Tribals looking down a barrel in BalochistanKARACHI - With its deep, warm sea waters, extremely rich mineral resources and most vital strategic position, southwestern Pakistan's Balochistan province has been the home of many regional and international intrigues for almost half a century. With the Cold War over, new players, including Iran, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, India, Iran and the United States have new agendas in the region, ranging from a proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, oil and gas exploration, a deepsea port to military bases.
In the past, Pakistan adopted different strategies, which included its role as a frontline state in the Cold War to prevent the former USSR from reaching Balochistan's deep waters, as well as land-adjustment agreements with Iran and Oman. In the post-Cold War era, Pakistan is again playing a frontline-state role in the US-led "war on terror" by providing bases and facilities for the US in Balochistan to monitor Taliban and al-Qaeda activities along the border with Afghanistan. Now, with this alliance with the US, Pakistan does not want any more arrangements with any other country - it wants Balochistan for itself once and for all.
Balochistan is in the news again after skirmishes between Pakistani security forces and insurgent Bugti tribals in the province's Sui region, famous for its natural-gas reserves, in which eight paramilitary security men were killed and four were seriously wounded. Authorities say that the tribesmen want more royalties from the gas taken from their lands.
The latest troubles have persuaded Islamabad to wipe out all rebels once and for all with force and re-establish its writ through permanent army positioning. For the rebels, they desperately want to use this chance, too, to deliver a knockout blow to Pakistan's ruling establishment and its close friend - the US - and change the power nucleus in Balochistan.
China is assisting in building a deepwater port at Gwadar in Balochistan that would be able to cater to large ships. The port would be the nearest one to the Central Asian states with the potential to attract international traffic, which previously went to Port Abbas in Iran, to Oman, or to the UAE.
The main figures in Balochistan are known for their varied leanings: Nawab Khair Bux Mari and his son, Balaach Mari, tilt toward Moscow and India; and the most powerful Baloch leader and chief of the Jamhuri Watan Party, former chief minister of Balochistan Nawab Akbar Baloch, has interests with Iran.
Over the past 50 years Islamabad has tried to balance these conflicting interests, such as by granting royalties, and concessions or through political bargains in the corridors of power.
However, the situation has reached the point where the status quo cannot continue: visible military training camps for rebels are an example. In this environment, any friction becomes an excuse for a bigger reaction than would be expected. This is exactly what happened in the recent insurgency in Balochistan when a rape case was quickly grabbed by several groups as a reason to instigate a war against Pakistan's establishment.
Islamabad now believes that it has no option but to wield the big stick: the days of dialogue and payouts are ended. The thinking in Islamabad is that now is the right time as Pakistan has US backing and Afghanistan is not in a position to help the Balochis or even allow them to go there. India has been known to supply arms and ammunition through Afghanistan, but the Pakistani army believes that such weapons will not be enough against the full force of its men.
Asia Times Online spoke to one of the main characters, Nawab Akbar Bugti, the leader of the Bugti tribe, by telephone. The Sui gas fields are situated in the areas dominated by Bugti, who is viewed as a "moderate" as he has apparently dissociated himself from any insurgency, yet he is known to pull the strings of 10,000 powerful insurgent tribals in Dera Bugti and Sui.
Bugti and his party hold a few seats in the Balochistan assembly and in the central government in Islamabad, but because of enormous enmities he has not traveled out of his area of Dera Bugti for a long time. Bugti, who was educated in the United Kingdom, speaks several international and regional languages. He lost all of his sons in feuds, and at present the son of his slain son Saleem Bugti is being trained as his successor.
Asia Times Online: What are the reasons for the insurgency in your area of Sui?
Bugti: What insurgency? There is no insurgency in the area.
ATol: Okay, whatever you name it, what is the main reason behind the present trouble?
Bugti: According to my knowledge, this is a reaction and resentment because of an incident in which a lady doctor, Shazia Khalid, was gang-raped by army personnel.
ATol: Can you elaborate?
Bugti: There was a Captain Emad [Bugti spelled the name] and three soldiers from the Defense Security Guards [DSG] , they gang-raped the lady doctor for a night in a room. [Dr Shazia Khalid is an employee of Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) and her family lives in the upscale Clifton neighborhood of Karachi; she was posted to Sui to treat PPL employees.] Then these army men kept her unconscious for several hours. Since an army officer was involved in the case, Major Mukhtar of the DSG hushed up the case by influencing the PPL management. They shifted the doctor to Karachi and she was not allowed to meet anybody so that nobody would know the reality. Even a first investigation report [FIR] was not allowed to be registered with the police, and when after 12 days it was registered, it was a "blind" FIR in which unknown rapists were mentioned. As I am privy to the information, the case was spread all over the area and the Baloch Liberation Front [Baloch Liberation Army] took things into their own hands and they attacked DSG camps and destroyed them and demanded that all foreign elements should leave and not do these nasty things in areas which originally belonged to Baloch culture.
ATol: Were you asked by the government to pacify this conflict?
Bugti: No. They never contacted me this time. There are activities in the area which suggest that they intend only a war against us. For the last two days there has been a full military build-up in the area. According to my information, 36 trucks loaded with army men have reached [the area] and more are coming from different [army] cantonments. At Sibi air base, six gunship helicopters have landed. Today [Thursday] aircraft and helicopters have been flying in our skies for ground checks. They have also brought tanks and 12 artillery pieces. This kind of activity shows that they really mean business.
ATol: It is your area. You are the chief of the Bugti tribe and your people are fighting against the army. What is your role in this conflict? You have consistently denied your role.
Bugti: It is immaterial what I say. The government has directly blamed me [laughs]. The interior minister said that all harm was done by Nawab Bugti, and that even shots were fired from Bugti's house.
ATol: But what will the end result be? When there are no talks and only a military buildup, what really are the government's designs?
Bugti: To eliminate dissenting voices once and for all.
ATol: What dissent?
Bugti: They think that natural resources are national assets, and we think they are Baloch assets, and whoever wants to use them must do so through us, not by direct possession.
ATol: There is an opinion that the root of the trouble is the call for a Greater Balochistan movement.
Bugti: [Laughs] Where did this Greater Balochistan issue come from? It is just a reaction and resentment shown by the Baloch nation to a heinous crime committed on our land.
ATol: Was Dr Shazia a Baloch?
Bugti: Honestly, I did not know about her ethnicity until somebody told me that she was not a Baloch, but hailed from Sindh. But it is beside the point. The Punjabi cannot understand our culture and codes. What respect we give to a women, irrespective of her caste, religion or ethnicity, no Punjabi can understand. The attack on the DSG camps was pure resentment against the humiliation of a woman, and nothing more. A Punjabi cannot understand these sentiments because they are alien to these concepts of the honor of a woman. You may have read about many incidents that happened in Punjab, reported in newspapers, that on the issue of personal enmity somebody entered into the house of his enemy and brought the women of his enemy naked in public, and the Punjabi public, instead of reacting or putting clothes on the naked women, clapped. We are alien to this kind of culture, and therefore when our men learned of the heinous crime they bombed the criminals' nest [DSG] and we say, "Get lost back to your Punjab and do whatever you like, but not on our land."
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at email@example.com.