Considering the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) sharp ability to amplify and exaggerate even the least significant accomplishments, it is no surprise that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent announcement in Gwadar that he was “thinking” of opening dialogue with the Baluch insurgents has generated widespread excitement about the prospects of peace in Baluchistan.
Since coming into power in 2018, Khan has indeed surprised many with what seemed as his complete disregard for the Baluch insurgency. While he has made headlines for several bizarre comments, from calling Osama bin Laden a martyr to blaming women’s attire for being the reason to attract rape, Khan has tactfully remained silent on a critical issue that has led to thousands of deaths, disappearances and mass migration in and from Baluchistan. Not speaking about Baluchistan is as problematic as speaking about it. Now that he has spoken on the matter, Khan has opened the gates for several outstanding issues that must be revisited to assess whether or not his efforts will succeed in normalizing life in Baluchistan.
Here are some of the critical issues and challenges that need to be considered following Khan’s appointment of Shahzain, a grandson of the former Baluch governor and Chief Minister, Nawab Akbar Bugti.
Chicken-and-the Egg Paradox
Since the insurgency kicked off in 2004 and intensified in 2006 with the killing of Nawab Bugti, this is not the first time that a government in Islamabad is committing to negotiating with the disgruntled Baluchs, often colloquially referred to as naraz Baluch, and bringing peace to the province. (In 2012, Nawab Bugti’s eldest son, Jamil, famously said the Baluchs were not naraz [angry] but bayzar [fed up] with the state of affairs).
However, before speculating if this endeavor will succeed, let’s address the chicken-and-egg paradox.
We don’t know if the PTI government has already done some covert homework on this issue before going public with the announcement. Sometimes, the success of such a process depends on the involved parties’ ability to guard a secret when they are holding backdoor outreach with all stakeholders. They publicize their plans only after getting assurance from the other side of their willingness to participate in the proposed peace talks.
If the PTI has not contacted various stakeholders or identified the key players in the Baluchistan conflict, it has already set itself for failure. In that case, it seems that the government is repeating some of the mistakes made in the past. This approach has been applied in the past wherein the government makes an announcement, generating excitement at various levels, among the public and the media but then waits what comes next out of the announcement. Under that approach, the government bases its entire policy on ‘let’s-wait-and-see’ as to who will respond approvingly to its offer and then take it from there. Not identifying key stakeholders, issues and proposing solutions ahead of making a public announcement are blunders that can potentially derail any peace process even before it kicks off. This gives the insurgents the advantage of embarrassing the government by refusing to spurn the offer to talk under a host of pretexts.
Who Owns the Process
In response to Khan’s call for talks with the Baluch insurgents, one question that has been repeatedly asked, in Baluchistan in general and in Baluch nationalist circles in particular, is how much power he has to negotiate with the Baluch fighters. The elephant in the room is the Pakistan Army. Has the Prime Minister already taken the Army Chief onboard to initiate talks with the Baluch armed groups, or does he intend to discuss it with the Army only after announcing it in public?
Hence, it is important to know who owns the negotiation process. What are the concessions that Khan and the Army Chief are both willing to make to the Baluchs? What are the red lines? Where does the Prime Minister part ways with the Army Chief? Who has a more hardliner view of what constitutes ‘anti-Pakistan’ activities or being an ‘enemy of the state’?
The Prime Minister has already received some criticism from senior analysts like Najam Sethi of the Friday Times for “closing the door on those Baluch insurgents who are “linked to India” as this, Sethi argued in a recent editorial, “has not helped the cause of reconciliation.”
Likewise, former Chief Minister Dr. Malik Baloch, who also spearheaded a past negotiation effort that mysteriously stalled halfway, insists, “I will tell you clearly that the political leadership does not have a solution to Baluchistan’s problem. Only the Army does.”
The Supreme Court also needs to be a part of this process since so much of the debate on Baluchistan has revolved around the issue of missing persons and endless pleas to the Supreme Court to intervene with the human rights crisis in the province. Over the years, sometimes, the Supreme Court (SC) has played a more proactive role than other government institutions, depending on who its Chief Justice of the time was. While the Army and other security forces, unfortunately, use brute force against civilians, the SC has a vital role in preventing human rights abuses and punishing those who abuse their official authority.
