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Explosive Western Frontiers

The impact of Western Frontiers on Pakistan ? if it does not handle the situation with political adroitness ? could be suicidal.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2006 19:00 IST

Pakistan's "Western Frontiers" today are in an explosive state as manifested by the armed rebellion in the Waziristan Region of the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan.

Violent uprisings are also taking place in the so-called Northern Areas, which formed part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir.

While strategic analysts and media analysts have focused individually on the explosive situation in each of these regions, there seems to be an absence of an over-all integrated analysis of Pakistan's explosive Western Frontiers and its impact, particularly on the United States and its policies in the region.

It also has implications for China, India and Iran. The impact on Pakistan, if it does not handle the situation with political adroitness, could be suicidal.

At the outset, for international observers, the point needs to be made that Pakistan's Western Frontiers do not rest on India, and hence Pakistan's propensity to blame India for all her ills, would be misplaced in this case.

This paper attempts to present an integrated analysis of the explosive state of Pakistan's Western Frontiers on the major powers stated above.

But first, a brief examination of the geo-strategic significance of Pakistan's Western Frontiers.

Pakistan's Western Frontiers: The geo-strategic significance

Pakistan's western frontiers commence from the Gwadar Bay on the Iran-Pakistan border on the Arabian Sea.

The frontier runs initially northwards towards Saindak, than briefly takes an eastern delineation, till short of Quetta. It then swings in a north-easterly direction towards Chitral and Gilgit (Northern Areas).

Beginning from the South, Balochistan shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan; the NWFP shares borders with Afghanistan; and Gilgit shares borders with Afghanistan and China. Chitral and Gilgit provide the Southern base of the Wakhan Corridor.

Historically, neither Balochistan nor NWFP opted for Pakistan, when it emerged as a separate state in 1947.

Use of military force by Pakistan in the former and last minute political machinations by the British Governor in the latter, led to their emergence as the western peripheral regions of Pakistan.

Gilgit and its surrounding regions were annexed for Pakistan by the British officers of Gilgit Scouts, a frontier militia.

As a result of the above these three regions have remained in active turbulence since 1947. Today, Balochistan freedom struggle is in a fifth stage of armed rebellion.

In NWFP, the Waziristan region in which are located the sanctuaries of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban, is in a "semi-independent state" with Pakistan Army's entry prevented by armed resistance.

In the general area of Gilgit and its surroundings, the Balwaristan freedom movement is active. In NWFP there has been a running demand for an independent state of Greater Pakhtunistan.

These important geo-strategic regions of Pakistan's western frontier have remained grossly under-developed.

The major reason being the "Punjab-centric" priorities of successive Pakistani Governments, a condescending disdain for the fiercely independent tribes which inhabit these regions and Pakistan getting away with all this, because these regions had a strategic utility for United States military needs in the region; and hence a permissive American attitude to Pakistan's high-handedness towards these regions.

Pakistan persists in a state of denial on the explosiveness of its Western frontiers. Be as it may, but the fact remains that this explosiveness has a serious impact on United States political and military strategies in the region.

US critically impacted

The United States has maintained a deafening silence on the explosive state of affairs in Balochistan where the Pakistan Army has been using American supplied gun-ship helicopters for attacking and napalm-bombing of the Baloch independence movement.

The United States is silent on Pakistan's inactivity or reluctance to flush out the Al-Qaeda and Taliban from Waziristan.

Pakistan Army grudgingly targets the Al-Qaeda foreigners only, but scrupulously spares the Pakistani Al-Qaeda and Taliban cadres.

The United States today faces two major challenges in South-West Asia, namely, the political and military stabilisation of Afghanistan and its emergence as a moderate Muslim democratic state model; and secondly, United States perceived Iranian nuclear challenge threat.

United States political and military strategies to meet both these challenges would be heavily dependant on stable western frontiers of Pakistan in Balochistan and NWFP.

It is not obtainable today as a result of the personality of Pakistan's military dictator, General Musharraf.

It would be fair to state that Balochistan and the NWFP have become markedly explosive during Musharraf's military regime.

The United States policy establishment is seemingly failing to distinguish that in the very regions where it is being permissive of General Musharraf's military waywardness, are the very regions, which are crucial for the execution of United States military strategies in relation to Afghanistan and Iran.

The United States is therefore presented with two different sets of strategic dilemmas by Pakistan's explosive western frontiers, namely:

Balochistan must be preserved as a stable strategic entity to further United States military strategies in the region.

Waziristan should not be permitted to become Pakistan's future launch-pad for Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

United States strategic planners are competent enough to devise appropriate actions to secure the above American interests.

It may even call for some harsh options. While moving away from this aspect, it would be pertinent to state that the United States should have a special interest in pre-empting the emergence of Balochistan as a Chinese strategic outpost, which the Pakistan Army is presently inclined to assist, despite being United States "most trusted ally".

China needs to worry about Pakistan's turbulence

China in the last four decades has invested heavily in Pakistan's strategic utility as a regional spoiler state.

Today, China stands actively assisted by the Pakistan Army in converting Balochistan into a Chinese strategic outpost in the Gulf Region, with special reference to Gwadur naval base.

