In the latest grim chapter of the seemingly ceaseless violence scarring Pakistan’s vast Balochistan province, the bullet-riddled bodies of three migrant workers who had been kidnapped were found near the port city of Gwadar on Thursday. According to a report in Dawn, an English-language Pakistani daily newspaper, unknown gunmen abducted the laborers on Wednesday night at a stone-crushing plant in the town of Sansar, about 45 miles north of Gwadar. A fourth man, believed to be the plant’s owner, was also abducted, but his fate is unclear.
“Gunmen came during the night and attacked. They set fire to machinery at the plant, kidnapped the owner and three laborers,” Agence France-Presse quoted police official Dostain Baloch as saying. “They took away all of them and later on, during the night, they killed the three laborers and discarded their bodies. The owner is still with [the gunmen].”
Balochistan, a huge, sparsely populated and undeveloped region that occupies the southwestern part of Pakistan bordering Iran, is believed to possess significant oil-and-gas reserves. However, the economic development of the region has been slowed by the Pakistani government’s brutal crackdown on a nationalist insurgency movement.
The insurgents demand at least autonomy from Islamabad and a larger share of the oil-and-gas revenue generated locally. Some Baloch have more ambitious dreams -- a political union of ethnic Baloch spread out across Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Zia Ur Rehman, a Karachi, Pakistan-based security analyst, told the International Business Times that some key insurgent groups such as the Baloch Liberation Front and Balochistan Liberation Army want complete independence from Pakistan.
Further complicating this chaotic scenario is a horrific campaign of murders against minority Shiite Muslims by Islamic fundamentalist Sunnis, particularly in and around the provincial capital city of Quetta, as well as a flurry of attacks on ethnic Hazaras. It is unclear how the recent abduction and subsequent execution of the three migrant laborers fits into the overall pattern of political bloodshed in Balochistan.
Dawn also reported that over the past three years almost 600 mutilated bodies -- more victims of the war between the state of Pakistan and the separatists -- have been found in Balochistan, citing documents from the home and tribal affairs department of the province. “Most of the dead bodies are of Baloch political workers,” ministry documents stated. More than 100 missing-persons reports have also been filed over that time frame, although a human-rights activist group called the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, or VBMP, asserts the number of missing, as well as those who suffered “enforced disappearances,” is substantially higher than what the ministry claims. Nasrullah Baloch, the chairman of VBMP, has alleged that literally thousands of Baloch people have gone missing over the past few years and that they were likely kidnapped by Pakistani government security forces.
Central Asia Online reported last week that Pakistani military officials are dedicated to completely wiping out the separatist threat in Balochistan, having already killed dozens of “militants” and arresting scores of others so far this year. “We have decided to cleanse our region [Balochistan] of militants. They are imposing their so-called agenda on our soil and disturbing [the] peace for their own goals,” Frontier Corps Commandant Col. Maqbool Ahmad told CAO. “The ongoing targeted operation will continue until the elimination of the banned groups [separatists].”
Pakistani authorities also declared that they have seized arms and explosive materials found during raids on militant hideouts across Balochistan. Maqbool said militants are using populated areas as their cover and that his forces have “foiled a number of terrorists’ plots.” He said banned organizations are spreading terror by carrying out “bombings, kidnappings for ransom, target killings and other anti-state activities.”
Pakistan cannot afford to lose control of Balochistan. Aside from its oil-and-gas reserves, the region also boasts gold, coal, copper, iron ore, lead-zinc, titanium and uranium deposits, as well as a 600-mile coastline that provides easy access to the Persian Gulf, the world’s oil shipping center. But it is Balochistan’s potential as a treasure of oil and gas that makes the region indispensable to Pakistan. Asia Sentinel noted that Pakistan has an estimated 25.1 trillion cubic feet, or TCF, of proven gas reserves -- 19 trillion of which are located in Balochistan. According to the Oil & Gas Journal, Pakistan has proven oil reserves of about 300 million barrels, again, most of which are found in Balochistan.
