Malik Siraj Akbar interviews the author of the report The State Versus the Nation published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington DC-based think tank.
Dr. Frederic Grare is the author of the recently published report Balochistan: The State Versus the Nation published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington DC-based think-tank where he is the Director and Senior Associate of the South Asia Program. Dr. Grare had previously written another important report on Balochistan, Pakistan: The Resurgence of Baluch Nationalism. Malik Siraj Akbar spoke to Dr. Grare about his report on Balochistan and the future of the conflict. Excerpts.
What is the significance of your report on Balochistan for the international community, particularly for an American audience?
The conflict began in 2005 and was expected to last only for a few weeks but it has now entered its seventh year. The Americans do not want to cause a more diplomatic and military confrontation with Pakistan at a time when they are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan. Moreover, a good deal of logistics for American troops stationed in Afghanistan still passes through Balochistan.
Balochistan is a real problem with a local background and history but its current incarnation seems absurd to many. The current outburst of violence was not something inevitable. The turmoil in Balochistan illustrates poor conflict management on the part of the Pakistani military. In fact, the military runs the whole country in a similar fashion by creating issues out of non-issues and eventually failing to resolve them once they become too hard to manage.
What is the difference between the current Baloch uprising and the past insurgencies?
It is true that Balochistan has had a troubled relationship with Pakistan since the country’s creation. But in many ways, today’s conflict seems artificial. The socio-economic grievances could have been addressed through negotiations rather than by force. The army launched an operation against a so-called separatist insurgency with no separatist claims (although such claims existed in parts of the movement). As a result of today, the issue is real because the most radical elements among the Balochs have gained prominence in Balochistan, and the most moderate organizations have themselves been radicalized.
Why do you believe that the Baloch movement does not have the capability to succeed in terms of breaking away from Pakistan? it?
I certainly do not see the capability in the Baloch movement to break away. The Baloch nationalist movement is weak and divided. It is divided between radicals and moderate. Radicals are divided among themselves. The movement does not seem to have a clear strategy either.
On the one hand, if the Baloch nationalists are unable to gain independence the army is also unable to stabilize the province. Currently, it is a lose-lose situation which should logically lead to negotiations between the two sides. However, there are no foreseeable signs of negotiations between the Baloch and the army.
In your report, you have proposed the formation of a permanent U.N. observer mission in Balochistan. Islamabad would not appreciate such recommendations as it would view it as a clear violation of its sovereignty.
The Pakistani establishment talks about sovereignty whenever it suits its own interests. With sovereignty comes responsibility and Pakistan has not demonstrated that responsibility while dealing with Balochistan. There is obviously no trust between the Baloch and the army. If the Pakistani government denies its involvement in what the Baloch nationalists blame it for, such as enforced disappearances and targeted killings of political opponents, then it should not be afraid of the proposed U.N. mission in Balochistan. If the establishment admits that such a policy existed in the past but has now been stopped, Islamabad should accept a U.N. permanent mission as a way to rebuild confidence building and pave the way for future negotiations with the Baloch. But even the appointment of a U.N. observer mission will not necessarily lead to bringing peace to Balochistan. This is just one of the many measures that need to be taken to re-establish trust.
You have also argued that most of the Baloch seek maximum provincial autonomy over absolute independence.
If you look at the origin of the current conflict, it was all about the Baloch demand for increasing the gas royalty, ensuring greater Baloch representation in the mega projects and ending the construction of military cantonments. Today, we have gone far away from those initial demands and no one is talking about them anymore.
Independence may be a dream for a number of Baloch but polls seem to demonstrate that the majority of them would accept more autonomy within the Pakistani confederation. It is unclear to me whether Baloch really believe independence is achievable and a number of Baloch leaders believe that freedom it is not. One of the consequences of the current conflict is that the only voices that can be heard are the Baloch who want independence and among them, the voices of the most radicals. This situation paradoxically serves the army.
How do you evaluate the role of the Supreme Court (S.C.) of Pakistan in taking up the issue of enforced disappearances?
