly quiet on the matter, in part because it only has so much leverage that it can wield over the Pakistani military. During the Bush administration, there were suggestions that Washington was even secretly backing anti-Iranian groups like Jundullah and staging covert operations against Iran from Baluchistan. But a more public effort to reach a just solution for Baluch grievances would go a long way toward securing stability for Pakistan in general. The Baluch disturbances have put on hold plans to build a lucrative gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan a link that would enhance regional cooperation as well as boost the nation's wealth. Calming separatist passions would also serve as a lesson to the Pakistani military, which, as seen during the traumatic and bloody independence of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), has a habit of trying to brutally stomp out secessionist movements. At a moment when there are so many hearts and minds to be won and boots on the ground stretched so thin it wouldn't hurt to give peace a chance.