Similarly, it is crucial to know who on the Baluch insurgents’ side does or will own the peace process. After all, there is not one Baluch armed group, nor do they all see eye to eye with each other on all matters. For example, reaching peace with the Baluch Liberation Army (BLA) would make no sense if it comes at the expense of ignoring the Baluch Liberation Front (BLF). Thus, for the negotiations to start smoothly and culminate in a breakthrough, it is vital to know what the terms and conditions of the peace process are and if both sides have agreed to adhere to them.
For any project to succeed, it is vital to have a start and an end date. If the government does not have a timeline on when to start and end the negotiation process, the talks will go astray. While the initial days of the announcement are always exciting, a roadmap is needed to keep the negotiation process moving in the right direction. A roadmap must provide more specific guidelines and procedures as to who the government intends to talk to and when, how and where to deliberate over the contents of a proposed discussion with the Baluch insurgents. Where and who will the negotiators go to in case of a deadlock? Who would have an ultimate say in these discussions? Another drawback of the absence of a timeline is the vulnerability of the peace process to be sabotaged by spoilers. Both sides should spend time building confidence and an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance ahead of the talks. Now that the Prime Minister has spoken, Fawad Chaudhry, the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, should have refrained from making unnecessary statements that antagonized some sections of the Baluch. He, in fact, engaged in an extreme blame game with former chief ministers Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Dr. Malik Baloch. Let’s remember that these two Baluch leaders are the lowest common denominators of the “angry” Baluch nationalists. If the government fails to win the support of moderate nationalists, the hardliners will be more challenging to negotiate with.
When reconciliations happen, not everyone gets what they want. Both parties would have to let many things go instead of digging dirt from the past. Despite being difficult, both sides would have to learn to forget and forgive many unpleasant past occurrences. It is equally true for the Baluch insurgency and Pakistan’s military operations in the province. We have to see how much water from the past both sides will carry with them if and when they sit to negotiate with each other. Both sides have called each other ‘terrorists’, killing numerous people, including several unarmed citizens. How easy would it be for the Pakistani security establishment to admit to having sanctioned enforced disappearances, torture, and murder of Baluch citizens in custody for years and now agree to resurface the remaining? How about those who were killed in government custody? Will the Army at least accept responsibility for these atrocities? Will anybody from the security forces be brought to justice for killing Baluch citizens? Will they at least take responsibility and extend an apology or provide compensation to the victims’ families?
Conversely, will the Baluch insurgents apologize to all the Punjabi settlers they drove out of their homes and compelled them to flee Baluchistan? After all, for instance, the killing of the former University of Baluchistan Professor Nazima Talib in 2010 [by the BLA] should not be a mere talking point for Senator Anwaar Kakar. It (and numerous other killings of non-Baluchs) was a horrific crime that should be condemned by all sides regardless of their political beliefs.
How about the fellow Baluchs the insurgents killed by accusing them of being Pakistani agents? So much blood has been shed in these years that one wonders how easy it will be to entirely forget and forgive all the injustices and atrocities that took place during this period. How are the communities going to heal? How long will it take? How will the radicalized youth return to a normal life? How will the Baluch insurgents make a living after coming into the so-called national mainstream if using a gun is all they have learned and practiced during these years? Does the government have a strategy? If it does not, it must formulate one. Because disarming insurgents from the mountains and settling them in cities with no employment prospects and a plan is a recipe for disaster.
Shahzain probably does not have that plan yet. Still, ultimately, he must assemble a task force of psychologists, economists, social workers, and other subject matter experts to guide the government with a post-reconciliation strategy that will focus on deradicalization and reintegration.
Lessons [Not] Learned
There is currently so little literature and data available on the past efforts to advance the peace process in Baluchistan that we are, ironically, mainly relying on anecdotes from the past failures.
Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, who too led a similar effort around 2004 to address Baluchistan’s grievances through peaceful dialogue, tells us that there is a “certain mindset in Islamabad that does not recognize the rights of the smaller provinces.” Former Chief Minister Nawab Aslam Raisani once complained, “I was not given the mandate to resolve problems in Baluchistan or talk to disgruntled Baluch leaders.”
