By STEWART J. LAWRENCE
US news reports about the widening war in the “Af-Pak” region have made increasing reference to the presence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Baluchistan, a Texas-sized swath of territory located in southern Pakistan. Yet Americans remain surprisingly unaware that Baluchistan is home to an insurgent movement that is not aligned with either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban and that has fought for national independence from Pakistan for more than 60 years. In this exclusive interview conducted on December 27, noted Pakistani Baluch journalist, Ahmar Mustikhan, founder and director of the American Friends of Baluchistan, spoke with me about the current regional conflict and about Baluchistan’s appeal to the West for military and diplomatic support for its struggle.
SL: The Obama administration has been pressuring Pakistan to allow the US to launch drone and Special Forces attacks on the Taliban insurgent leadership that is reportedly based in Quetta, Baluchistan, near the Afghan border. Why is Baluchistan becoming so important?
AM: Because the road to peace in Afghanistan actually leads from Baluchistan. The problem for foreigners who come to the region is that they are oblivious to the political and social history of the region. We were not a part of Pakistan when the British left India in August 1947. We were incorporated in Pakistan against our will on March 27, 1948, and we have lived under some form of military occupation ever since.
Historically, our people have had more in common with Afghanistan than with Pakistan. In the 19th century, whenever Afghanistan came under threat, it reached out to the Baluch people. There a number of inter-marriages between Pashtuns, the dominant nationality in Afghanistan, and the Baluch. In my own family there have been a number of such nuptial knots with Pashtuns, including those tied with Pashtuns from Afghanistan.
In reward for Baluch help to Afghan rulers, the Afghan king gave huge tracts of Pashtun territory to the Baluch ruler. This is today called the Pashtun “belt” of Baluchistan, for instance, the Pashtun pockets of Quetta and areas such as Chaman, Zhob, Pishin, Loralai. Unfortunately, these are some of the areas where the Taliban leaders have found refuge.
There are 15 million Baluch people worldwide, and about 8 million live within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The future of all three countries is bound up with our future. Baluchistan is also located on the northern lip of the Straits of Hormuz through which much of the world's oil supply passes. We ourselves have an estimated 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves and six trillion barrels of oil reserves both on-shore and off-shore. Therefore, many nations, including China and Russia, as well as the West, see Baluchistan as a strategically important, indeed critical - zone of influence.
Right now, the issue of the Taliban is foremost in Western minds but real stability in the “Af-Pak” region depends on the recognition of Baluch independence claims. With outside support, an independent Baluchistan could be a major force for stability and development, certainly far more stable than either Pakistan or Afghanistan is today. However, if America continues to massively arm the Pakistan military, for strictly short-term political gain, the entire region will remain unstable.
SL: How does the Baluchistan movement view the current Taliban insurgency?
AM: We are a secular people, and therefore, natural allies of the West. Of course, we are extremely anguished by the Taliban. However, we look upon the Taliban as merely the "B team" of the Pakistan military. We know that Pakistani intelligence agencies are hiding many Taliban leaders in Baluch areas. This doesn't help us but contributes to instability, and religious extremism. We don't expect the Pakistan army to object, since they are aligned with the Taliban. However, if the United States really wants to get rid of the Taliban it needs to work with us not with the Pakistan army.
Some Baluch might favor US drone attacks in the sense that they would give the Pakistan military many sleepless nights trying to explain how a proud Islamic nation could let the Americans violate its sovereignty. However, one of our most respected national leaders, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, has rightly warned that drone attacks could turn Baluchistan from a “wound” into a “cancer” – that is, they could inflame anti-Americanism and religious extremism among our own people, which is not what we want.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda do not exist in the air but on the ground. Our Baluch forces must be given a chance to take them on the ground. It is for this reason the U.S. must support the Baluch struggle and actually talk to, and recognize, our leaders.
SL: Are you proposing to fight with US forces against the Taliban?
When I met with US State Department officials recently, I asked them to take the Baluch leadership on board to help solve the “Af-Pak” crisis. Condemning human rights violations against our people by the Pakistani army – which the US did last April – is only a starting point. The US should expand the area of operations of the International Security Assistance Force to include Baluchistan. Help us get rid of, if you will, the 'Taliban in uniform', the Pakistani soldiers from our homeland. This is the golden key to peace in Afghanistan. In return we are going to open our doors for you.
Right now you are playing with the lives of young American boys and girls from the countryside by not talking to us. You are proposing drone attacks but the Voice of America doesn’t even have a Baluchi language service! A simple language service would cost you less than what it costs to maintain a single US soldier in Afghanistan.
SL: Pakistan has accused the Baluch of receiving military aid from India, which it says is one of the reasons it has backed insurgents in the Kashmir. Is this true?
AM: I really wish this were true. If it were, we wouldn’t be suffering so badly at the hands of Pakistan. We would like India - just like we want the United States - to openly support the Baluch struggle, and with more than mere words. Why won’t secular nations like India and the US support our secular struggle instead of backing Islamic Pakistan, which is secretly working hand in glove with the Taliban? If you want to counter the Taliban you need to support Baluch nationalism. If our forces received even one-tenth of the support Pakistan gets annually, many American lives lost fighting the Taliban would be saved.
SL: Aren't you afraid that the Americans might use you tactically, against the Taliban, and then, like the Kurds, abandon you once you have outlived your purpose?
The U.S. has the image of an international “Dracula” when it comes to freedom movements. It's a shame. Just look at the role the U.S. played during the genocide in Bangladesh in 1971. Washington completely supported the Pakistan military. The late senator, Edward Kennedy, was among the few in the U.S. who condemned the Nixon administration’s policies. The U.S. consul general in Dhaka at the time also protested and was sacked.
There are risks in a venture of this kind, but there are greater risks of standing still. We would hope that good Americans would stand by us so that US support to Baluchistan, once begun, is sustained.
SL: Some people, even some of your allies, argue that it might be difficult for Baluchistan to become economically and politically self-sufficient.
AM: That’s nonsense. The pre-1948 Baluch Congress unanimously rejected the idea of a “merger” or limited “autonomy” agreement with Pakistan or with any other state. Frankly, it’s the decadent thinking of white, Western nations that nations in the East can’t run their own affairs. You don’t have to look too far. Bangladesh separated from India and Pakistan in 1971, and despite its many problems, is better off today than Pakistan, both financially and politically.
If we really thought Baluchistan would be poorer without Pakistan and Iran, we wouldn’t be crazy enough to demand full independence. With our natural resources and our strategic 1000-kilometer coastline, we are in a strong position. We would like to become a respected member of the Gulf Cooperation Council that includes countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Our only demand is that NATO/US forces must extend their operational base to include Baluchistan. The stereotypical thinking in the Pentagon is that without the Pakistan army in control, nuclear weapons would fall into Taliban hands. But the very hands that are feeding the Taliban also have their hands on the nuclear button.
SL: Now that Pakistan has returned to civilian rule, at least nominally, can we expect any change in the way Baluchistan is treated?
Nothing has changed since the advent of civilian rule under President Asif Ali Zardari, who obtained the presidency simply by virtue of his marriage with slain premier Benazir Bhutto. Killings, abductions and torture are routine in Baluchistan. There have been five Baluch national uprisings against the Pakistan military since the March 1948 occupation. We call these uprisings wars of liberation and one of them is continuing as we speak. According to conservative estimates 20,000 Baluch people have been killed to date. Pakistan has used U.S. fighter jets and helicopter gunships against our people, without regard for the Geneva Conventions.
Those targeted by Pakistan have included our most respected and revered leaders like Nawab Bugti, Nawab Nauroz Khan Zarakzai, Mir Asadaullah Mengal, and Mir Balaach Marri. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, former governor and chief minister of Baluchistan, was killed in an air raid by the Pakistan army on August 26, 2006 on the personal orders of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a close US ally. Every Baluch loved and respected these martyrs because though they were powerful tribal personalities they gave their lives not for their tribes but for Baluchistan.
It’s time for America to think outside the box. There's always been a huge support base for Baluch independence among the smaller Pakistani nationalities, including the Sindhis, Seraikis and some of the Pashtun tribes with their own national claims. Revising Pakistan's existing boundaries – which are illegal as applied to Baluchistan – won’t be the end of the world. The heavens won’t fall. The world will be a safer place once Baluchistan is recognized and supported. But none of us has the luxury of time on our side. The world must act before the entire region is set ablaze, with truly unforeseeable consequences.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a foreign and defense policy specialist based in Washington, DC. He is grateful to numerous US-based Pakistani commentators for their insights. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org