Posts Tagged ‘Balochistan’

A few days ago, the NY Times reported that President Obama and his national security advisers “are considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the unruly tribal areas to strike at a different center of Taliban power in Balochistan, where top Taliban leaders are orchestrating attacks into southern Afghanistan.” Senior administration officials told the news agency that recent high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan have “called for broadening the target area to include a major insurgent sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta,” since Mullah Omar has reportedly been operating in and around that area for years.

Image, NY Times

Image, NY Times

The U.S. has continued their policy of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, [a drone attack last week killed 22 people], but now say the missile strikes have pushed Al Qaeda-linked targets south towards Quetta, “making them more vulnerable,” noted the Times. The news agency added in its coverage,

Many of Mr. Obama’s advisers are also urging him to sustain orders issued last summer by President George W. Bush to continue Predator drone attacks against a wider range of targets in the tribal areas. They also are recommending preserving the option to conduct cross-border ground actions, using C.I.A. and Special Operations commandos, as was done in September.

Not surprisingly, the Times’ revelation incited much anger in Pakistan, with officials and politicians calling further strikes “counterproductive” and “provactive,” warning that it will spark further backlash in the country. Although Abdul Basit, a foreign office spokesman, stated, “We have seen the report. It appears to be speculative and we cannot comment on speculations.”  The Guardian quoted him adding, As we have been saying all along, we believe such attacks are counter-productive. They involve collateral damage and they are not helpful in our efforts to win hearts and minds.” Munawar Hassan, the secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami echoed, “The United States has no message of peace for the world, they can only talk through arms and armaments.”

An increased U.S. military presence in Pakistan will not bode well for anti-U.S. sentiment in the region, and stands to complicate Pakistan’s own war on terror, something I have noted again and again on this forum. Moreover, although the government appears to be speaking out against this policy, I question how sincere their protests are, given the recent revelation that the U.S. has allegedly been launching drone attacks from an air base in Balochistan, [see past CHUP post]. Are the government’s protests genuine this time or merely an effort to distance themselves from this policy and save face?

For the U.S. to criticize the Pakistani military for not conducting an adequate counterinsurgency strategy is, to me, like the pot calling the kettle black. Striking tangible targets may kill a few militants, but it ultimately increases sympathizers for AQ and Taliban-linked militants. Moreover, hitting militant strongholds is like playing Whack-a-Groundhogthey inevitably shift their power base elsewhere, as we have seen in the case of Balochistan. If you want to defeat Al Qaeda, you have to weaken their support base, something I’m not sure either the U.S. or Pakistani military has adequately done.

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The violence against foreign aid workers in Pakistan, [see CHUP’s related post] has garnered significant Western media attention. Jackie, an American working for a social enterprise in Karachi and CHUP’s correspondent, [see all of her past posts] commented on the recent kidnapping of John Solecki in Balochistan, [read more about his kidnapping]. Although media reports surfaced that he had been killed, news agencies reported today that Solecki is still alive. Below, Jackie discusses her feelings on the overarching issue:

John Solecki, head of UNHCR in Quetta, was kidnapped in Balochistan on February 2nd.  His driver, a staff member at the UN for over 18 years was murdered in the attack. Recently, almost every Urdu news channel looped a video clip of a white man, presumably Solecki, nodding his head back and forth and murmuring.  It wasn’t a particularly long or revealing clip – it was difficult to see anything as the man was blindfolded and it was just a head shot. I turned on DAWN News and they too were playing the clip with a quote on the bottom of the screen that read – John Solecki:  “I don’t feel well.”

It was revealed that the Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF), a never before heard of group, kidnapped Mr. Solecki and demanded the return of “141 women in security custody and over 6,000 ‘missing’ people” (DAWN) in addition to Balochi independence, in exchange for Mr. Solecki’s safe release. A follow up piece in DAWN last weekend quoted government officials who stated, “Their [BLUF’s] demands are not based on facts.” The government claimed there are no women in custody and that the missing people figures were closer to 1000. I believe the real numbers lie somewhere in between these two claims. I empathize with the Balochi complaint that the government unfairly discriminates against the province but when horrific acts such as these occur it becomes very difficult to maintain this view. Violence breeds further violence and alienates sympathetic observers from the cause.