Dr. Malik has multiple sob stories regarding the Establishment’s impassioned stabs to sabotage his peace efforts. Ironically, he has only wonderful things to say about the “angry Baluchs” he approached in Europe as the Baluchistan Chief Minister. He fervently talks about the hospitality and the respect the exiled Baluch leaders offered him. When asked why his efforts as the Chief Minister failed in 2015, he alleged that Islamabad’s mindset is not serious regarding negotiating with the angry Baluch. In a recent interview, he disclosed that the Establishment was then divided into pro and anti-negotiation camps which led to the failure of the entire process.
It is disconcerting why there are so many stories of failure and none of success. What lessons have been learned on why so many competent and experienced politicians from the then ruling parties failed on their mission? What qualifications, credentials and powers does Shahzain have Senators Wasim Sajjad, Mushahid Hussain Syed, Raza Rabbani, Nawab Raisani, and Dr. Malik Baloch lacked?
VoicePk.Net asked me recently what I thought about Shahzain’s appointment. My response was, he is very inexperienced, “both as a politician and a tribal leader. He does not seem to have the rich political experience, the extensive network of contacts and the charisma vital to successfully even initiate a dialogue with Baluch nationalists.”
If the United States seemed so forgiving of the Taliban in its desperate pursuit of a peace deal, the obvious question is if Islamabad will extend a similar gesture to the Baluch insurgent groups. To build confidence with the insurgents, will Islamabad remove the BLA and several other Baluch armed groups from terrorist organizations’ list? This will require rebranding of “terrorists” whom Islamabad will have to sell to the rest of the country as ‘our angry Baluch brothers”. Islamabad spent enormous time and energy persuading the British and the Americans to declare the BLA as a terrorist organization. The government would not want to give the impression of ‘talking to terrorists’, but how useful would talks be if groups like the BLA are not a part of them and ready to disarm? One can have Dr. Malik and Akhtar Mengal appear on as many talk shows on the Pakistani media, but they are not the super angry Baluchs that need to be contacted and reconciled with. The Baluchistan Police Department still has Dr. Allah Nazar of the BLF and Sher Mohammad Bugti of the Baluch Republican Party, among others, listed on its website as the “most wanted criminals” with prize money for anyone who shares any information regarding their whereabouts. Will the government drop charges against these individuals to incentivize their participation in the talks? There has to be an explanation of whether the government’s answer is yes or no.
In his Friday Times editorial, Sethi has refreshed readers’ memories about the long list of betrayals the Baluch faced in their past engagement with the Pakistani governments. Despite repeated promises, Pakistan broke its promises and breached the trust of the Baluch on several occasions. These episodes of betrayal run deep among the Baluch nationalists, which is why there is a persistent push for a neutral venue to hold these talks. In a July 9 column, senior Baluch journalist Anwar Sajid tied the government’s seriousness withholding the reconciliation talks in a third country, like Qatar or the UAE, similar to the recent negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. “These talks should be held in the Oslo style with the selection of neutral facilitators…if the government fails [in the talks], it will unleash ruthless use of force to solve the Baluchistan problem for good.”
Some sections of the Baluch nationalists insist that the United Nations serve as a guarantor for these talks. While Islamabad might be open to talks with the Baluch outside Pakistan, it is unlikely to concede to allowing a third country/ organization to monitor the reconciliation process so that Islamabad is kept accountable for its promises because Islamabad possessively views Baluchistan as Pakistan’s internal matter.
Clash of Narratives
The Pakistani government and the Baluch nationalists have not spoken to each other directly since this insurgency started but what has changed since then is the influx of social media and digital platforms that has made it easier for the public to hear the perspectives of both sides. Had it been for the Pakistani news media, one would not hear a word about what the Baluch insurgents stand for. Social media has provided us a glimpse of their world, which looks completely different from what many consider it to be.
For example, the Baluch armed groups do not pose as victims or oppressed, nor do they cry over Pakistan’s human rights abuses against the Baluch people. An analysis of the Baluch nationalists’ media and literature indicates that they are determined and optimistic about their struggle. One does not feel that they are jaded or desperately seeking forgiveness and accommodation from Islamabad.
