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Why Balochistan is so crucial

india Updated: Jan 11, 2007 14:27 IST
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Balochistan seems to be in the news for all the right or wrong reasons. Is it because it straddles Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan borders the Arabian Sea and is a vast and sparsely populated province occupying 43 per cent of Pak territory?

A large part of United States military operations in Afghanistan are launched from the Pasni and Dalbandin bases situated on Baloch territory. For the Taliban, Balochistan is a fertile landmass and sanctuary. The logic is simple. If the pressure on Western forces in Afghanistan were to become intolerable, Washington and its allies could always use the Baloch nationalists, who fiercely oppose the clerics and Taliban, to exert diplomatic pressure on Islamabad and Tehran. In addition, three fundamental issues are fueling this Baloch crisis: expropriation, marginalisation and dispossession.

Although Balochistan houses only 4 per cent of the Pakistan populace, it is economically and strategically important for India too. It is a potential transit zone for a pipeline transporting natural gas from Iran-Turkmenistan to India. Two of Pakistan's three naval bases, Ormara and Gwadar are situated on the Baloch coast.

Located close to the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Gwadar is expected to provide landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asian countries outlet to the sea. The Gwadar complex would substantially diminish India's ability to blockade Pakistan in wartime. It would also substantially increase Chinese supply lines to Pakistan by sea and land during a conflict. Hence Balochistan would also diminish India's ability to isolate Pakistan from external support in any maritime conflict.

Some even consider Gwadar in the southwest of Pakistan to be a Chinese naval outpost on the Indian Ocean designed to protect Beijing's oil supply lines from the Middle East and to counter the growing US presence in Central Asia. Islamabad has always cried hoarse from rooftops that the Indian secret services were maintaining terrorist camps all over Baloch territory.

Since India, a traditional enemy, reopened its consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar, it has been suspected of wanting to forge an alliance with Afghanistan against Pakistan. India may want to exert pressure on Pakistan's western border to force it to give up once and for all its terrorist activities in Kashmir and bring the 'composite dialogue' to an end on terms favourable to India.

Recent editorials in the Pakistani and West Asian press have continued to refer to India, but they also have expressed suspicion about Iranian and American involvement.

India considers the Sino-Pak entente cordiale in Balochistan, a quid pro quo to Beijing's surveillance post on Myanmar's Coco Islands to keep a watch on India's maritime activities and its missile tests in Orissa.

The Indian Navy has expressed fears that ties forged by the Chinese navy with India's neighbours might endanger India's vital sea links to the Persian Gulf. Iran and Pakistan have a common interest in exporting Iranian gas to India and any insurrection in Balochistan would only harm their chances of building a gas pipeline through the province.

Many Pakistani analysts feel Washington might use Balochistan as a rear base for an attack on Iran and would also like to get China out of the region. That is also disastrous for India.

The American position is equally perplexing. Are they opposing the Baloch nationalists because they are supported by Iran or are they supporting them because they are hostile to the Chinese? Or is it a continuation of the 'Great power game' being played in Central Asia since the Soviet breakup? Proponents of this view believe that the United States, in competition with China and Iran, would like to control the oil supply lines from the Middle East and Central Asia.

If Balochistan were to become independent, would Pakistan be able to withstand another dismemberment, thirty-four years since the secession of Bangladesh and what effect would that have on regional stability? Pakistan would lose a major part of its natural resources and would become more dependent on the Middle East for its energy supplies.

India may be tempted to look at the further partition of Pakistan as an opportunity for forging a new anti-Pak alliance. An insurgency in Balochistan might force Islamabad to resolve the Indo-Pak imbroglio over Kashmir.

But a redrawing of regional boundaries could revive fears of irredentism in Kashmir and in the Northeast that a resentful Pakistan would be only too eager to exploit.

Despite the secular nature of Baloch nationalism, the United States is apprehensive about the likelihood of a war for independence complicating the US fight against Islamic terrorism in the region. If the United States were to embark on a military action against Iran, it could also utilise Pakistani Balochistan for conducting subversive acts in Iranian Balochistan.

For the United States to accomplish this, the Pakistani province would have to remain tranquil and not pose a peril to the well being of Washington's allies.

Our surfer Chiranjib Haldar is content manager, Tata interactive systems and can be contacted at chiranjibh @tatainteractive.com.

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