The leader of a nationalist movement in Pakistan's vast Baluchistan province was killed Saturday in a Pakistani air force raid. His death has sparked several days of rioting in the province. There are fears that his killing may have an impact on both President Pervez Musharraf and the war on terror.
Many analysts say the death of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was a major blunder by the Musharraf government that may not only fan the flames of Baluch nationalism, but may also siphon precious military resources away from the fight against terror.
Resentment against the central government of Pakistan has long simmered in Baluchistan over what many Baluchis see as exploitation of the province's rich natural resources by the government.
Until recently, armed actions such as attacks on gas pipelines, have been confined to small-scale actions by the small, shadowy Baluchistan Liberation Army. But last year, the alleged rape of a female doctor by Pakistani security forces in the Sui gas field sparked fresh attacks by angry tribal groups on pipelines and other targets in the province. Islamabad blamed Bugti for spearheading the attacks, and he was forced into hiding. Alex Bigham, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Center in London, says President Musharraf decided to open a military front against the tribal insurgents.
"There have been negotiations with the Baluch, which had broken down. And it seems to be that Musharraf decided that military force was his only option," he noted.
Farzana Shaikh, director of the Pakistan Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says that after Bugti's death, even senior members of the ruling party are questioning the wisdom of the military offensive.
"There is considerably anxiety within senior echelons of the ruling party that Musharraf may have seriously miscalculated the implications of military operations in Baluchistan," he explained.
Bugti's death came just before Pakistan's parliament began a debate on a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. Although it is expected to fail, the opposition is hoping to embarrass President Musharraf, and has added Bugti's death to its list of grievances.
Bugti, who was 79 when he was killed, commanded great respect in Baluchistan as a hereditary tribal chief. As a politician, he worked to get his province a more equitable share of the revenue from oil and gas from the central government. As tensions in the province escalated, Bugti went into hiding in the mountains last year.
Farzana Shaikh says that Bugti's death may push members of the previously uncommitted middle class to the nationalists' cause.
"If that is shown to be the case, we will, of course, find opposition, rising anger, coming from Baluch nationalist parties, who will now be able to call upon not just angry tribesmen, but also deeply disaffected elements of the middle class," he said.
Balochistan, which makes up 40 percent of Pakistan's territory, is also a staging area for Taliban forces to move back and forth into southern Afghanistan, where British forces are stationed. The Foreign Policy Center's Alex Bigham says a re-invigorated Baluch insurgency will draw Pakistani Army forces away from the anti-terrorist fight, thus giving the Taliban and al-Qaida greater freedom of movement.
"It is estimated that Pakistan uses up one-third of its resources dealing with the Baluchistan Liberation Army," he explained. "So it's a distraction, it's a use of resources that would be better targeted for dealing with the real threat to regional peace and security, which is al-Qaida."
But Bigham adds that gauging exactly what happens in Baluchistan will be extraordinarily difficult. Foreign journalists, including locally hired reporters for foreign media, are barred from the province without getting prior government approval.