With Balochistan in armed rebellion including targeting of Chinese personnel in the region, and Balochistan's strategic utility in American military designs, the stakes are stacked against China.

Similarly, the violent political turbulence in the Northern Areas and the Islamic Jehadi activities in NWFP has serious spill over effects on China's hold on its Muslim majority province of Xinjiang.

The major impact of these developments on China could lead to a re-assessment of Pakistan's strategic utility and a revision of China's South Asian policy formulations. This is an opportunity itself of far reaching strategic importance for China.

Iran adversely impacted militarily

For Iran, the explosiveness of Pakistan's western regions is both a threat and an opportunity in terms of military impact.

It is a threat if it leads to resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan via Pakistan's covert connivance in letting Waziristan emerge as a springboard for this purpose.

It is an opportunity for Iran to stoke the fires of Baloch nationalism in Balochistan and develop it as a strategic counter-pressure point against Pakistan to arrest Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan.

In both cases, Iran would have to re-cast its military strategies and deployments on its borders with Balochistan and Afghanistan.

The impact on India, the remaining major power to be examined, would be done after discerning the impact on Pakistan.

Pakistan's continued explosiveness is suicidal

Pakistan, even after sixty years of independence is a fragile state, largely, due to its own acts of omission and commission.

Pakistan in all these decades could smugly indulge in military adventurism against its predominant neighbour India, chiefly because its western frontiers were not explosive.

Today, Pakistan faces explosive volatility on its western frontiers as a result of a combination of factors:

Under development of western frontier regions due to "Punjab Centric" over-riding priority policies.

"Punjabi imperialism" perceived by western regions due to Pakistan Army high-handedness to find military solutions to political problems.

General Musharraf and Pakistan Army's increasing unpopularity perceived as acting as "American Stooges" against Islamic interests.

It is no wonder that both in Balochistan and NWFP the Islamist parties could come into power in the last elections.

Events in Balochistan are being foreseen even by Pakistani strategic analysts as a re-run of the 1971 civil war, leading to the emergence of the breakaway Bangladesh (former East Pakistan).

Pakistan's revived strategy of Taliban resurgence via the Waziristan route may result once again in an over-stretch of Pakistan Army, continued explosiveness in NWFP and generate in its wake many crucial contradictious in Pakistan, domestically.

Pakistan would be suicidally dooming itself if it does not rein-in the explosiveness of its western frontiers by politically realistic policies.

There is no scope for military adventurism in these crucial regions.

India: Opportunities and threats

India has both threats and opportunities emerging from the explosiveness of Pakistan's western frontiers.

The major threat to India would be a further and added boost to Pakistan's proxy war in J&K and terrorism all over India. This could be prompted by three reasons.

Firstly, as a desperate measure to divert Pakistani domestic attention from the explosive western regions to a threat from India.

Secondly, as a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived misreading that India is behind the Balochistan armed struggle against the Pakistani rule.

And, thirdly, to prevent India form politically interfering in the Pakistani-sponsored Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

In terms of opportunities, even though some may view it as perverse, the impact could be:

Pakistan's military strength would be diverted from the eastern frontiers with India to Pakistan's explosive western frontiers.

Pakistan Army's domestic image would suffer as it increasingly gets engaged in civil war - like operations and its propensity for atrocities.

Pakistan would be offering Balochistan to India as a political counter-pressure point.

As a tangential spin-off, India could gain by a re-assessment of China's South Asian policies and a further reinforcement of US-India strategic partnership as a result of American frustration with its unstable Pakistani ally.

Tangentially, it could also possibly lead to Pakistan becoming more amenable to a realistic India-Pak peace dialogue minus the Kashmir obsession. The last would be a spin-off from a strategic bind on both it flanks.

Concluding observations

Pakistan today is at a historical cross-road. It could either pull itself out of the self-created political and military mess or as Pakistani strategic analysts foresee, could drift into a repeat of its 1971 misadventure of a break-up of Pakistan.

In the case of the latter, the consequences for Pakistan would be suicidal. Unlike East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which was a distant separate limb, ethnically and culturally, the western frontiers are different.

Unlike East Pakistan which had borders largely with India, the western frontier regions are contiguous to a number of countries and provide the western flank to Pakistan proper.

Pakistan's Western Frontiers are geo-strategic regions in which inter-sect the strategic interests of the United States, China and Iran; in a way even India's.

Hence the explosiveness of these frontiers does not remain a solely Pakistani domestic concern. It has serious external implications for all these countries.

More than any other nation, where both threats and opportunities arise from the explosiveness of Pakistan's Western Frontiers, the United States has only threats arising from the developing situation.

The United States national security interests in South West Asia, and in particular, Afghanistan and Iran are severely impacted.

In this developing explosiveness in Pakistan's western regions, the United States needs to painfully realise that American national security interests far outweigh the prevailing American mindset of the Pakistani military dictator's "indispensability" to USA.

He is not the solution, he is the problem itself. The United States may be forced with the prospects of some hard solutions.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst)

First Published: Feb 09, 2006 21:18 IST