This event and other recent, similar acts of violence carried out against aid workers and journalists leave me thoroughly disheartened. The myriad of issues this country faces is depressing enough, to add to this already bleak situation, violence perpetrated against outside parties who come to help is demoralizing. I say this from the perspective of an American in Pakistan hoping to create some positive change. I have many problems with US foreign policy, particularly in this region, and specifically chose to work outside of the US government framework. Mr. Solecki lives and works in Quetta, assisting Pakistan. I am not suggesting that grandiose gestures of gratitude are necessary, and I acknowledge complaints many raise regarding UN/NGO work, but kidnapping and/or murdering aid workers is a despicable act.

Why did this group who seeks Balochi independence kidnap this man? To draw international attention to the problems Balochistan faces – i.e. to grab headlines. Why must you attack someone who is working to improve your area of the country – an area that, as you so often point out, is ignored by your own government? The group has claimed that the UN is ‘not doing enough’ for their problems.  This infuriates me – people criticize international organizations (and the West in general) for getting involved in global problems, but then become incensed when they feel their particular issue or problem is not addressed. The UN has several active programs in Pakistan; UNHCR works to provide assistance to Afghan refugees, a hugely important issue for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. By working to provide services to this marginalized population, it stabilizes a potentially difficult group that would only aggravate the problems Balochistan face.

In saying this, I do not mean to portray international organizations as godly, benevolent entities.  These organizations are rife with problems and hypocrisies, but I believe their mandates are worthy and it is already difficult to remain dedicated to a challenging task without the added threat of violence. I empathize with some of the anti-American sentiments the majority of this country expresses, but when acts such as these are committed the question of ‘why help?’ emerges. While I understand that many Balochi people feel they have been wronged by their government, they should not take their frustrations out on an entity that seeks to improve their region.  Perhaps they feel – why should the UN help the Afghans in Balochistan when the Balochis themselves face so many problems? But, that is not the mandate of UNHCR and, more importantly, a refugee problem of this magnitude is a serious issue for Balochistan. Also, UNHCR played a very active role following the October 2008 earthquake – assisting both Afghans and Pakistanis.

There are other, more productive, ways to draw attention to your issue than kidnapping those working to improve the community, and certainly more appropriate people/groups to direct your anger towards. I recognize that BLUF’s actions do not reflect the wishes of all Balochi people, but violent attacks against aid workers who live outside of their country, working to improve the livelihoods of people from an entirely different part of the world utterly disgust and dishearten me. [Image from Malik Siraj Akbar Writes]

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Western media outlets are reporting that gunmen kidnapped a United Nations worker and killed his driver today. According to the Associated Press, “Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called the abduction a “dastardly terrorist act,” but it was not clear who seized John Solecki, the head of the U.N. refugee office in the city of Quetta, as he traveled to work.” The AFP reported, “Quetta, which has an estimated population of just under one million, is considered a possible refuge for Taliban leaders who fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in late 2001 that toppled the hardline regime,” [although CNN’s Reza Sayah asserted in his coverage that the city is not a Taliban stronghold]. The region is also home to a low-level insurgency, [see CHUP’s backgrounder on Balochistan], but, as the AP noted, “the Baluch groups are not known to target foreigners.” Moreover, although the kidnapping of foreign officials is not uncommon, [see related post on the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Peshawar], “police said they could not recall another foreigner being kidnapped in Quetta.”

News agencies on Monday framed the incident in light of the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon‘s upcoming visit to the country. The Washington Post reported, “Poor security, endemic poverty and mounting concerns about hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis displaced by recent violence in the country’s North-West Frontier province and troubled tribal areas probably will be at the top of Ban’s agenda when he meets with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on Thursday.”