“If Pakistan wants peaceful talks with the Baluch, they should recognize the sovereignty of the Baluch nation and withdraw its army from Baluchistan,” demanded the BLF’s Dr. Allah Nazar in a statement in response to PM Khan’s Gwadar speech. “The Baluch nation categorically rejected any dialogue with Pakistan. If Pakistan wanted peaceful negotiations, then it had to withdraw its troops from Baluchistan and accept the sovereignty of the Baluch nation.”
Similarly, Islamabad and the Baluch drastically disagree on the interpretation of ‘development’. What Islamabad views as construction of infrastructure that will open employment opportunities is construed by the Baluch nationalists as a conspiracy to cause demographic imbalance in the province as the development of the Gwadar Port will encourage more people from outside the province to settle there.
The government regularly facilitates or embeds national and international journalists, sportsmen, singers, and celebrities from the film industry, bloggers and vloggers to travel to Gwadar and amplify the government’s narrative and Gwadar’s ‘positive image’. Messages from celebrities like the singer Fakhr-e-Alam to cricketer Shoaib Akhtar have pleased the government, but they have not helped in silencing the perpetual cry of the residents of Gwadar about the lack of clean drinking water or a share in the mega-development funded by the Chinese.
For more than a decade, the government has been assuring the people of Gwadar that help, development and prosperity are on the way. While the government has tested their patience, the Baluch nationalists have conveniently manipulated these vulnerabilities of the local residents.
The Burden of History
It seems history was every pessimists’ favorite subject at high school. No conversation on reconciliation in Baluchistan lasts longer than a minute before the speaker being interrupted and asked, “but what happened to Nawab Nauroz Khan?” While history is supposed to be a record of past events, for the Baluch, it is a part and parcel of their daily lives. The Baluch-Pakistan history is filled with tales of betrayal, misgivings, and repeated breaches of trust. The Baluchs live under the burden of that history. This seems to be the biggest obstacle on the path to moving forward with anything. Talk to anyone, you will get a list of what-abouts. What about the missing persons? What about Zardari’s apology? What about Musharraf? What about Bugti? In the midst of these what-abouts, there seems no person on the Pakistani side whom the Baluch would respect and trust so much that they would sit down with them and believe their assurances. There is a need to divert the conversation from the past to the promise of a better future. Still, the government must be transparent in explaining what that “bright future” would look like for the Baluch instead of speaking in abstract terms like development and prosperity arriving soon or Pakistan’s future being tied to Baluchistan. These rhetorical statements mean nothing in a commoner’s life as neither they translate in clean drinking water nor a firm job offer.
Baluchistan and Its Neighbors
With the Americans withdrawing from Afghanistan, there is a sense of déjà vu how Afghanistan, once a safe haven for the Baluch insurgents, could become uninhabitable. More than a decade ago, Asad Rahman, a member of the 1970s Baluch resistance movement, recalled in an interview with me about a similar situation at that time.
There was no discrimination from the Afghan people [against the Balochs who fled to Afghanistan during the 1970s operation]. They helped us many times. They accepted us as brothers confronted with a hard situation. They supported us, so did the Afghan government of the day. The animosity started much later. We did not support either the Khalq, Percham, the Soviets or Dawood for that matter. When the Mujahideen started fighting in Afghanistan, we were attacked by them in 1981-82. There were quite serious attacks, but fortunately we were all from Balochistan and had weapons to defend ourselves. In 1981-82, the Mujahideen groups were not as powerful as they grew later on. They also attacked us in 1990 and 1991. In 1992, when the Balochs were coming to Balochistan, the families were ambushed by the Mujahideen, which killed a lot of Balochs, including some women. They even threatened to kill Nawab Khair Baksh Marri. Now who was telling them to do all this? Obviously, the government of Pakistan and the military were egging the Mujahideen to target the Balochs.
