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Pakistan: The Forgotten Conflict in Balochistan
Pakistan: The Forgotten Conflict in Balochistan
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
Briefing 69 / Asia

Pakistan: The Forgotten Conflict in Balochistan

Violence continues unabated in Pakistan’s strategically important and resource-rich province of Balochistan, where the military government is fighting Baloch militants demanding political and economic autonomy.

I. Overview

Violence continues unabated in Pakistan’s strategically important and resource-rich province of Balochistan, where the military government is fighting Baloch militants demanding political and economic autonomy. President Pervez Musharraf’s government insists the insurgency is an attempt to seize power by a handful of tribal chiefs bent on resisting economic development. Baloch nationalists maintain it is fuelled by the military’s attempts to subdue dissent by force and the alienation caused by the absence of real democracy. Whether or not free and fair national and provincial elections are held later this year or in early 2008 will determine whether the conflict worsens.

Instead of redressing Baloch political and economic grievances, the military is determined to impose state control through force. The killing of the Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti by the army in August 2006 was followed by the incarceration of another, Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal, who has been held on terrorism-related charges without due process since December. Law enforcement agencies have detained thousands of Baloch nationalists or those believed to be sympathetic to the cause; many have simply disappeared. With the nationalist parties under siege, many young activists are losing faith in the political process and now see armed resistance as the only viable way to secure their rights.

Relying also on divide-and-rule policies, the military still supports Pashtun Islamist parties such as Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Deobandi Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) in a bid to counter secular Baloch and moderate Pashtun forces. The JUI-F is the dominant member of the six-party Islamist alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Musharraf’s coalition partner in the provincial government since October 2002. It is also a key patron of the Afghan Taliban. Using Balochistan as a base of operation and sanctuary and recruiting from JUI-F’s extensive madrasa network, the Taliban and its Pakistani allies are undermining the state-building effort in Afghanistan. At the same time, U.S. and other Western support for Musharraf is alienating the Baloch, who otherwise could be natural partners in countering extremism in Pakistan.

Although the military has retained control through force, it is fast losing the campaign to win hearts and minds. The insurgency now crosses regional, ethnic, tribal and class lines. Musharraf appears oblivious to the need to change course if the insurgency is to be contained and political stability restored. Islamabad has yet to implement any of the recommendations on Balochistan’s political and economic autonomy made by a Senate (upper house) committee in November 2005. The federal government has also disregarded the Balochistan provincial assembly’s unanimous resolutions against unpopular federal development plans. The government’s inadequate response to the cyclone and floods that devastated the area in June and July 2007 has further worsened alienation.

Although the crisis in Balochistan is assuming threatening dimensions, it is not irremediable provided the national and provincial elections are free and fair. The restoration of participatory representative institutions would reduce tensions between the centre and the province, empower moderate forces and marginalise extremists. In the absence of a transition to meaningful democracy, however, the military’s strong-arm tactics are bound to further fuel the insurgency, at great cost to the Baloch people and Pakistan’s enfeebled federal framework.

Islamabad/Brussels, 22 October 2007

Op-Ed / Asia

National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

Originally published in The Diplomat

Pakistan’s central government is all-in on CPEC. But at key points, local communities are resisting.

In the run-up to Pakistan’s general election on July 25, most political parties stand united in their belief that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will transform Pakistan’s ailing economy. In May, Pakistan’s ambassador to China asserted that “regardless of any political change in Pakistan, our commitment towards the successful completion of CPEC will not change.”

But if political support at the national level appears unwavering, local opposition is growing over the lack of consultation and concerns regarding the inequitable distribution of the prospective benefits. In few places is this more noticeable than the southern Balochistan fishing town of Gwadar, the entry point of the corridor and a microcosm of the center-periphery tensions elsewhere that threaten CPEC’s implementation.

An Ambitious Vision

Aiming to develop a “growth axis and development belt” between China and Pakistan, CPEC could involve investments of some $60 billion. The corridor connects Gwadar, in the southwestern province of Balochistan, to China’s Xinjiang region via a 2,700 kilometer route through the mountainous terrain of Gilgit-Baltistan in northernmost Pakistan .

