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Barely an eyebrow was raised last summer when the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) became the 41st group to be proscribed as an ‘international terrorist organisation’ under the UK Terrorism Act 2000. The decision was not debated in parliament. Had it been, we might have heard more on the spiralling conflict in Baluchistan and the accusations that Pakistan is committing ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and a ‘slow motion genocide’ against the Baluchi people. We might also have questioned the UK’s motives for proscribing the BLA.
Baluchistan is split across western Pakistan, eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan. Much like the Kurds, the Baluchis are victims of empire, with their resource-rich territory conquered and divided by successive regional powers, from the Persians to the British. It was British colonial rule that determined the modern political geography of Baluchistan, in the 1947 agreement with India that created Pakistan.
The Baluchis resisted their forced assimilation into Pakistan and by the time Bangladesh had gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, they too were demanding greater autonomy from the political elite in Punjab. President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s refusal to grant any meaningful powers to Baluchistan’s first elected body in 1972 resulted in a bloody five-year war in which 3,000 Pakistani soldiers, 5,000 Baluchi fighters and many more civilians were killed.
The Pakistan air force carried out strikes throughout rural Baluchistan and napalm was used as part of a ‘scorched earth’ policy. Iran, concerned about the future aspirations of its own Baluchi minority, also joined the military action. The war ended in 1978 when General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who had ousted Bhutto in a military coup, offered an amnesty to Baluchi fighters.
Almost 30 years on, despite producing more than one third of Pakistan’s natural gas and accounting for only six per cent of the population, Baluchistan remains the country’s most impoverished region. In recent years, acts of violence against the continued presence of Pakistan’s military have increased. These include attacks by the BLA on power facilities, railway lines and military checkpoints. Alleged financial assistance to Baluchi fighters from India and countries in the west, renewed designs on the exploitation of Baluchistan’s natural resources and the presence of Taliban fighters have all fuelled tension in the region.
Following the alleged rape of a Sihndi doctor by a soldier at a hospital in Sui, in January 2005, Baluchi guerrillas launched a crippling attack on the Sui natural gas production facility, Pakistan’s largest. President Pervez Musharraf’s retaliation was swift and merciless. Warning that ‘this is not the 1970s’ and promising that ‘they will not know what’s hit them’, he dispatched Pakistan’s F- 16s and helicopter gunships (newly supplied by the US) into the mountains and deserts of Baluchistan to deliver the kind of collective punishment now all too familiar in occupied lands.
In the past year six Pakistani army brigades and a 25,000- strong paramilitary force have been deployed. Local groups claim that 450 Baluchi politicians and activists have been ‘disappeared’ and that more than 4,000 Baluchis are in detention, many in secret locations without charge or trial. As winter approached, Unicef called for immediate UN food and medical aid to 84,000 Baluchis displaced by the troubles, including 33,000 children, but the federal Pakistani government repeatedly blocked or ignored requests from aid agencies for permission to operate in Baluchistan.
Last August, 79-year-old Nawab Akbar Bugti, a tribal chief, former governor of Baluchistan and leader of its largest political party (the JLP), was assassinated in targeted Pakistani air-strikes. In December, two more prominent nationalist leaders were arrested.
Iran has also stepped up its repression of Baluchi activists, arresting hundreds and sentencing many to death; public executions are commonplace. Last week it emerged that the extradition of Rashif Rauf, he of the alleged plot to bring down airliners using liquid explosives fame, could be dependent on Britain returning several prominent Baluchi activists to Pakistan.
The Home Office website provides the following explanation for designating the BLA as ‘terrorist’: ‘BLA are comprised of tribal groups based in the Baluchistan area of Eastern Pakistan [sic], which aims to establish an idependant [sic] nation encompassing the Baluch dominated areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.’
The failure even to describe the geography of Baluchistan correctly reflects an ignorant quid pro quo with General Musharaf: we need his help with our ‘war on terrorism’, so we support his.
This position is at best counterproductive, and at worst reckless. Pakistan’s crackdown on moderate and anti-Taliban Baluch and Pashtun nationalists is strengthening the Islamist forces that coalition forces are fighting in Afghanistan, while the ISI (Pakistan’s internal security agency) is widely believed to provide extensive support to the Taliban. With crude geopolitics like this, who needs enemies?