Delivered at the Baluchistan International Conference, Washington, D.C., Nov. 21, 2009
I am going to start with a citation from the scripture. Scripture for me on the subject of Pakistan is an important book called the Shadow of the Great Game: the Untold Story of India’s Partition, by Narendra Singh Sarila, a retired Indian diplomat who was the ADC to Mountbatten [Viceroy of India]. He got unprecedented access to the British archives. In his book he presents detailed, definitive evidence showing that as early as march, 1945, Winston Churchill and the British general staff decided that partition was necessary for strategic reasons. They deliberately set out to create Pakistan because Jinnah had promised to provide military facilities and Nehru refused to do so.
This is the key to understanding why Pakistan is so dysfunctional. It’s an artificial political entity. The British put together five ethnic groups that had never before co-existed in the same body politic historically. The Bengalis were the biggest. They outnumbered all of the other four combined—the Punjabis, the Pashtuns, the Baluch and the Sindhis. Five became four of course when Bangladesh seceded [in 1971].
As it happened I was in Dacca during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971 when the army moved in to crush the independence movement. I had a memorable conversation with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in which he said it would be best if the Bengalis did secede because Pakistan would be more manageable without them. What he meant was that he would have a better chance of running Pakistan in cooperation with the Punjabis if he could get rid of the Bengalis. And that’s what happened except that the army, as you know, eventually executed him.
The army bequeathed by the British to Pakistan was overwhelmingly dominated by Punjabi officers and soldiers. So with the Bengalis gone the Baluch, Pashtuns and Sindhis have faced a cruel historical irony. For centuries they had resisted the incursions of the Moghuls into their territories, but now they find themselves ruled by Punjabis who invoke the grandeur of the Moghuls to justify their power.
The Baluch never wanted to be in Pakistan. They had to be forcibly incorporated in 1948 by a Pakistan occupation army. The army still has cantonments located all over Baluchistan to cope with an insurgency that is periodically suppressed and then soon revives.
Every time it is suppressed there’s a legacy of hatred that explains why the Baluch fighters of the next insurgency are so highly motivated. I’d like to recall today the fighting that raged between 1974 and 1978 to convey an idea of why the Baluch of today are so highly motivated. More than 80,000 Pakistani troops roamed the province at the height of the war.
By July 1974, the guerrillas had been able to cut off most of the main roads linking Baluchistan with surrounding provinces and to disrupt periodically the key Sibi-Harnai rail link, thereby blocking coal shipments from Baluch areas to the Punjab. in the Marri area, attacks on drilling and survey operations effectively stymied Pakistani oil exploration. Army casualties soared as the frequency and effectiveness of ambushes and raids on military encampments increased.
At this juncture, the Pakistan Air Force was called in. Helicopters were used not only to ferry troops but also to conduct combat operations in mountainous areas. initially, the Pakistanis employed the relatively clumsy Chinook helicopters that they had received from the United States under their own military aid program, fitting them with guns for combat use. But in mid-1974, Iran sent thirty U.S.-supplied Huey Cobra helicopters, many of them manned by Iranian pilots. The Huey Cobra was developed during the Vietnam war and had devastating firepower, including a six-barrel, 20-millimeter automatic cannon with a firing rate of 750 rounds per minute. Until the Huey Cobras arrived, the only way that the Pakistani forces could block off guerrilla escape routes after an encounter was by concentrating troops at key points on roads and trails. That tactic rarely worked, since the Baluch had much greater knowledge of the terrain. Once the Pakistanis were backed up by six or more Huey Cobra gunships, however, special patrols could move in while the helicopters sprayed gunfire in the area ahead of them, slowly herding the guerrillas into ever-shrinking sanctuaries. Even when they sought to hide in previously secure mountain redoubts, the Baluch were often flushed out by the ubiquitous, readily maneuverable Huey Cobras.
The turning point in the war came in a brutal six-day battle at Chamalang in the Marri region, which helps to explain the continuing intensity of Baluch bitterness toward Pakistan today. Every summer, the Marri nomads converge on the broad pasture lands of the Chamalang valley, one of the few rich grazing areas in all of Baluchistan. In 1974, many of the men stayed in the hills to fight with the guerrillas, but the women, children, and older men streamed down from the mountains with their flocks and set up their black tents in a sprawling, fifty-square-mile area. Chamalang, they thought, would be a haven from the incessant bombing and strafing attacks in the highlands. As the fighting gradually reached a stalemate, however, the army decided to take advantage of this concentration of Marri families as a means of luring the guerrillas down from the hills. The Pakistani officers calculated—correctly—that attacks on the tent villages would compel the guerrillas to come out into the open in defense of their families.
After a series of preliminary skirmishes in surrounding areas, the army launched operation Chamalang on September 3, 1974, using a combined assault by ground and air forces. Interviews with Pakistani officers and Baluch participants indicate that some 15,000 Marris were massed at Chamalang. Guerrilla units formed a huge protective circle around their families and livestock. They fought for three days and nights, braving artillery fire and occasional strafing attacks by F-86 and mirage fighter planes and Huey Cobras. Finally, when the Baluch ran out of ammunition, they did what they could to regroup and escape.
Today, the ISI continues to round up Baluch and Sindhis without giving them access to lawyers and courts despite the advent of the so-called civilian government in Islamabad. More than 900 Baluch and Sindhi activists have disappeared without a trace. I urge you to read the Amnesty International report, denying the undeniable: enforced disappearances in Pakistan, which cites chapter and verse on this massive violation of human rights, more than the much publicized disappearances in Pinochet’s Chile.
By themselves, the Baluch are in a weak position militarily, but they are beginning to forge alliances with Sindhi factions that could become significant. What some of the Baluch and Sindhi leaders are talking about is a sovereign Baluch-Sindhi federation stretching from the Indian border to Iran. The most obvious impediment to this dream of course is the fact that Karachi is right in the middle of the area concerned with a multi-ethnic population. But the Baluch and Sindhis point out that Karachi depends on gas and water pipelines crossing through areas of the surrounding countryside under their control.
An independent Baluch-Sindhi federation would not necessarily conflict with U.S. interests because the Baluch and Sindhi areas are strongholds of secular values and moderate Islam. Most of the Sindhis are Sufis and many of the Baluch are Zikris. They reject the Wahabi and Deobandi brand of Islam pushed by the Sepa-e-Sehaba and other virulently anti-Shia Sunni groups in the Punjab. The Islamist threat is centered in the Punjab where Lashkar-e-Taiba and other hard-core jihadi groups are increasingly strong.
The word debilitating best describes the impact of ethnic tensions on Pakistan. Ethnic tensions will steadily debilitate Pakistan even if it hangs precariously together. Reducing ethnic tensions has been made more difficult by the United States, which has created a Frankenstein by pouring in military aid for the past fifty years. We now confront bloated armed forces that have become a privileged elite and have a vested interest in holding onto power. They smother civilian government in Islamabad and oppose the constitutional reforms necessary to stabilize the federation. The United States should do what it can to strengthen the civilian leadership and encourage a devolution of power but it may be too late.
Selig Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He has specialized in South Asia and East Asia for fifty years as a journalist and scholar and is the author of five books on Asian affairs and U.S. relations with Asia, including Korean Endgame: A Strategy For Reunification and U.S. Disengagement, published by Princeton University Press in May 2002. He has visited North Korea eleven times, most recently in January 2009. Please click here for full biography.