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[Image of Hindu Protests from Reuters]

On Wednesday, media outlets reported on various protests occurring in Pakistan in response to the government’s crackdown on the Jamat-ud-Dawa, an Islamic charity organization that many allege is a front group for the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Kashmiri-based militant group suspected of being behind last month’s Mumbai attacks, [see this recent CHUP piece for more background]. According to the Associated Press today, more than 100 children rallied against the United Nationsfor branding the Pakistani charity that runs their schools a terrorist front.” The news agency added, “The girls and boys protesting Wednesday in Karachi claim the U.N.’s move is hampering their studies.”

Dawn cited officials in Balochistan today, who stated that the closure of the Jamat-ud-Dawa offices has “hampered earthquake relief in the area,” [the earthquake struck the province in October, see related post]. Abdul Basir, mayor of the quake-hit town of Rod Mullazai in southwestern Balochistan, said, [Jamat-ud-Dawa] were engaged in relief work, they were helping the affected families by providing shelter, warm clothing and food…” The charity said they would provide 600 new homes in the area, but have had to abandon the work following the ban.

Pakistan’s minorities also protested yesterday for the charity, reported GEO Television. According to the news channel, about 300 people from the Hindu and Christian communities demonstrated in Hyderabad, just north of Karachi. GEO noted, “Bhai Chand, a Hindu community leader, said Pakistani government restrictions recently imposed on Jamaat-ud-Dawa threatened their livelihood because the charity has set up a network of water wells in the desert.” He told the network, “The charity would always come to help us…I do not buy it that they are terrorists when they have always been helping us even though we are not Muslims,” [see video below].

It will be interesting to see if these protests will have any impact on those accusing the Jamat-ud-Dawa of being a terrorist front group. GEO cited U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who acknowledged the group’s “so-called charitable activities,” but still added the U.S. “learned the hard way, that sometimes these are too intertwined with organizations that have terrorist ties.”

Breaking News [1600 EST]: Dawn reported that investigators from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation “have concluded after interrogating the lone captured suspect, Ajmal Amir Kasab, that the Inter-Services Intelligence is not involved in the Mumbai attacks.” The news agency added, however, “The sources said that FBI investigators had also reached a conclusion that the attackers had come to Mumbai from Pakistan. The plan was hatched in Pakistan and terrorists were provided necessary training by Laskar-e-Toiba, according to the investigators.”

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It has been quite an eventful few days for Pakistan. First, following the end of the lawyers’ “Long March” [see related post] this past week, the movement’s top leader, Aitzaz Ahsan promised more protests today. Although he did not provide a future date for these protests, “his comments indicated that the lawyers did not intend to ease their campaign for the restoration of the judges – a subject that threatens to split the new coalition government and hasten the demise of the unpopular president,” reported the Associated Press. Ahsan asserted to the news agency, “There will be other marches … there will be bigger marches.” The recent Long March, which culminated in Islamabad late Friday, “was one of the largest demonstrations in the capital’s history.”

How successful was this Long March and what purpose did it serve? According to the Daily Times, the march essentially “ended without any roadmap for future strategy leaving many, who wanted the leadership to announce an indefinite sit-in until the reinstatement of the sacked judges, flabbergasted.” The intent of this rally was to pressure the ruling coalition to restore the judiciary, a subject that has been both contentious and polarizing for the country since President Musharraf fired dozens of judges last year. PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has already pulled his party members out of the Cabinet over the issue, and has subsequently allied himself with the lawyers’ movement. Like Nawaz, noted the AP, “The lawyers have said restoration of the judges should precede and not be linked with any changes to the constitution.”

Two Dawn columnists had very interesting takes on the Long March and the overarching issue today. In a piece by Irfan Husain, entitled, “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose,” the columnist wrote,

The idealists out on Islamabad’s streets make the point that we cannot have real democracy without an independent judiciary. True. But equally, we cannot have an independent judiciary without democracy. So if the long marchers succeed in toppling the frail democratic government that is struggling to establish itself in Pakistan, who gains?

