Pakistan: The Worsening Conflict in Balochistan
Pakistan: The Worsening Conflict in Balochistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Report / Asia 3 minutes

Pakistan: The Worsening Conflict in Balochistan

President Pervez Musharraf and the military are responsible for the worsening of the conflict in Balochistan.

Executive Summary

President Pervez Musharraf and the military are responsible for the worsening of the conflict in Balochistan. Tensions between the government and its Baloch opposition have grown because of Islamabad’s heavy-handed armed response to Baloch militancy and its refusal to negotiate demands for political and economic autonomy. The killing of Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in August 2006 sparked riots and will likely lead to more confrontation. The conflict could escalate if the government insists on seeking a military solution to what is a political problem and the international community, especially the U.S., fails to recognise the price that is involved for security in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Tensions with the central government are not new to Balochistan, given the uneven distribution of power, which favors the federation at the cost of the federal units. The Baloch have long demanded a restructured relationship that would transfer powers from what is seen as an exploitative central government to the provinces. But Musharraf’s authoritarian rule has deprived them of participatory, representative avenues to articulate demands and to voice grievances. Politically and economically marginalised, many Baloch see the insurgency as a defensive response to the perceived colonisation of their province by the Punjabi-dominated military.

Although regional parties still seek provincial autonomy within a federal parliamentary democratic framework, and there is, as yet, little support for secession, militant sentiments could grow if Islamabad does not reverse ill-advised policies that include:

  • exploitation of Balochistan’s natural resources without giving the province its due share;
  • construction of further military garrisons to strengthen an already extensive network of military bases; and
  • centrally driven and controlled economic projects, such as the Gwadar deep sea port, that do not benefit locals but raise fears that the resulting influx of economic migrants could make the Baloch a minority in their homeland.

While Baloch alienation is widespread, crossing tribal, regional and class lines, the military government insists that a few sardars (tribal leaders) are challenging the centre’s writ, concerned that their power base would be eroded by Islamabad’s plans to develop Balochistan; the state therefore has little option but to meet the challenge head on. This failure to accept the legitimacy of grievances lies at the heart of an increasingly intractable conflict, as does Islamabad’s reliance on coercion and indiscriminate force to silence dissent.

The military government should recognise that it faces conflict not with a handful of sardars but with a broad-based movement for political, economic and social empowerment. The only one way out is to end all military action, release political prisoners and respect constitutionally guaranteed political freedoms.

As a preliminary confidence-building measure, Islamabad should implement recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on Balochistan, which have local support. But a sustainable solution requires implementation, in spirit and substance, of constitutional provisions for political, administrative and economic autonomy. The federation would also be strengthened if the national parliament were to amend the constitution, to shift powers from an overbearing centre to the provinces. However, centralised rule is the hallmark of authoritarianism. Like its predecessors, this military government is averse to democratic engagement and powersharing, preferring to retain and consolidate power through patron-client relations and divide-and-rule strategies.

Reliance on the Pashtun religious parties to counter its Baloch opposition has strengthened Pashtun Islamist forces at the cost of the moderate Baloch. With their chief Pakistani patron, Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam running the Balochistan government in alliance with Musharraf’s Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam), a reinvigorated Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are attacking international forces and the Kabul government across Balochistan’s border with Afghanistan. But the international community, particularly the U.S. and its Western allies, seem to ignore the domestic and regional implications of the Balochistan conflict, instead placing their faith in a military government that is targeting the anti-Taliban Baloch and Pashtuns and rewarding pro-Taliban Pashtun parties.

With the federal government refusing to compromise with its Baloch opponents, intent on a military solution to a political problem and ignoring local stakeholders in framing political and economic policies, the directions of the conflict are clear. The military can retain control over Balochistan’s territory through sheer force, but it cannot defeat an insurgency that has local support.

Still, the conflict could be resolved easily. Free and fair elections in 2007 would restore participatory representative institutions, reducing tensions between the centre and the province, empowering moderate forces and marginalising extremists in Balochistan. In the absence of a democratic transition, however, the militancy is unlikely to subside. The longer the conflict continues, the higher the costs – political, social and economic for a fragile polity.

Islamabad/Brussels, 14 September 2006

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