With the possible return of the Taliban in power in Afghanistan and an increasing presence and influence of the Pakistani intelligence services there, that country will be highly unsafe for any Baluch fighters still hiding there. They will have to leave before the Taliban chase and hunt them down the way the Mujahideen did in the 1990s. That’s only one part of the problem. Conversely, an influx of a large number of Afghan refugees into Baluchistan in the wake of a complete Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will jeopardize or derail any peace talks between the Baluchs and Islamabad. The Baluch have not been pleased with PM Khan’s soft gesture toward the Afghan refugees whom he even promised granting Pakistani citizenship.
Additionally, Quetta, Baluchistan’s capital city, has consistently remained a hub of the Taliban presence since their ouster from power in October 2001. Their presence has hurt the society in Baluchistan, paving the way for a nexus between the Taliban and anti-Shia/Hazara sectarian groups and even some religiously motivated death squads the Pakistani Establishment allegedly used against the Baluch nationalists.
On July 13, Roshan Noorzai of the Voice of America reported, while citing local eyewitnesses, that members of the Taliban movement enjoy sanctuaries in Pashtun areas of Baluchistan. The reporter quoted a resident stating that not only do the Taliban have their bases in madrasas and seminaries in Baluchistan, but they also collect donations in the mosques. “
“The resident, who did not want to be named because he fears retaliation by the militants, said some residents of the town of Kuchlak are in the ranks of the Taliban…locals from all the tribes (living in the town) are with them, saying that they are conducting jihad to establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” he reported.”
Will the Taliban presence and influence in Baluchistan and the use of local supportive armed religious groups increase with the change in the situation in Afghanistan? We probably won’t have to wait long to get an answer to that question as new developments unfold in Afghanistan.
Concerning ties with Iran, a lot depends on how much Pakistan will tolerate anti-Shia sectarian groups operating from Baluchistan. The situation on the Pakistan-Iran border in Baluchistan has been tense due to several reasons. Those tensions can be de-escalated if the economic well-being of the Baluch and open border trade are added as a key component of the proposed reconciliation process.
Jihadism is a serious concern that will most likely emerge as a more serious challenge in the near future in Baluchistan.
(Coincidentally, Shahzain Bugti has been flirting with Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks of 2008, for years. They regularly meet in public, address gatherings and press conferences, and admire each other’s contributions in making the world a better place! Bugti even once unsarcastically told Saeed that his tribesmen would join the Jihad for Kashmir’s freedom.)
Thirdly, China has increasingly become an essential player in Baluchistan. Given its hefty investments in Gwadar under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, frequent attacks by the Baluch insurgents specifically targeting Chinese personnel, infrastructure and interests, the Chinese are growing weary of Pakistan’s inability to deal with the whole situation. Often frustrated with Pakistan’s lack of military action against the Baluch or holding talks with the insurgents, the Chinese are reportedly constantly asking around who among the Baluch insurgents they should talk to. The Chinese don’t seem to think that the Baluch issue is so complicated that Pakistan should not be able to find a quick solution. It’s this reason that they often reach out to people within the Baluch circles seeking recommendations and connections who they should talk to assure the Baluch, contrary to the public perceptions, that the Chinese have no intention to ‘usurp’ the Baluch resources. On its part, Islamabad clearly does not want the Chinese to talk to the Baluch directly.
The Chinese desire for what it views as ‘misperceptions’ about CPEC and its presence in Gwadar has paved the way for a new local industry: think tanks and non-governmental organizations that regularly host seminars and conferences propagating the benefits of CPEC. They plan exchange visits to China for local professionals to see how China is rapidly developing and could be an excellent vehicle for the Baluch to get out of their current state of poverty and backwardness.
Winners & Losers
So, what does success look like? It depends on who you ask. The biggest casualty of the conflict has been the province’s peace and stability. While all other benefits of reconciliation can wait, one thing that everyone across the board desires is justice and peace. These two terms sound very similar, but they are two completely different issues that have overshadowed the conversation on the Baluchistan conflict for so long. Justice mainly refers to addressing and ending the issue of enforced disappearances and bringing back who are still reportedly in the government custody or are unaccounted for, whereas peace pertains to halting the violent operations carried out by the state and non-state actors that have severely affected the lives and livelihood of the masses.