Husain goes on to write, “If the standoff between the lawyers and the government continues, and the resultant paralysis in Islamabad persists, I have little doubt that we shall soon hear voices calling for the army to take over yet again. Those left out in the cold, and those who have traditionally fed on the crumbs from the table of military juntas, are probably already sharpening their knives.” Another Dawn columnist, Ardeshir Cowasjee expressed a similar sentiment today, [you can also read CHUP’s recent interview with him]. He asserted,

How much has this ‘long march’ which was not a march but a drive…burdened this deprived nation and its thirsty and hungry people? If street thinking or street power is to be believed, the funds for the lawyers’ movement and for this culmination have emanated from the coffers of Mian Nawaz Sharif and his brand of Muslim League, whose coffers were and are filled to the brim with the nation’s money.

In an assessment by the Daily Times today, the newspaper’s editors wrote, “The movement is clearly converging to confrontation with the PPP, which will create undue instability and hurt the economy currently being discussed in the National Assembly. After the PML-N ducked out of it, the PPP emerges as the sole custodian of the budget 2008-09, and the hardship it promises even as it tries to alleviate the suffering of the poor with concessions will weaken Islamabad’s will to fight all the battles facing it.”

We all obviously recognize the symbolism of Pakistan’s judiciary, the merits of the lawyers’ movement, and the wrong in initially firing the chief judges. However, at what point do we also recognize the detriment that such a movement is having on our nation’s economy? The potential detriment to the already fragile democratically elected coalition? Yes, the lawyers’ movement and their supporters want justice, but at what cost? This is not to say we should abandon such a cause, but instead reevaluate our approach.

Another noteworthy development from this weekend occurred on Saturday, when Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, a politician from Balochistan, announced that he would be “willing to represent only the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), and not other Baloch forces, in talks with the government,” reported the Daily Times. However, Marri added that if the BLA asked him to talk to Islamabad, “as an elder of the Baloch nation,” he would present his terms and conditions as, “the Punjabis must vacate Balochistan.” He told the news agency from his Karachi residence yesterday, “The other issues are all domestic and could be discussed later on…I can coexist with a pig but not with a Punjabi.” Currently, no one knows who heads the BLA, a militant tribal organization whose stated goals include driving the Pakistani and Iranian military personnel out of the province, so that a sovereign Baloch government can be established. Although some suspect that Marri may be “the real force” behind this movement, he told the Daily Times on Saturday, “Why are you asking me to confess my guilt at this old age? If I were younger, I would not be giving you an interview. I have always said that the real fighters are the ones who are doing it with weapons. I wish I were younger so that I could go straight to the hills and fight for the Baloch cause.” Although not much media attention has been paid to the conflict in Balochistan, Marri’s comments this weekend exemplify the underlying tensions still evident in this province, and their potential ramifications for the entire country, [For more background on the Balochistan issue, read this past post.]

Finally, in other security-related developments, media outlets on Sunday reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened to send his forces into Pakistan “to fight militants operating in the tribal areas there.” BBC News reported, “His concerns about their increased infiltration into his country are shared by many of Afghanistan’s allies.” Moreover, such concerns were exacerbated further by statements released by Beitullah Mehsud and other Taliban-linked leaders, who have vowed to send fighters across the border into Afghanistan to combat Afghan and foreign forces, [see related post]. When asked to comment on these threats, Karzai told Reuters, “This means that Afghanistan has the right of self defense…When they cross the territory from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to go back and do the same…” The Afghan president has long pointed to the Pakistani tribal areas as the root of the Taliban problem, although the BBC reported that his statements Sunday were the most harsh to date.

Karzai’s statements today were significant given the string of recent assessments on the situation in the tribal region. Last month, a spokesperson from NATO noted that attacks in Afghanistan rose by 50% compared to the same period last year, a development partly due, he said, to the recent deals between Pakistan and militants. This assessment was echoed in a recent Pentagon briefing by the top outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, “who criticized what he called the lack of pressure on militant groups operating from Pakistan’s tribal areas,” reported the BBC. According to the Washington Post, McNeill asserted during the press conference,

…although record levels of foreign and Afghan troops have constrained repeated Taliban offensives, stabilizing Afghanistan will be impossible without a more robust military campaign against insurgent havens in Pakistan.

