Sunday, October 12, 2008

That Other Little Civil War Next Door - Balochistan

The previous post on Pakistani forces fighting alongside the Taliban reminded me of Pakistan's own troubling insurgency with the tribesmen of Balochistan, curiously enough called the Balochs (sometimes Baluchs).

The Balochs' homeland (shown in pink above), like that of the Pashtun, lies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Baloch territory lies south of Waziristan in the region where Pakistan meets the Indian Ocean. Qetta, a Taliban stronghold, lies in the northern part of Balochistan.

Like the Pashtun, the Balochs got divvied up in a two-state deal when the Brits drew the Duran Line to mark the Pakistan/Afghan border.

Pakistan has four major ethnic groups - Punjabi (the military), Sindhi (the economic and political), Pashtun or Pathan and Baloch. Like Afghanistan's ethnic melange, these players don't always see eye to eye and at times work at cross purposes. This is one of those moments for the Balochs.

Like other ethnic groups, such as the Kurds, the Balochs would really like the unification of their people (in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran) and the creation of an independent state. The Balochs have been waging insurrections against the Pakistanis almost since Pakistan was created by the Brits in 1947. There have been insurgencies in 1948, 1968, 1973, 1977, 2005, 2006, and right now.

Everybody has an interest in the Baloch region of Pakistan. The US sees it as an excellent staging area in the event of war with Iran. Tehran accuses the Americans of supporting a Baloch insurgency within Iran. And then there's the dual villains in much of today's global insecurity - oil and gas.

The region also holds large reserves of natural gas, oil and uranium critical to an energy starved Pakistan. The Balochs complain they're being exploited by Islamabad and demand greater prosperity from these resources.

Through the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, the Baloch territory offers a corridor for a commercial and energy corridor. Planning is underway for a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and Iran both to the sea and north to China and possibly into India.

Look at the players - Pakistan, the United States, Afghanistan, India, Iran and China. If that mob doesn't give you a headache, it should.

The energy issue creates what American strategic analysts call an "energy-insurgency nexus." How Washington perceives that to be in American and Western strategic interests could reshape the geopolitical makeup of the entire region.

Pakistan, alienated by the recent American nuclear deal with India, is already toying with membership in the SCO, Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran also wants into that defensive alliance. That could bring both countries and the energy facilities of their region under the umbrella of Russia and China.

We've seen how determined the US has been to oust Soviet influence in the energy-rich Caucasus region, first Georgia and now Ukraine. Would the Americans be any less determined to deny Chinese influence over South Asian energy resources?

Like everything else in this region, it's all wheels within wheels. No two players' interests here are inevitably coterminous. So far the US hasn't had to take sides between Islamabad and the Balochs yet it may well come down to that. China, meanwhile, operates very quietly in this region. China is already planning to build a rail and highway route into northern Afghanistan where it has acquired the rights to that country's biggest copper reserves. China may find it worthwhile to try to pry Pakistan out of Washington's sphere of influence.

I suspect we won't have much chance of settling the Taliban issue while the Baloch insurgency stands unresolved. It's hard to conceive of America pulling its military forces out of Afghanistan for many years to come. There's far too much at stake, geo-politically, within Afghanistan and along its borders (Pakistan, China, Iran) and nowhere else for Washington to maintain a sizeable military presence. It's entirely unclear whether the Afghan tribes will tolerate a quasi-permanent American military force in their country or whether they will temporarily side with the Taliban as they united with the Pashtun two decades earlier to drive out the Soviets.


Anonymous said...

Moderate Baloch nationalists need world attention and separate and united homeland for Baloch (Balochistan) will be a positive move in discouraging religious fundamentalism. Balochistan will be used as hub to disseminate progressivism, liberalism and true democracy.

Pakistan and Iran's policies are damaging. Baloch state will be a great support for promotion of modernization because Baloch people are the only moderate and liberal population in the region.

The Mound of Sound said...

Anon, I truly understand your point but I can't imagine what nation will intercede to force Pakistan to yield sovereignty to the Balochs.

It will be interesting to see how the World Court decides Serbia's case over Kosovo independence, a ruling that will also bear directly both on South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

If the court widely embraces self-determination the Balochs may have a legal foundation for claiming sovereignty. Yet I think that's a slim prospect.

What do you think America's position will be toward the Balochs? What of a Greater Balochistan that recovers the Baloch territories in Afghanistan and Iran?

You make a compelling argument for the regional benefits that could emerge from Baloch independence but, as is so true with everything in that region, it's wheels spinning within wheels and an awful lot of "net sum" diplomacy.

I'd be pleased to get your views on these questions.