Certain conflicts are fashionable to follow from the point of view of activists and commentators, others are not. The on-going and increasingly brutal conflict in Baluchistan is an example of one that is not.
Baluchistan is the largest yet least populated region of Pakistan. It is also the poorest and least developed yet contains vast natural resources. Since the establishment of the Pakistani state in 1947, there has been a Baluchi nationalist movement seeking greater autonomy, more royalties from natural resources and, in some cases, complete independence from Pakistan. The exact size of this nationalist movement is difficult to ascertain, suffice to say it is sizeable and significant.
Baluchi nationalists argue that revenue from the extraction of their resources is rarely invested back into developing the region. They accuse the federal government of abuse, neglect, and apathy towards their plight. They also accuse the Pakistani army of human rights abuses. The Pakistani government, in turn, accuses India and Afghanistan of arming and training Baluchi nationalists.
The Pakistani Army, along with Iran, has led many military campaigns in the region, resulting in the killing of many dissidents and separatist militants. More recently, the Army, equipped with US-funded military hardware, has been accused of conducting a ‘kill and dump’ campaign.
In the past 10 years an estimated 8000 Baluchi militants, intellectuals, and political leaders have been kidnapped and found dead, with many showing signs of torture. Furthermore, the region’s Shia community is being systematically targeted by Pakistani terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Slain bodies of whole families of Baluchi Shias are routinely found on the streets.
But in the past few days things have got a lot worse. According to Asian Human Rights Council, on Christmas Eve the Pakistani Army launched a new crackdown in which pro-nationalist villages were attacked with helicopter gunships. This full scale military assault against unarmed civilian targets resulted in the destruction of over 200 homes and the killing of over 50 civilians, including women and children.
The Pakistani Army has also imposed a 24/7 curfew on the areas being targeted with people currently unable to leave their homes to collect water or attend to crops. Journalists, aid workers, and medical staff are barred from entering the affected areas.
There are a number of mystifying elements to these events. Firstly, outside South Asia, these events have not been discussed or covered at all. Even within South Asia they have received very little coverage. Secondly, the brave Peter Tatchell aside, hardly any western activists or campaigners have bothered to mention or discuss these events. Thirdly, western governments have kept their mouths shut.
From a Pakistani perspective there are anomalies too. The primary reason the Pakistani government gives for not launching a military campaign against Taliban-linked terrorists in North Waziristan is a lack of a national consensus for such action. Yet there has been no public debate or attempts to seek a consensus for the military assaults in Baluchistan.
In other words, Pakistan is happy to crush a largely nationalist and secular insurgency but gets cold feet when it comes to dealing with a brutal Jihadist one. The campaign against Baluchi separatists illustrates what many critics have suspected for a while; if Pakistan really wanted to rid its North West Frontier Province of Taliban linked militants, the types that shoot school girls and aid workers, it could.
It is worth noting then, that Baluchistan is of great geo-strategic significance to Pakistan. It contains oil and gas fields, it shares a lengthy border with Iran and Afghanistan, and, most importantly, it also contains the strategic sea port city of Gwadar. This city has recently been developed as a major deep water sea port at the cost of $248 million. Millions have also been invested in Pakistan’s road and rail infrastructure. Gwadar provides a route to sea for oil and gas from land-locked Central Asia, via Afghanistan. It also provides a route to sea for Chinese exports, allowing China to by-pass the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca.
Pakistan therefore stands to profit if it can suppress the current Baluchi demands for more autonomy and it is doing just that in an increasingly brutal fashion. Western governments can say very little as long as they are reliant on Pakistani co-operation with the war in Afghanistan. Western activists also seem to be saying very little since western governments aren’t complicit in the crimes.
Unfortunately for the Baluchis, that’s just the way it is.
Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH