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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January 2005, 18:04 GMT
Pakistan risks new battlefront

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Tribesmen show reporters mortars and shells
Tribesmen have been taking on the security forces
The Pakistani military is already embroiled in what many analysts call a "war without an end" against foreign militants and local supporters in Waziristan near the Afghan border.

Now the Pakistan government risks a new battlefront against an adversary of an entirely different nature.

The venue is Balochistan, Pakistan's troubled western province where nationalists have been fighting pitched battles against security forces for well over a year.

Their demands include more autonomy for the province and an end to military cantonments and huge development projects that they feel may marginalise the local Baloch population.

Guerrilla-style attacks

In 2004 this conflict assumed serious proportions as rebels stepped up their attacks, killing more than 30 soldiers and paramilitary personnel.

The government should be asking why so many people in Balochistan support the BLA
Former chief minister Nawab Akbar Bugti

Government troops and installations across the province came under rocket attacks and bombings throughout the year, including the Sui gas complex.

More important was the emergence of a new militant group calling itself the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

It is this group, say government officials, which is fuelling the current unrest. The BLA says it carried out several attacks over the last year.

"The question is not whether what the BLA is doing is right or not. The government should be asking why so many people in Balochistan support the BLA," says Nawab Akbar Bugti, former Balochistan chief minister and the last of the major tribal chiefs still resident in the province.

Mr Bugti argues that the BLA's agenda clearly strikes a chord with the Baloch population.

The BLA, for its part, says it is fighting "Punjabi domination" - the sense that Balochistan's natural resources are being exploited by a state apparatus dominated by people from the province of Punjab.

This, they say, results in the "marginalisation of the Baloch population through mega-development projects".

Doorway to Central Asia

One of the BLA's immediate targets is the city of Gwadar, once a tiny town on the Makran coastline that constitutes the southern boundary of Balochistan.

Paramilitary soldier guarding Sui gas complex
A paramilitary soldier guarding the Sui gas complex

The federal government intends to turn it into a major international route for sea traffic in the region, projecting it as the world's doorway to Central Asia.

"Fifty years ago, Karachi had half a million people, all of them locals," says Sardar Ataullah Mengal, one of the three major tribal chiefs in Balochistan who recently ended his 18-year exile in London and is now living outside Balochistan in Karachi.

"Today, Karachi has 14 million people, 90% of them outsiders."

Mr Mengal says that the government is trying to turn Gwadar into another Karachi.

"Balochistan has a population of about five million. If they turn it into another Karachi, the Baloch will become a minority in their own province."

Such fears are compounded by the Pakistan army's plans for establishing new garrisons in the province. Senior military officials in Islamabad say that the garrisons, or cantonments, are necessary because of the increased security needs of the area.

Quetta was the last major Pakistani city to be connected to the national Sui gas grid
Ghizain Baloch
Baloch Students' Organisation

With the fall of Pakistan's former ally, the Taleban, in Afghanistan, army officials argue that Pakistan has lost the "strategic depth" in Balochistan which shares a 600-mile border with Afghanistan.

And with India continuing to increase its presence in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, they say, Pakistan has no choice but to secure Balochistan against external threats by building additional cantonments in the area.

The military also argues that the cantonments bring windfall gains in terms of development and that anyone resisting the creation of new cantonments "cannot be sincere to Pakistan".

Poor development

Locals scoff at this argument. "They have had a cantonment in Quetta [the provincial capital] since before partition," counters Ghizain Baloch, a leader of the Baloch Students' Organisation, which is sympathetic to the BLA's agenda.

"But Quetta was the last major Pakistani city to be connected to the national Sui gas grid."

Indeed, Balochistan's development record is not something that any Pakistani government can be proud of.

Covering nearly 350,000 square kilometres, it is by far the largest province in the country but houses less than 7% of Pakistan's population.

Basic quality of life indicators are abysmal.

Tapped drinking water is available to less than 5% of the population. The female literacy rate is under 15%.

Over the decades, consistent degradation of the province's water supply system has turned Balochistan into an arid wasteland, adding to local resentment.

Baluch people migrate from the Sui area
Baluch people leaving the Sui area

The province is also an administrative nightmare. More than 80% of Balochistan, designated as tribal area, is governed through special laws that locals complain are hugely discriminatory.

The police are ill-equipped and poorly staffed and banditry is a major means of making a living in the province.

The Balochistan-Afghanistan border was once the principal drug smuggling route from Afghanistan to the western world.

It is currently a human trafficking hub, with an estimated 40,000 people finding their way to the Middle East via the Makran coastline every year.

According to local analysts, the traditional tribal chiefs have steadily lost their clout over the years. However, they say the ensuing power vacuum has not been filled either by an effective administration or the kind of political activity that connects people to the mainstream of Pakistani society.

The Balochistan legislative assembly is by far the most fragmented house amongst the four provincial assemblies in the country.

What this means, say analysts, is that an entire population of young men, who have no jobs and no hope of a better future, is running around leaderless and directionless.

And it is these people who have decided to take on what they call "Punjabi domination". The army is generally seen as a Punjabi-dominated institution in Pakistan's smaller provinces.

Way back in the mid-1970s, an armed uprising in Balochistan was brutally quelled by the army with help from the Iranian military. Some 30 years later, many fear that the province seems poised to repeat its past.

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