The South Asia Channel

Body bags in Baluchistan

On Aug. 1, Pakistan's military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said the Army and its intelligence agencies are not involved in so-called "kill-and-dump" operations in the restive province of Baluchistan. Kayani was speaking in Quetta, the provincial capital, where Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that Islamabad "should immediately end widespread disappearances of suspected militants and activists by the military, intelligence agencies, and the paramilitary Frontier Corps."

The report follows similar findings by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Human rights watchdogs have repeatedly called on Islamabad to stop unlawful killings in Baluchistan, where hundreds of political activists have been killed in separatist and sectarian violence involving both homegrown and regional insurgents.

Most of the violence stems from the targeting of suspected Baluchi separatists. They are often kidnapped, only to be found dead weeks later, their decomposing corpses having been dumped by the side of the road. Baluchi nationalists accuse the Pakistani security forces of orchestrating such killings. Islamabad counters that separatist insurgents are killing ethnic Punjabi migrants and politicians loyal to Islamabad. Independence-minded Baluchis have frequently clashed with the federal government over the control of resources in the region, and now even moderate nationalists fear hard-line militants who are pushing them to completely abandon electoral politics as relations with Islamabad continue to deteriorate.

While Baluchistan makes up nearly half of Pakistan's 800,000-square-kilometer territory, its population accounts for less than 5 percent of the country's 180 million people. Baluchi separatist factions headed by young leaders are now perpetuating their fifth rebellion in Pakistan's 64-year history -- Islamabad crushed earlier insurgencies in 1948, 1958, 1962, and 1973 to 1977.

Baluchistan borders Iran and Afghanistan and is hemmed in by the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber-Puktunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh provinces. Rich in hydrocarbon resources and minerals, including one of the world's largest gold mines, the region also has a long shoreline on the Arabian Sea along one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, and it is home to the increasingly important strategic port at Gwadar. The region extends into Iran, where ethnic Baluchis make up around 2 percent of the country's population of 80 million.

The region's strategic location at the crossroads of Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and West Asia has reinforced regional rivalries and insurgent movements. In Pakistan, thousands of separatist Baluchis, soldiers, political leaders, and civilians have died since the onset of the current insurgency in 2004. Nearly 200,000 people have been displaced, many of whom are ethnic Punjabis who are only now beginning to return to Quetta after the military targeted insurgent cells in the city. Iran's Baluchis, meanwhile, live under severe political and cultural oppression as a Sunni Muslim minority under the nation's Shiite clerical regime.

Additionally, despite differences over the endgame in Afghanistan, Tehran and Islamabad appear to be on the same page in dealing with their respective Baluchi populations. Last summer, Iran and Pakistan signed a $7 billion gas-pipeline project that envisions meeting energy-hungry South Asia's needs for decades. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) route even has support from the Asian Development Bank as well as key Afghan partners (and even some insurgents), but its viability will remain in question as long as Baluchi insurgents continue to blow up gas pipelines in the region, a factor influencing current harsh efforts on both sides of the border to suppress the Baluchi insurgencies.

Yet Baluchistan also remains a battleground for competing regional interests. Pakistan is suspicious of an Indian-financed road network linking southwestern Afghanistan to the southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar, a predominantly Baluchi city. Tehran invested in the Arabian Sea Port project hoping to attract business from across Central Asia. Over the last decade, China has invested a hefty $200 million in the development of Gwadar, downstream on the same shoreline. Many observers believe the project showcases Sino-Pakistani cooperation and may signal their possible cooperation in the Afghanistan endgame, cooperation that New Delhi eyes with suspicion.

Baluchistan is also a key component of the regional rivalries centered in Afghanistan. Islamabad is fighting the Baluchi insurgency with full vigor, occasionally diverting the resources it gets from the West to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. Washington and its allies have in the past and are likely still considering ending the Baluchistan sanctuary of the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban as a top priority to salvage their transition plans and force the Taliban to the negotiating table. This creates further friction in the already deteriorating relations between Islamabad and Washington. And some Baluchi activists have told me of their belief that one reason for the increased effort to crush the newest insurgency in the province is so that the Afghan Taliban's sanctuaries could remain protected.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has publicly accused India of supporting Baluchi separatists, and some officials in Islamabad are privately skeptical about Iran, too, while Iran has accused Pakistan of sheltering members of the Iranian terrorist group Jundullah, mostly composed of Sunni Baluchis fighting against the Shiite government. Islamabad has also accused Kabul of sheltering Baluchi rebel leader Brahamdagh Khan Bugti for years. And in the 1970s, Afghanistan supported a Baluchi insurrection and later sheltered the insurgents.

While in Quetta, Kayani advised the Baluchi insurgents to talk to Pakistani political leaders to work toward a solution to the conflict. But these politicians have no real power and will look to the all-powerful security forces and intelligence agencies Kayani controls to begin substantive talks.

Unlike in the past when insurgents followed tribal leaders, Baluchi separatists are now loyal to a new breed of middle-class leaders, and satisfying them will take much more than offering cabinet slots and amnesty. Baluchistan, like Afghanistan, will need regional cooperation to see development and a permanent settlement to ongoing conflicts. And more body bags will only push a settlement further away.

Abubakar Siddique is a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty covering Afghanistan and Pakistan.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

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