For China’s and Pakistan’s foreign policies, the potential payoffs are clear. CPEC is a flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a geopolitical ambition to develop trade and infrastructure with over 60 economies across Eurasia, Africa, and beyond. For Islamabad, CPEC brings the hope of not only economic dividends but also potentially a geopolitical reconfiguration. Some Pakistani strategists believe deepening ties to China will offset rising U.S. diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at ending Islamabad’s support to Afghanistan- and India-oriented militant proxies.

CPEC’s prospective economic benefits are forecast to materialize slowly across Pakistan between 2017 and 2030. But policy planning has been opaque, omitting details of how development projects will actually impact local economies, infrastructure and business. An urban planner and expert on Gwadar said the government’s plan lacks even “cosmetic consultation.” As more details slowly emerge, local alarm is growing about what CPEC will bring to Balochistan.

Stirring Local Unrest

In Gwadar, the Arabian Sea town in southern Balochistan that CPEC aims to transform into a bustling commercial port, inner city locals fear displacement over government plans to expropriate land, bulldoze the old city, and resettle residents. The state-led land grab is estimated to claim at least 290,000 acres to make way for development, in large part through ultimatums issued to local residents. Those who refuse to sell land or property could simply have it seized by the federal government and would likely face forced resettlement.

Local livelihoods also appear to be under fire. Fisher folk, whose daily catch provides them just enough to feed their families, have on occasion been denied access to the sea and could face the permanent closure of Gwadar’s jetty. Unskilled workers resent exclusion from the port’s construction, as federal authorities favor importing labor from other provinces. One official in Gwadar said that “the plan seems to be to make life so miserable for the residents that they leave on their own.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions.

Nor is it clear that those who stay in Gwadar will reap the fruits of Chinese investment. At the start of the project, Pakistan transferred leasing rights for Gwadar port to the China Overseas Port Holding Company, sealing a deal that grants China 91 percent of the port-generated profits and Islamabad just 9 percent, while denying Balochistan’s provincial government any revenue. With such lopsided terms, China is under minimal pressure to ensure local prosperity.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions. Some Pakistani security analysts see China’s development plans as a mask for broader geopolitical ambitions. In Gwadar, they perceive Beijing as less interested in developing a transport link to Xinjiang or a commercial waystation to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf than eventually transforming the port into a military or naval base, another in a string of installations dotted across the Indian Ocean that affords Beijing the strategic initiative vis-à-vis regional rival India.

Regardless of China’s true intentions, the net result for locals is the same. Economic marginalization is stirring local dissent, which could lead to significant security risks. Balochistan’s insurgency has long rested on popular demands for greater political and economic autonomy. The failure to provide Gwadar the benefits of CPEC development is heightening hostility toward Islamabad and Beijing, and affording Baloch insurgents a chance to expand their outreach and recruit disgruntled locals. Since 2017, Baloch militants have already killed scores of Pakistanis employed on CPEC projects and future attacks might target Chinese construction workers or Chinese nationals living in Pakistan.

A Chance to Reverse Course

Instead of addressing the causes of this dissent, Pakistani authorities have opted to respond through crackdowns of anti-CPEC protests, an overbearing security presence, and harassment and intimidation of local residents. The best chances for the country’s stability – not to mention CPEC’s success in Gwadar and elsewhere – lie in giving provinces and communities a voice in shaping development projects.

In particular, the government should make greater efforts to consult communities and experts regarding the impact of development and reconsider the ongoing policy of rampant land expropriation. It should also put in place measures to ensure the employment of local labor on construction projects to ensure that they reap the dividends of outside investment. Chinese and Pakistani companies, too, ought to take similar measures to assess the risks associated with controversial development initiatives.

Whatever the result of Pakistan’s elections, the new parliament should seize the opportunities of a fresh mandate by informing a new government policy. That policy should have the well-being of Pakistani citizens at its heart, rather than treating it as expendable in the pursuit of mega-development.