Indeed, Islamabad is especially committed to developing the Gwadar port and transforming it into a key oil shipping hub between the nearby Strait of Hormuz and the far east of Asia. To that end, Pakistani officials handed over control of the port this year to China Overseas Port Holdings Ltd. from PSA International Pte Ltd. of Singapore.
Balochistan also plays a key role in the highly controversial $1.5 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project -- an endeavor that Pakistan cannot entirely pay for and one that is strenuously opposed by the U.S. due to its imposition of economic sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear-development program. If the 1,930-kilometer (1,200-mile) pipeline ever becomes a reality, it will cross through Baloch territory and deliver 750 million cubic feet of gas per day, with an option to increase that figure to 1 billion cubic feet.
But Jonah Blank, senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va., pointed out that the size of Balochistan’s oil-and-gas reserves must be perceived in context. For example, he told the IBTimes, Malaysia -- a nation with less than one-sixth the population of Pakistan -- has proven gas reserves 12 times as large as Pakistan does, suggesting Pakistan’s interest in controlling Baloch goes beyond just its natural resources. “If Balochistan were [such] an energy bonanza, Islamabad would have already tapped it,” he said.
Nonetheless, Baloch militancy remains an intractable problem for the Pakistani government and a continuing threat to hopes for economic prosperity in the region. “Balochistan has multidimensional problems that have been created by unrest in the political situation, targeted killings, sectarianism and extremism,” a senior defense analyst, retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, told CAO. “It is important that all groups including extremists come to the negotiating table.”
But Baloch nationalists, including the Baloch Liberation Army, claim that Pakistan seeks to keep the local people impoverished while exploiting the region’s natural resources. Rehman, the Karachi security analyst, told the IBTimes that Baloch separatists allege that the central government is systematically suppressing development in Balochistan to keep the Balochs weak. “The resources ... of the [Baloch] province such as natural gas, minerals, oceans and others have been used to produce energy for other provinces of Pakistan.” Rehman said.
In response, the Pakistani government has branded Baloch separatist organizations as “terrorists.” Like their brethren across the border in Iran, the Pakistani Balochs suffer from high rates of poverty, low literacy and other woes -- all of which serve to fuel an insurgency that seems to have no resolution in sight. According to the World Bank, eight of Pakistan’s 10 most deprived districts are located in Balochistan.
As an illustration of Balochistan’s extreme poverty and underdeveloped economy, Salman Rafi Sheikh, a Pakistani researcher, pointed out in the Asia Sentinel newspaper that the region generates monthly revenue of a paltry 1.6 billion Pakistani rupees ($15.2 million), barely enough to pay the salaries of government officials. Moreover, just 22 percent of Balochs are literate, versus 47 percent for Pakistan as a whole, and only 20 percent of Balochs have access to drinking water, versus 86 percent for the country. “The Baloch are poor not only in terms of development and basic services, but also in terms of power,” Rafi Sheikh wrote. “The common people are powerless at the local level, while their politicians are powerless at the national level.”
For the Balochs of Pakistan, a turning point in their war against the state occurred in 2006, when the local Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was killed in a bloody firefight with the Pakistani army. Bugti, 79 years old at the time of his death, had just submitted a list of demands to Islamabad, which, among other things, called for greater local control of natural resources, more autonomy from Islamabad and a moratorium on construction of military bases in the area. Bugti’s death was followed a few years later by the killings of Baloch National Movement President Ghulam Mohammed Baloch and two other nationalist leaders -- allegedly by the Pakistani military, although this has never been proven conclusively. Their deaths sparked strikes, protests and civil disturbances that periodically continue to the present day.
Nawabzada Mehran Marri, a Balochistan representative at the United Nations Human Rights Council, has accused both Pakistan and its giant ally China of conspiring to defraud the Baloch people, referring to the Pakistani government’s handing over operational control of the Gwadar deep-sea port project to Beijing. “The Chinese and Pakistanis are the partners in the crimes against the Baloch nation,” he told Asian News International. “And the Gwadar port project is not a commercial project aimed at bringing prosperity in the region, and especially for the Baloch people, absolutely not. It is a naval base created for the Chinese to have [a] listening post in the region. This is [a] danger to America, international and regional powers, and, first and foremost, a danger to us.”
Marri also questioned Pakistan’s right to Gwadar and its access to Baloch natural resources. “Pakistan is an illegal occupier and an illegitimate broker. It has no right to be a broker for Baloch resources,” he said. “We have to recognize the problem that Balochistan is an occupied country ... there’s [a] military operation, there’s international propaganda [Pakistan has] played -- Baloch have been a victim [since the formation of Pakistan in 1947].” Marri added gloomily: “I don’t see any political solution to [the] Balochistan issue. Everything is escalating year by year.”
According to a devastating report by Human Rights Watch, or HRW, Pakistani authorities are dealing with the Baloch situation with extreme brutality. HRW claims Pakistani security forces are routinely detaining, torturing and murdering hundreds of political activists in Balochistan in what some observers describe as a so-called dirty war. “Pakistan’s security forces are engaging in an abusive free-for-all in Balochistan as Baloch nationalists and suspected militants ‘disappear’ and in many cases are executed,” HRW’s Asia Director Brad Adams said. “The national government has done little to end the carnage in Balochistan, calling into question its willingness or ability to control the military and intelligence agencies.”
Since 2005, hundreds of Baloch activists have suffered “enforced disappearances,” and many more have been detained without being charged with any crime. HRW puts the blame squarely on Pakistan’s much-feared security network. “This is not counterinsurgency -- it is barbarism,” Adams said.
However, officials in Islamabad repeatedly deny such atrocities are occurring and label these accusations as “propaganda” by separatists. Some senior Pakistani officials even reportedly believe that Baloch separatists are actively supported and financed by other regional powers. “Islamabad has sometimes accused Iran -- as well as Afghanistan and India -- of stirring up rebellion in Balochistan,” the RAND Corp.’s Blank said. “While insurgencies in Balochistan have received some limited external support, they must be viewed as indigenous movements rather than foreign proxy wars. Iran has little to gain in creating discord in Balochistan -- and a great deal to lose.”
Animesh Roul, a Delhi-based South Asia analyst with the Jamestown Foundation and executive director of the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, told the IBTimes that since the death of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the original Baloch liberation movement has been severely diluted and weakened. “Most of the rebel leaders have fled the land and settled in Geneva, London or other European cities, including exiled pro-Baloch hardliners, Munir Mengal and Barahamdagh Bugti, to name a few,” he said. “Now the Baloch separatist tendencies are replaced by political and social reconciliation, but with demands for greater autonomy and control over natural resources and administrations.”
Roul also noted that Iran has to be careful in how it deals with the Baloch puzzle in Pakistan. “Not long ago, Iran was a passive spectator of the whole Balochistan-Pakistan saga,” he said. “[But] with the advent of the Chinese and the construction projects [in Pakistan], Iran became suspicious and is reportedly siding with some Baloch nationalist leaders,” he said. “The killings of Shias and Hazara by the Taliban and other sectarian groups like Lashkar e Jhangvi in Balochistan also irritates Iran.”
But Iran doesn’t want to see the formation of a so-called Greater Balochistan: Because it has its own restive Baloch region, such a development would mean the loss of territory and resources to the Islamic Republic. “So Iran tries to remain balanced,” Roul said. “The strategic location of Balochistan is one of the critical factors, too. So it’s more complex than it seems.”
In spite of all the negative cross-currents flowing through Balochistan, there may actually be some small window of opportunity for compromise now. Abdul Malik, the new chief minister of Balochistan, has called for separatists to sit at the negotiating table, while urging his security forces to end their brutality against the rebels. “We have to create an environment in which we are in a position to invite insurgents for negotiations,” Malik told Reuters.
Meanwhile, as all sides continued to argue, haggle and protest, the killings in Balochistan continue.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.