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Pakistan Fights Another War in Remote Province

Part of the reason for President Bush's trip to Pakistan is to bolster support for anti-terrorist efforts against remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida. But as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports from Washington, Pakistan's other war as it has been called may affect some counterterrorism operations.

As if cross-border terrorism and radical Islamists were not trouble enough, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is also confronting resurgent nationalism and insurgency in the remote southwestern province of Balochistan.

Attacks by armed insurgents on gas pipelines began in 2004 and continued to rise in 2005. Paramilitary forces of the Frontier Corps are locked in battle with insurgents of the shadowy Baloch Liberation Army. Human rights groups charge the government with human rights abuses in the province. And some analysts believe that al-Qaida and Taleban remnants along Afghanistan's southern border are exploiting the unrest to their advantage.

In a telephone interview Agha Shahid Bugti, general-secretary of the nationalist Jamhoori Watan Party and spokesman for the large and powerful Bugti clan, says the Baloch grievances are simple.

"Gas has been taken away and Balochistan province gets nothing out of it," he says. "And other minerals, everything has been taken away and, again, they get nothing. And particularly in form of royalties they get very meager amount, the provincial government gets a very meager amount. So this has been developing and developing. And today the situation has become worse and worse."

Balochistan is vast and sparsely populated, making up 43 percent of Pakistan's land mass but holding only about five percent of the country's population. Bordering both Afghanistan and Iran, it is not only rich in resources like gas, but has strategic military and economic significance for Pakistan. With Chinese help, the federal government is building a new deep water port at Gwadar along the Balochistan coast. Located close to the Strait of Hormuz, it will benefit neighboring Iran, Afghanistan, and China, as well as the countries of Central Asia as an outlet to the sea.

The Baloch, who were forcibly incorporated into Pakistan at independence in 1947, feel they have not benefited from their province's wealth and have been exploited by Punjabis in the capital of Islamabad. From 1973 to 1977, the government ruthlessly suppressed a rebellion by tribal Baloch separatists that left five thousand Baloch fighters and three thousand Pakistani troops dead

The government says Baloch nationalism is simply being exploited by corrupt tribal rulers, known as sardars, that have held power for years in a feudal system.

The sardars are extortionists who are controlling people with their own private militias, charges President Musharraf, who has vowed to crush any Baloch rebellion.

The government also denies that the regular army is involved in operations in Balochistan. Neither side's claim can be independently verified as the government has barred journalists and diplomats from the province.

Although public attention to anti-terrorist efforts has generally focused on Pakistan's eastern frontier, Taleban and al-Qaida remnants have also been using the vast territory of Balochistan to move back and forth between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.

Selig Harrison, of the Center for International Policy and author of a book on Baloch nationalism, says the Baloch insurgency is one reason why Pakistani counterterrorism efforts have not been as energetic as the United States would like.

"Usually the explanation is that the terrain is very difficult, or the Pakistani intelligence services and armed forces have a number of sympathizers of the al-Qaida and Taleban in them and that they're deliberately pulling their punches. But I think really an equally important reason for the failure of Pakistan to go all-out in those border areas along the Afghan border is the fact that Musharraf has had to divert significant military resources to Balochistan to try to deal with this continuing insurgency there," Harrison says.

In a recent report, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan describes Balochistan as being in what it terms a war-like situation and accuses security forces of gross human rights violations.

Shahid Bugti says President Bush should raise the issue of Balochistan with President Musharraf.

"When President Bush claims that he's for democracy, he tells other countries, particularly the Middle East, they should move toward democracy," he says. "I don't know why doesn't he apply the same rule or the same principle in this country. He should."

U.S. officials say that is not likely. One official, who asked not to be named, says U.S. attention has focused on counterterrorism efforts in the North West Frontier Province and confesses there is little official knowledge or interest in Balochistan. But, he adds, there may be a more determined effort by U.S. officials to find out what is going on in Balochistan after President Bush's Pakistan visit.