In the past, the government fooled itself by staging fake surrender events in front of the media, arguing that “powerful Baluch commanders” [who were yet unknown to the public] had parted ways from the insurgents and joined the “national mainstream.” We don’t have to be surprised if Shahzain does the same in the coming weeks or months. If it happens, we just have to remember that this is not the first time it is happening! That’s drama, not reconciliation.
For the newly announced reconciliation effort, the government will probably define success based on the two goals: Either get all or some armed groups to give up their struggle against the Pakistani state or bring a few key exiled leaders back to Pakistan. Except for Dr. Allah Nazar, the reported head of the BLF, notable “angry Baluchs’ based overseas include two sons of the late Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, Hyrbyair and Mehran, Brahumdagh Bugti or the Khan of Kalat Mir Suleman Dawood.
I can’t emphasize how overrated and exaggerated the impact and influence of these exiled Baluch leaders is. Having lived away from Baluchistan for more than a decade, they are neither politically or militarily relevant or influential to the province’s political landscape.
Yet, speaking in cricket lingo, persuading any of these leaders to quit the insurgency and return to Pakistan would be ‘big wickets’ for the Pakistani Establishment. None of these figures can influence the local commanders to end the rebellion, but their return would still be symbolic and a big booster for the government.
The next question is, what will happen after that? What’s the ultimate prize these figures will get? What roles and shares will they be given in the power-sharing arrangement? No matter how much the Establishment would be willing to accommodate the angry Baluch leaders, ultimately these people, if they ever return, will still have to fight their political battles on their own. For any of these figures to become the Chief Minister, they will have to contest local elections. They would require at least a few years of hard work to establish themselves on the political battlefield, which is already filled with people with much more experience and connections on the ground than the exiled Baluch leaders. One thing is certain: They will feel very disoriented when they return to Baluchistan, considering so much has changed for good or bad since they left home. Their fight will be that of reorienting and reintegrating themselves in a drastically changed Baluchistan instead of instantly leading the province and its people.
Meanwhile, there is tremendous anxiety among the “assets” of the Pakistani state: politicians that the state patronized to promote an overtly pro-Islamabad narrative in Baluchistan. This includes the radicals, who have been blamed for running death squads across the province and those who created the current ruling Baluchistan Awami Party (BAP). The key question, they have been asking, is where they would go from here. The BAP politicians would justifiably feel betrayed if the government welcomes the “enemies of the state” in the national mainstream. Despite its flaws, the BAP might survive on the political landscape for a longer time not solely because of the backing of the Establishment but because of the inconsistencies and contradictions of the nationalist parties.
Amid all the hoopla about negotiations in Baluchistan, there is an alarming side as well. This process seems heavily engineered for Baluchistan’s tribal elite and not the public. The focus is so much on the province’s sardars, their children and grandchildren that the government seems to be missing the whole point about the province and the common citizen. When Shahzain posts a suggestive picture on Twitter with Shaukat Tarin, Pakistan’s finance minister, days after being appointed as the government’s chief negotiator, that’s intended to communicate with the province’s greedy chieftains that the season of doling out money has come and the finance minister is on his side. The practice of Islamabad pampering Baluchistan’s sardars and nawabs is as old as the history of the country itself. This reconciliation must be a genuine effort to provide relief to the ordinary people of the province, not to double the wealth and prestige of the tribal elite.
While a temporary solution to the Baluchistan conflict would be talking to all the tribal chiefs, this cannot and must not be the roadmap for a brighter future for Baluchistan. The state must not strengthen the Baluch tribal elite again but instead invest in the education and human development of the province and its residents. The pool of educated, employed and empowered citizens must be significantly expanded so that the masses fully own and run the region.
The focus of the dialogue should not be who is angry and who is not, but this should be a moment of deliberation why so much does not work in the province. Why the province’s health and education systems do not take off or why its economy is unable to employ and feed its citizens. Why the province still does not have a reliable law enforcement system? Why are the courts unable to thwart waves of injustice and extrajudicial actions? Working solely with the tribal elite amounts to preparing the ground for another future insurgency in the province as the government strives to extinguish the current blaze.
The writer is the editor of The Baluch Hal
Categories: News & Analysis