Volume 5, No. 5, May 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The disappearances and killings of Baloch activists living in Pakistan and abroad under mysterious circumstances have made headlines in recent years. The surge in cases relating to these ‘enforced disappearances’ highlights the urgency for Pakistan to resolve the grievances felt by the people of the region as it tries to forge an identity away from the US and looks to China for its future growth.
On December 20, 2020, on a winter day during the pandemic, 37-year-old Karima Baloch, a Pakistani Baloch human rights activist living in exile in Canada, apparently decided to take a stroll along the Toronto waterfront at Center Island – a tourist area that was located far from then-mostly locked-down places of business – and was found dead due to drowning. The police ruled out any criminal activity behind her death, but her husband, Hammal Haider, who is also an activist, said that they had received death threats a month before his wife’s death, according to The Guardian.
Eight months earlier, in May 2020, another Baloch activist, journalist Sajid Hussain, was also found dead due to drowning in a river in Sweden, where he’d been granted political asylum in 2019. These two deaths – both newsworthy for having taken place in western countries and involving activists who had been living in asylum – are a drop in the ocean in terms of disappearances of activists from the Balochistan province in Pakistan. Groups in Balochistan believe there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people who have disappeared in Pakistan, with new cases of ‘enforced disappearances’ filed all the time. One western source reported that more than 1,000 activists were “killed and dumped” in Balochistan between 2011 and 2016 alone.
There are many elements to the conflict in Balochistan. Balochistan is on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and has been greatly affected by the four decades of conflict there. It’s the keystone of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which stretches from China to the regional hub port of Gwadar. It’s also the region belonging to the oppressed Baloch minority within Pakistan. At the heart of the conflict, however, is the failure of the counterinsurgency model being followed by Pakistan for keeping the country together.
The British invaded Balochistan in 1839, as part of their 19th-century ‘Great Game’ operations intended to secure and expand their Empire in Asia. Considered semi-autonomous, Balochistan was a tribal confederacy under the State of Kalat, ruled by Mir Ahmad Yar Khan, the Khan of Kalat, who declared independence during the traumatic events of the 1947 partition of India. After an eight-month insurgency beginning in 1947, the Khan of Kalat was finally forced to accede to Pakistan in 1948. Several rounds of armed conflict between Baloch nationalists and Pakistan’s government followed thereafter: in 1958-1959, 1962-63, 1973-1977, and from 2002 to today.
Forty years of often ambiguous alliance with the US in Afghanistan has transformed the Pakistani state, strengthening the covert wings of the country’s armed forces. Since the 1980s, Pakistan has supported the Afghan insurgents. In the 2000s, Pakistan supported American counter-insurgents, and eventually came to support both the US occupation in Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency (which took over control of Afghanistan in August 2021 and has been governing the country ever since) at the same time. Pakistan used a US-modelled approach to deal with Baloch separatism, sponsoring Islamic militancy against secular nationalism in the region and deploying the brutal methods of counterinsurgency.
When I asked Physicist and activist Pervez Hoodbhoy about Pakistan’s approach to Balochistan, he said: “Like the dreaded generals of Latin America, Pakistan’s generals too have learned how to quell insurgencies. Over the years, dead bodies have appeared on the roadsides with marks of torture and many thousand young Baloch men have gone missing, some forever.” On Pakistan’s nudging of rebels against secular nationalism in Balochistan, Hoodbhoy said: “The establishment has wilfully used extremist militant religious organisations like Sipah-e-Sahaba as an antidote to Baloch nationalism. It has worked up to a point – what was once a Marxist-inspired insurgency as…[seen during] the 1973 uprising is now more ethnically oriented.”
Hoodbhoy also identified the local media coverage of the issue as part of the problem: “No journalist who reports accurately on events from Balochistan can expect to live too long,” he said. “In January 2022, Baloch students were rounded up in Lahore, which is many hundred miles away [from Balochistan], after a terrorist attack [a bomb blast in a market area in Lahore that was] likely carried out by the Taliban.”
