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How Pakistan’s New Army Chief Can Resolve the Conflict in Balochistan

Pakistan’s new Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, will have a critical role in working with the federal and the provincial governments to restore peace in the country’s southwestern Balochistan. He has two options while going forward: Realistically evaluate the situation in Balochistan; analyze the threats, risks and challenges and find a solution or, as a second bad option, willingly stay uninformed by listening to sycophants in Balochistan’s government and security circles who will try to convince him that all is well in the province.

Let’s begin with some of the key challenges General Bajwa should be aware of while grappling with Balochistan.

First, the Pakistan army currently has a tarnished reputation among the Baloch population. That ruined reputation needs to be improved. Deep anti-military sentiments in Balochistan among the Baloch date back to the misrule of General Musharraf. While Musharraf launched and accelerated the ongoing phase of the decade-long military operation in the province, his successors did not abandon the use of force or provide room for political negotiations. As a result, according to national and international human rights groups, intelligence agencies ended up in abusing official power, engaged in forced disappearances and committed extrajudicial killing of thousands of Baloch activists and young professionals.

Since the departure of the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Balochistan has not had a powerful champion in Islamabad to condemn forced disappearances and use his official authority to urge concerned government departments to resurface the disappeared Baloch.

This is General Bajwa’s moment to win the Baloch hearts by prioritizing the recovery of the missing Baloch persons allegedly in the custody of various intelligence agencies and the Frontier Corps (FC), a federal paramilitary force. An intervention on his part to end all forms of extrajudicial practices, enforced disappearances, torture and killing in official custody will earn him such admiration from the Baloch that no military operations would be required to achieve such desired results.

Second, during the past six months, Balochistan has experienced a dramatic rise in the activities of the Islamic State (IS) and its local affiliates. Although government officials continue to deny the existence of the Islamic State in Balochistan, the death of hundreds of innocent people who were killed in at least three big terrorist attacks cannot be denied. It does not matter whether the surge in violence emanates from our neighboring countries, as regularly claimed by government authorities, or is perpetrated by local terrorist groups; the armed forces have a responsibility to protect all citizens.

Unfortunately, lawyers, policemen, worshippers and unarmed civilians have lost their lives because of perpetual denial and incompetence of the security establishment. If the primary job of the army is to guard the country’s borders, professional commitment, competence and leadership must be demonstrated to defeat the rising tide of the Islamic state regardless where its core leadership is hiding and directing these attacks. The rise of the IS should truly alarm us because the extremist group has expanded its operations beyond Quetta, the historical hub of militant attacks. Balochistan shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan. If the Islamic State deepens its roots inside Balochistan, that means a regional confederacy of Islamic extremist organizations will emerge to destabilize Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Third, currently there is a complete breakdown of dialogue between the Pakistani government and Baloch nationalists. The Baloch have been fighting for their independence from Pakistan since 2004. If there is one lesson to be learned from the Pakistani government’s policy of carrying out military operations in Balochistan, it is this: excessive use of force exacerbates the situation instead of fixing it. General Bajwa should encourage the federal and the provincial governments to resume the negotiation process with exiled Baloch leaders. That requires a complete ceasefire. The army should take that initiative so that the ball is thrown in the court of the Baloch nationalists. He must acknowledge and also remind the political leadership that using the military power, infrastructure or intelligence apparatus against fellow citizens is not wise and sustainable even according to military strategy textbooks. Armies are meant to be used against enemies, not one’s own people. The sooner Pakistan learns this lesson with respect to its dealings with the Baloch, the better.

The Pakistan army should halt all military operations across Balochistan in order to pave the way for a political settlement of the ongoing conflict. The more the army uses violence to crush Baloch political opponents, the more this policy will embolden hardliners among Baloch nationalists. (This is precisely what they want — a prolonged war). It is important to isolate hardliners on all sides by creating room for such a political solution that is led by the civilian government, fully backed by the army and acceptable to all stakeholders, including the armed Baloch groups and the leadership in exile.

Fourth, death squads created reportedly by the intelligence agencies to counter Baloch nationalists, mainly in the District of Khuzdar, seem to have resurfaced in recent past. These squads are responsible for hundreds of killings of Baloch nationalists and also the mass graves found in Khuzdar. Whoever suggested the security establishment to form such death squads surely did not offer helpful policy advice. General Bajwa must dismantle all these anti-nationalist militias across Balochistan so that only state institutions, not non-state actors, perform the task of law enforcement. These death squads have exceedingly manipulated the context of the conflict between the army and the Baloch. They have exploited the government’s trust, reliance and enormous resources to settle personal, tribal and political scores with their local rivals. The state must not rely on any private militias to enforce its writ. Collaboration between the state and these death squads is deeply disturbing given the reports that the head of one of these groups has deep admiration for and close connections with radical jihadist elements in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Fifth, Balochistan is one place where the military has stretched itself by interfering in the affairs of the civilian government. There is barely the inauguration of a development project or a press conference where the chief minister or provincial ministers and secretaries are not escorted by men in khaki. These scenes are reminiscent of old martial law days. Elected leaders must not be forced to work under the shadow of the army. This is demoralizing and degrading for people voted in public office.

Actually, beneath the omnipresent army is hidden an extremely corrupt and inept provincial government. As long as the army is willing to write the Balochistan government’s homework, there is no way the latter will ever develop its capacity to run the province that has gained renewed attention because of the multi-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). If dependence is a poison, the Balochistan government has had an overdose of it. No matter how many schools and free medical camps the army establishes, that will not be an alternative for the actual job the provincial government should be doing.

When former Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif dismissed six army officers, including two generals who had served in Balochistan, from service over corruption charges in April 2016, it became clear that corruption among men in uniform was as prevalent as it was among the civilians. Corruption among local officials in is so rampant that earlier in May this year the anti-corruption body, the National Accountability Bureau, found Rs 630 million and jewellery worth nearly Rs40 million from the Finance Secretary’s residence. This was all money stolen from the government treasury. Interestingly, what happened to those sacked generals afterward still remains a mystery. In a democracy, people must be informed where the public wealth is kept and what punishment was awarded to those who breached the public trust and misused their official authority. Accountability within the army initiated by the former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, must continue.

General Bajwa, who was commissioned in 16 Baloch Regiment and served as an instructor at Quetta’s Command and Staff College, must address the issue of Baloch underrepresentation in the Pakistan army. Ironically, the Baloch Regiment hardly has any ethnic Baloch officers in its ranks. To give the Baloch a sense of ownership and participation, General Bajwa must include Baloch youth in the army through a special recruitment program. Historically, the Baloch have had generous recruitment offers and brighter prospects and opportunities of promotion in the armies of Gulf countries as compared to the Pakistani army. It is this reason that more Balochs are serving in the armies of Gulf countries rather than the Pakistan army. That Baloch talent and manpower can be redirected if the Pakistan army treats the Baloch with respect and trusts them in positions of authority.

General Bajwa, who will be aided by Lieutenant General Shahid Baig Mirza as the new Commander of the Southern Command in Quetta, will have enormous professional challenges and responsibilities. By limiting the army’s role to its professional responsibilities, ending and investigating human rights abuses carried out by units of the security forces and fully backing a negotiation process with the Baloch nationalists, they will be giving peace a chance and opening a new chapter of hope for a province that has seen darkness, despair and perpetual violence for more than a decade. (Courtesy: Huffington Post)

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