The Post added, “McNeill criticized Pakistani efforts to crack down on that threat, and — offering his unofficial view — described the political situation in Islamabad as ‘dysfunctional.’ He also criticized efforts by the Pakistan government to negotiate peace deals with insurgents on the frontier, saying past agreements have led to increased attacks across the border in Afghanistan.” He told reporters, “What’s missing is action to keep pressure on insurgents.” For example, noted the Post, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani “has for four months failed to agree to attend a meeting that Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States have held in recent years on border problems.”

How has Pakistan responded to Karzai’s threat so far? Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told media outlets Sunday that the country “would not tolerate any violations of its borders,” adding, “Pakistan did not interfere with other countries and would not allow any interference in its affairs.” BBC News quoted him stating, “We want a stable Afghanistan. It is in our interest. How can we go to destabilize our brotherly country?”

The question that remains is how can Pakistan respond to this mounting criticism of its government’s current policy with militants? Yes, there is pressure from Afghanistan and its allies to take a stronger hand with these militants, but there is also increasing pressure on this new democratically elected government to distance itself from Musharraf’s past policy with the United States. Moreover, anti-U.S. sentiment in the country only grows with incidents like we saw this past week, [see related post], making it increasingly more difficult for Islamabad to appease all sides.

If this post shows anything, it is that this new government is overwrought with issues that only promise to increase over time. Not only does Islamabad have growing tensions with Afghanistan, NATO, and the United States, but also a number of problems at the domestic level. What should the government address first? Moreover, what problem can this coalition ultimately solve?

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The volatile situation in Balochistan can be described as Pakistan’s “forgotten conflict,” a title most recently bestowed by the International Crisis Group in October 2007, when the organization wrote,

“Violence continues unabated in Pakistan’s strategically important and resource-rich province of Balochistan, where the military government is fighting Baloch militants demanding political and economic autonomy. President Pervez Musharraf’s government insists the insurgency is an attempt to seize power by a handful of tribal chiefs [sardars] bent on resisting economic development. Baloch nationalists maintain it is fuelled by the military’s attempts to subdue dissent by force and the alienation caused by the absence of real democracy.”

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, but it is sparsely populated with only six million people, according to the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus in June 2006 [although different sources provide different stats]. Nevertheless, the region holds strategic importance – since it possesses considerable mineral, gas, and petroleum wealth. However, “Little of the wealth now produced in Balochistan has found its way back into the province, which remains badly underdeveloped and faces a major financial crisis even as new natural gas discoveries continue.”

Much of these economic and political grievances have fueled the province’s six-year insurgency. Baloch alienation is reportedly widespread, “crossing tribal, regional, and class lines.” However, instead of redressing these issues, the military responded through the use of force. In August 2006, a sardar (tribal leader) Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed in a battle between tribal militants and government forces in Balochistan. According to the BBC’s Dan Isaacs, his death represented “a major victory for the government in its campaign to undermine rebels” in the province. Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal, another leader, was also incarcerated and has been held on terrorism-related charges without due process since December. The ICG noted, “Law enforcement agencies have detained thousands of Baloch nationalists or those believed to be sympathetic to the cause; many have simply disappeared. With the nationalist parties under siege, many young activists are losing faith in the political process and now see armed resistance as the only viable way to secure their rights.”

However, there has been some relatively positive news of late. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported today that provincial governor Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi announced reconciliation efforts have begun in Balochistan and the new government will take steps to ensure its success. The leader asserted that halting the military’s campaign of force and restoring peace would be “the new government’s priority.” And just who is this new government? In the recent 2008 elections, the PML-Q won 20 seats in the provincial assembly (a somewhat curious development given the situation), while the PPP and Balochistan National Party (Awami) have 11 and 7 seats, respectively.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the situation in Balochistan – and, because the former government heavily restricted the movement of journalists in this province, not a lot is reported on the area, [see Human Rights Watch]. Therefore, if you have any additions to this piece, any predictions on the future of the conflict, please feel free to contribute by commenting. I do feel it is important to highlight a conflict that is occurring within our own borders, that is largely forgotten but is still very much present. [Image from BBC News]

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