These methods – covert operations, the infiltration and sponsorship of specific insurgents against one another, media manufacturing of consent of the public against innocent people who have been baselessly implicated in terrorist activities – are characteristic of the US counterinsurgencies carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan. But should Pakistan keep using legacy US methods when it is no longer under any obligation to do so?
Deteriorating relations between the US and Pakistan
The visit of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to Moscow on February 23-24, 2022, at the start of Russia’s war with Ukraine, symbolised the sorry state of the Pakistan-US relationship. This deterioration in relations set in more than a decade ago as the US grew frustrated with Pakistan’s less-than-enthusiastic support for US drone strikes in Pakistan and the inhumane US occupation of Afghanistan.
Former US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said in 2012: “Quite frankly, the Pakistani military and leaders that give safe haven to the mass murderer of Americans [Osama bin Laden] should not expect to be treated with respect,” according to an Al Jazeera article.
Pakistan has been accused of supporting terrorism and faces a tightening noose of financial controls and sanctions through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The US practices financial warfare against allies and enemies alike. As an ally quickly moving toward becoming an enemy of the US, Pakistan is not likely to escape these financial sanctions.
What has put Pakistan fully in the opposing camp to the US is Pakistan’s relationship with China, its so-called ‘all-weather ally’. And the symbol of that relationship is perhaps the cornerstone of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship of which is the Gwadar port in Balochistan.
Writer and political analyst Andrew Korybko has argued that Pakistan is the target of a US hybrid war, one focused on the CPEC and Balochistan, and that Pakistan has been the target of this war since 2015. He told me that Pakistan is now trying to change course from the US iron fist: “Efforts are being made [in Pakistan] to invest more in the region’s infrastructure, both physical and social. Locals feel left out of the country’s recent growth and want a larger share of the wealth that’s derived from their resource-rich and geostrategically positioned region.” Pakistan’s lighter approach, he said, will “be put to the test in Balochistan in the coming future.”
With a growing presence in Asia, Africa and Latin America, BRI deals often involve Chinese banks financing the construction of infrastructure projects in these regions, which are led by Chinese companies, with loans sometimes paid back directly in natural resources such as minerals or petroleum. As former Liberian Minister of Public Works Gyude Moore explained to an audience at the University of Chicago, these loans by the Chinese banks are often rescheduled when they become due.
The BRI is based on the premise that the path to prosperity for poor countries is through win-win solutions – trade deals in which the economically stronger party (China in all cases) does not interfere with the internal politics of the weaker party or country. This means that for all the business being done in the CPEC, the resolution of the Balochistan conflict remains solely Pakistan’s responsibility. China’s approach to separatism within its own borders, in Xinjiang, has been different from the US (or Pakistan’s or India’s) counterinsurgency approach: as opposed to enforced disappearances, assassinations and military operations, the cornerstones of China’s counterinsurgency approach have been vocational training, ‘re-education’ camps, and poverty alleviation.
Because of the comprehensive demonisation of China’s approach by the western media, China’s programmes in Xinjiang have no prestige and are not seen as a model to be followed by any other country. But for the resolution of the issues in Balochistan, viewed by many as ‘Asia’s Next Headache’, is a path based on peace and development possible?
The urgent need of the moment, however, is to turn the heat down in Balochistan. How to cool Balochistan off? I asked Baloch activist and writer Shah Jahan Baloch about what Pakistan should do immediately to dial the conflict down. He came back to me with an extensive list. On the human rights front, the bare minimum includes the release of all missing persons; criminal cases against those who have murdered civilians and activists whether they are in the armed forces or not; the withdrawal of the Frontier Corps and army and its replacement with civil administration and law enforcement, and peace negotiations with the Baloch nationalist parties with international mediation. On the economic side, the army needs to release its control of border trade with Iran and Afghanistan and replace it with ordinary customs authority, fishing and water rights need to be demilitarised, and so, too, do educational institutions and elections. If a long-term solution based on developmentalism is to work, demilitarisation must precede it.
The writer is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. His website: podur.org, Twitter handle: @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.