A “little-known dirty war” is emerging as a threat to the integrity and legitimacy of the Pakistani state and a major test of the country’s fragile democracy.
The conflict in Balochistan may prompt Pakistan’s restive military to impose martial law if the government fails to implement the Constitution, the Chief Justice warned this week.
“Not much is heard about the little-known, dirty war simmering in Balochistan, a parched land of broken hills where militants seeking the unlikely goal of independence are locked in a vicious showdown with the state,” “>the FT’s Matthew Green writes from Karachi.
“A trail of hundreds of bullet-riddled bodies of Baloch activists, students and even poets, provides a clue to the biggest question hanging over Pakistan’s future. Can the fragile state garner the legitimacy needed to beat its many challengers, or is the nuclear-armed country locked in a spiral of violent decline?”
The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, a local civil society group, calculates that 14,400 people have disappeared since 2001. Some 300 bodies have been discovered since January this year, says Human Rights Watch.
U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a nadir due to Islamabad’s demand for an apology from Washington for the ‘friendly fire’ killing of Pakistani troops on the Afghan border.
But the conflict in Balochistan is one of ten reasons* why it is Pakistan that should apologize to the United States, writes exiled journalist Malik Siraj Akbar, currently a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“In a February congressional hearing, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch testified that Pakistan regularly misuses U.S. military assistance,” he writes. ‘U.S. weapons have allegedly been used to kill democratic political leaders and activists in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan.”
The province’s rich mineral resources are controlled by Pakistan’s military and security apparatuses which are determined to resist Balochi demands for autonomy or independence.
“Caught in the crossfire are ordinary civilians – moderate Baloch voices, political leaders, civic activists, scholars, lawyers and journalists – who have been the victims of enforced disappearances, torture and politically motivated killings,” Akbar told a recent meeting in Washington (above). “Excessive use of force by the state, retaliatory acts by Baloch separatists, insufficient spece for political dialog, media censorship and threats against journalists continue to limit prospects for conflict resolution.”
A resolution to the conflict is unlikely “because the security establishment believes its security-first approach will eventually quell the violence and the civilian political leadership is too weak and divided to impose its own, political, approach to addressing Balochistan’s problems,” according to Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper. But the “civil-military imbalance will never be righted unless the civilians learn how to wrest back space from the army.”
The conflict is raising questions about civil-military relations and the basic competence of state institutions, writes analyst Jalees Hazir:
Where is the army of ministers in the Balochistan Cabinet hibernating as their province burns? Why has the Balochistan Chief Minister spent six days in his province in the last six months? Given the explosive situation in Balochistan, why has the Prime Minister not summoned him and the Balochistan Governor under Article 148 despite repeated reminders by the apex court?
The violence is prompting some analysts to question whether Balochistan will go the way of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and lead to a further fracturing of Pakistan
The Balochistan conflict is both distinct from the tensions gripping other parts of Pakistan, and emblematic of them,” the FT’s Green writes:
Imbued with a national identity forged over centuries, the region has felt like it has been treated as a virtual colony by Punjab, the most populous province, since Pakistan’s creation in 1947. Successive revolts have been followed by crackdowns, but little headway has been made in tackling the roots of Baloch marginalisation.
While Balochistan’s history is unique, the belief among separatist fighters that the Pakistani state has lost legitimacy is shared by the country’s diverse purveyors of violence, from Taliban insurgents in the mountains on the Afghan frontier, to warring political parties carving up territory in the back streets of Karachi. In Balochistan, though, the sense of alienation is so strong that some reject the Pakistani project altogether.
Involvement by the international community is required for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Akbar told the International Forum for Democratic Studies.
“The international community should call on all stakeholders to repudiate violence and opt for a negotiated settlement,” he said, while the Pakistani authorities “should bring to justice those responsible for rights violations, provide compensation for victims’ families, ensure freedom of the press and protect defenders of democracy.”
*Some of the other 9 reasons:
Osama bin Laden: Instead of apologizing for its complicity or incompetence, Pakistan vigorously protested violation of its sovereignty by the U.S. military operation that killed bin Laden.
Dr. Shakil Afridi, a surgeon who helped the CIA locate bin Laden’s whereabouts…. So, let’s get this straight. Pakistan publicly pledges to eliminate terrorism, yet punishes its citizens for helping to do so?
Embassy attack: On Sept. 13, 2011, well-equipped insurgents linked to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, allied with al-Qaida and the Taliban, attacked the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. ………
Hostile land: Pakistan has been indifferent to the kidnappings and violence carried out against Americans inside its territory, including the 2002 case of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Mumbai attacks: At least 166 people, including five Americans, were killed in the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai by the Pakistan-based militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistani authorities continue to grant Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the group’s head, absolute liberty to appear on television and propagate hate speech at public rallies.
Malik Siraj Akbar is an exiled Pakistani journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.