So far, no institution has been able to correctly deal with the situation in Balochistan. However, the Supreme Court played an important role in bringing the Balochistan issue in public attention. At the same time, I was struck by the fact that Mr. Ifthakar Mohammad Chaudhary, the Chief Justice, refused to meet with a United Nations delegation that visited Balochistan to investigate the cases of enforced disappearance. His behavior was similar to that of the intelligence chiefs. The S.C. has an ambivalent behavior toward Balochistan. To be fair, I think the S.C. should be credited for at least speaking up about Balochistan. Whether or not the S.C. interventions led to the recovery of the missing persons and the improvement of the situation is debatable.
During your research, you must have spoken to the Pakistani civil and military leadership. What is their stance on Balochistan? How do they interpret and justify their Balochistan policy?
Islamabad has always blamed what it calls a handful of greedy tribal chiefs for the unrest in Balochistan. The tribal chiefs’ issue is a part of the problem but it does not explain the causes of the whole conflict. The uprising has been quite intense on the Mekran coast which was in fact not a tribal area. Tribal system in central Balochistan is also not as strong as it is in Kohlu and Dera Bugti districts but there too, the resistance to Islamabad’s policy was quite strong. Many people outside Balochistan agree that Balochistan had not been treated fairly and they are willing to compromise on socio-economic issues even if they oppose the idea of Balochistan’s separation. Until 2005, there was not a single Baloch demand which was not negotiable.
Do you now see a change in the behavior of most Pakistanis toward Balochistan?
If you read Pakistan’s English press, you realize that Balochistan is much more popular outside Balochistan than it was in the past. There is more empathy for the Baloch today as compared to the past. Part of this change in behavior is because of the people’s rejection of the army’s policies. Besides the Balochistan issue, there is generally a change in public perception of the Pakistan military. The people have begun to openly criticize the military, holding it responsible for many of Pakistan’s problems. Since the nationalist movement does not show the promise and the capability to achieve independence, this fact has increased the level of empathy for the Baloch elsewhere in Pakistan.
Pakistan often blames foreign countries, such as India, for creating unrest in Balochistan. Did you come across any such evidence while conducting your research?
Well, the claim of foreign involvement in Balochistan has been there since the beginning. The Pakistani government officials have not had a consistent stance on Balochistan. For instance, in 2004, the then Balochistan governor, Awais Ahmed Ghani, said there was no problem in the province but the next month he said that there were several training camps in Balochistan which were allegedly run with the assistance of the Indians. The Pakistani government has never publicized any evidence of Indian involvement in Balochistan. Even if there is foreign involvement, it does not negate the fact that Pakistan kept Balochistan under development for several decades. Foreign powers are not responsible for Balochistan’s backwardness and bad treatment by the central government. There had always been ample genuine reasons for Balochistan to revolt.
What were some of the biggest surprises while researching your paper?
The blindness of the military. I can understand their willingness to keep Balochistan within the Federation. No country accepts easily separatist tendencies. But I don’t think there was any reason to push the situation to the extent it has gone. As already said, all the initial motivations of the conflicts were negotiable. Military action and excessive use of force have given prominence and undue credit to the most radicals among the Baloch. Pakistan has succeeded in dividing the Balochs to the extent that Islamabad no longer seriously worries about Balochistan’s break-up but the fact of the matter is that the risk of separation did not exist in the first place. It was created because of imprudent policies. The call for separation has come only in the wake of Pakistan’s blind use of force against the Baloch. Now, Balochistan has become such a mess that the Pakistani authorities do not know what to do with it. The military created the mess and now expects the civilian government to deal with it. The government, on its part, sees it beyond its control to manage the conflict. The problem with the Pakistani elite is their failure to give the country a positive sense of nationalism. You cannot convince people to be proud Pakistanis through repression.
Where do you see Balochistan five to ten years down the line?
I think Balochistan risk becoming a complete power vacuum if it is not already. Some areas of Balochistan will be totally out of control. In order to reestablish trust, the Baloch nationalists have to be included in the provincial government. But this will produce the desired effect only if they can deliver something to the population, in the form of greater autonomy, within the federal framework for example. It remains to be seen whether this year’s elections will produce the desired outcome.