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Balochistan trouble concerns US, S Arabia too

The trouble in Balochistan, by a series of contiguities, links up with the central theatres of concern to Saudi Arabia, France and the US.

world Updated: Jan 16, 2006 14:48 IST
Saeed Naqvi (IANS)
Saeed Naqvi (IANS)

The escalation of Pakistan military action in Balochistan brings the wheel full circle from the historic meeting in Acton Town Hall, off London, in September 2000, addressed by among others Sardar Ataullah Mengal, the Baloch leader and convener of the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM).

Others on the platform were Altaf Hussain (MQM), Mehmood Khan Achakzai (Chairman, Pakhtoon Khwa Milli Awam Party) and Sindhi leader (son of the late GM Shah) Syed Imdad Mohammad Shah.

The meeting, they declared in unison, was the "second burial of the two nation theory". Mengal added: "The first burial was the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971."

"Since independence (in 1947)," Mengal told me in an interview on the margins of the meeting, "we have been oppressed by a provincial (Punjabi) army". The time had come for a final settlement: "Give us equal rights or give us independence!"

All the speeches in Acton were in this vein.

The momentum generated at Acton weakened because exactly a year later 9/11 happened, altering all regional calculations. The powerful heads of the Mengal, Bugti and Marri tribes watched from the sidelines the unfolding situation.

The trouble in Balochistan, between the tribals and the Pakistan Army, has been brewing since January 2003.

Just as the Acton meeting was pushed off the TV screens and newspapers by 9/11, the tribal-army clashes were obscured by the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. All the headline space was grabbed by Afghanistan and Iraq.

Indian viewers and readers first learnt of the deteriorating situation in Balochistan when helicopter gunship and artillery began to pound tribal strongholds, inviting a comment from India.

The Acton wheel comes full circle because Ataullah Megal, currently in Pakistan, has contacted MQM leaders in London to "revive the Acton platform".

The presence of the US in the region complicates matters further. US troops have been crossing the Afghan-Pakistan border for unilateral action against the rebels in Waziristan, aggravating resentment against the Pakistan Army and the US across contiguous provinces.

Tensions within Pakistan are rising at a time when India-Pakistan people-to-people diplomacy has acquired unprecedented momentum. What could be worrying for both sides, however, is the presence in Pakistan of the Indian cricket team.

As Pakistani cricketing legend Imran Khan says, "Cricket is a cementing force when relations are tension free".

In some ways this is a unique situation: India-Pakistan relations are by and large tension free. But Pakistan is itself tense on account of the volatile situation in Bolochistan, Waziristan and protests against the Kalabagh dam gathering elsewhere.

Disturbances in Balochistan once again underscore Iran's importance in one more theatre of enhanced American activity. Not only do Iran and Pakistan share a sizeable border in a strategically vital region but there are Baloch tribes in Iran as well.

The Indian consulate in Zahedan (Iran) is, from this point of view, strategically located. North of Zahedan, right up to the holy city of Mashad, Iran has an extended border with Afghanistan where the security situation is again deteriorating, right under American noses.

The border where Americans require Iranian restraint most (whatever the public rhetoric coming out of Washington) is along the Iraq border.

The security situation in Iraq grows from bad to worse. The much advertised "landmark elections" held December 15 have not yielded a result yet. Two more weeks will be required to produce a parliament and a power structure acceptable to Sunnis, Kurds and Shias.

Even powerful American think tanks linked to Washington policy makers are now convinced that a three-way division of Iraq is inevitable.

According to Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment, for instance, the sensible course open to the US is to "help form a viable Sunni region". By her logic a Shia entity in the south and a Kurdish state in the north are now unstoppable.

Little wonder then that Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said in Ankara that an autonomous Kurdistan would destabilize southeast Turkey and the entire Kurdish region.

Already Turkish businessmen are winning lucrative contracts from Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani. The new airport at Suleimaniyeh and the National Assembly building at Arbiel have been built by Turkish contractors. Whatever, Abdullah Gul might say, Turkish business interests are making southeast Turkey indistinguishable from northern Iraq.

Imagine then the anxieties in Saudi Arabia where the oil rich Damman area is contiguous with the Shia parts of Iraq.

These are the concerns that will be playing on the mind of King Abdullah when he visits New Delhi to be the chief guest at India's Republic Day January 26.

So, the trouble in Balochistan, by a series of contiguities, links up with the central theatres of concern to Saudi Arabia, France and the US, each one of whose leaders will be in New Delhi in the coming weeks.

(Saeed Naqvi is a political and diplomatic commentator. He can be reached

First Published: Jan 16, 2006 14:48 IST