The South Asia Channel

Baluchistan: Pakistan's other war

Last Tuesday afternoon, I spoke to a Dawn reporter who hadn't been able to eat breakfast that day because there is no wood-fired stove in his house. He hadn't had a cup of tea or been able to take a shower, and had no heating in below-freezing temperatures. That night he was only able to e-mail in part of his newspaper story because of a severe power outage, eventually giving up and relaying it on the phone after midnight.

He wasn't reporting from a small village in a remote part of Pakistan. He lives in Quetta, a provincial capital and a rare oasis of some development in a largely barren, forgotten Baluchistan. And almost a week later, large sections of his gas-rich province still don't have enough of the fuel to cook properly or heat water and are facing several hours without electricity every day.

Those sections of Baluchistan, that is, that had access to either of these luxuries before a series of attacks on gas and electricity infrastructure brought the province to a standstill. From January 9 through February 13, nearly 25 gas pipelines have been blown up, largely in the eastern districts that are criss-crossed by a network transporting gas found in Baluchistan to other parts of the province and the country. About 7 other gas facilities, mostly wells, 9 electricity pylons and a power plant have also been attacked successfully. The Baluch Republican Army, an ethnic separatist group, has claimed responsibility for a number of these incidents.

The attacks have come in waves since January 9, and last week saw a particularly destructive series of explosions. Last Tuesday, two critical pipelines were blown up, suspending gas to nine districts (the remaining 21 never had it to begin with). The little gas that could be transported was limited to domestic consumers, given the freezing cold. But the incident also affected a power plant that had been mitigating a severe electricity shortage caused by an attack the previous Saturday on four electricity pylons by another separatist group, the Baluch Liberation Army. After Tuesday's cut in gas supply to the power plant, a section of the province that normally uses about 1,150MW was surviving on 60 to 70MW. There was now neither gas nor electricity to speak of.

The two crucial pipelines were finally fixed on Wednesday. They were blown up again three hours later. Three more were blown up on Thursday, another three this past Saturday, and two more Sunday. Gas coming into homes yesterday and today was so minimal that it was practically useless, and hours of power cuts are still occurring.

In a gas-rich province crisscrossed by pipelines, explosive attacks on infrastructure, a means of weakening the Pakistani state, have been a part of the Baluch separatist toolkit for many years. They are one of the standard modes of attack in a conflict that has its roots in a desire to separate that is as old as Pakistan itself. The latest insurgency, which began in 2003, saw a brutal crackdown led by then-president Pervez Musharraf, but bounced back in 2008. Unsurprisingly, the particularly intense series of attacks on energy infrastructure in the last five weeks follows an exceptionally violent year in the troubled life of the province.

A report by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies shows that Baluchistan had the highest number of militant, insurgent and sectarian attacks of any province in 2010, and killings were up 43 percent since 2009. It was a year that showcased the multiple forces that are tearing Baluchistan apart: Baluch separatist organisations demanding secession and attacking the state (including security forces, infrastructure, and the governor), sectarian attacks on Shias by Sunni extremist groups, ethnic attacks on Punjabis settled in the province, and crime, including kidnapping for ransom. Teachers and administrators in education have been targeted by nationalists for being part of the state infrastructure or by religious extremists for imparting secular education. In part all of this was prompted by the continued assassinations of nationalist leaders in 2010 and the frequent discovery this past year of the dead bodies of many of Baluchistan's ‘missing people'; while mysterious disappearances have been taking place for years -- carried out by intelligence agencies, locals are convinced -- bodies have now begun to show up in alarming numbers. Journalists in Pakistan will tell you that they'd prefer to go to Peshawar or certain agencies in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas, home to a nest of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan fighters, the Haqqani network, foreign militants, and other local insurgent groups, rather than enter the city of Quetta, infested with spies and the Taliban leadership and vulnerable to Baluch separatists (although there is no strong evidence of collaboration between the Taliban and the Baluch groups, which have different concerns and allegiances). The TTP have also claimed responsibility for attacks in Baluchistan on NATO tankers delivering supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan.

That, then, is the context in which the gas pipeline attacks are taking place. An old tool, a perfected tactic, being redeployed at a time when the Baluch insurgency has gained ground in the province and extrajudicial actions by security forces have continued to take place. The pipeline attacks are also a confirmation that the current government's attempts to address Baluch concerns after the Musharraf era have not yet worked. A series of economic and political reforms have been announced by the ruling PPP administration, including increased resources from the central government, more ownership over natural resources under the new 18th amendment, and a series of other concessions (including jobs and more civilian control over law and order) under a package called ‘The Beginning of the Rights of Baluchistan.' Ten thousand young Baluch are to be inducted into the Pakistani Army, a move that should increase ethnic integration, and a recent decision to turn a Musharraf-era cantonment in eastern Baluchistan into a college seems designed to allay concerns about an excessive military presence in the province.

But while these moves could help build bridges with nationalists who demand more development, a reduced military presence and a more equitable share of natural resources, the current series of gas pipeline attacks prove they will not, at least in the short term, improve relations with a violent separatist minority that has refused to negotiate with Pakistani governments. The legacy of a resisted annexation after partition in 1947 and continued unfair treatment is something that has come back to haunt the Pakistani state. Unfortunately, it is the people of the province who are bearing the brunt of the fallout.

Madiha Sattar is a senior assistant editor at the Karachi-based monthly The Herald.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images