Prime Minister Imran Khan has appointed Shahzain Bugti of the Jamhoori Watan Party, an ally of the PTI government, as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on “reconciliation and harmony in Balochistan”. The announcement came following a trip to Gwadar by the PM to review “development” work in the province. This was also the occasion to oust the sitting Governor of the province, Justice (retd) Amanullah Khan Yasinzai, with whom there were running tensions, and replace him with a PTI loyalist, Zahoor Agha, with business interests.
The federal government’s attempt to “reach out” to diffuse “angry” Baloch dissidents waging war against Pakistan from safe border havens in Afghanistan and Iran is backed by the Miltablishment which is deeply worried about the deadly frequency of insurgent attacks. This issue has acquired a degree of urgency in the wake of the American departure from Afghanistan and India’s bid to consolidate its foothold and assets in the post-American dispensation. Therefore Islamabad has upped its public diplomacy about the “foreign hand” behind terrorist attacks in Pakistan – as for example the recent attempt to bomb the Lahore house of Hafiz Saeed, the anti-India jihadi leader and alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attack on 26/11, 2008, by pointing the finger squarely at India. It is also credibly alleged that the Baloch separatists are funded and trained by India.
Under the circumstances, we should not dismiss out of hand any attempt by the government to bring disgruntled Baloch elements waging war against the Pakistani state back into mainstream Pakistan politics. We have been there before. When the Khan of Kalat, Ahmed Yar Khan, refused to sign the document of accession to Pakistan shortly after Independence in 1947, his resistance was brushed aside and he was “incentivized” into mainstream Pakistani politics. But federal promises were not kept. Much the same thing happened to the Baloch tribal resistance against the imposition of One Unit in the mid 1950s – the rebellion led by Nauroz Khan petered out after the state pledged amnesty and compensation, but his sons were executed and he died in prison a few years later. In 1973, after rebellion broke out in the Marri areas following the dismissal of the democratically elected National Awami Party provincial government by Islamabad, the top Baloch leaders were arrested and the NAP was banned. But soon after General Zia ul Haq seized power in July 1977, his first act was to free the detained “rebels” and “traitors” from Hyderabad prison and grant them general amnesty on January 1, 1978. But, again, promises of compensation and accommodation in the organs of the state were not kept. This stream of broken promises has served to radicalize the rising urban Baloch middle class and steer them into mainstream Baloch nationalist political parties. But the state has not been ready to “trust” them with provincial power, dividing and ruling at will. Faced with another potential rebellion, President-General Pervez Musharraf ordered the elimination in 2006 of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a former high level state asset who had now become “unmanageable”. This triggered a Bugti tribal revolt that allied with disgruntled Marri sardars and tribesmen, slowly spawning an Afghanistan-based insurgency supported by the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies as counter-leverage against Pakistan’s pro-Taliban and pro-Kashmir jihad policies. Now, faced with acute danger from the unravelling state in Kabul, Islamabad is once again offering some sort of “reconciliation and harmony” to the “angry” Baloch dissidents.
But so much blood has been spilled on both sides in the last decade, and so many Baloch families devastated by the “disappearances” of hundreds of loved ones, that mutual trust is in very short supply. Certainly, Imran Khan has not helped the cause of reconciliation by closing the door on those Baloch insurgents who are “linked to India”. But all the insurgent groups are linked to either Indian or Afghan intelligence agencies for training, sustenance, arms and ammunition. It may be recalled that a decade ago, Harbeyar Marri, one of the leaders of the Baloch resistance self-exiled in the UK, publicly admitted that he would accept assistance from India or America or the devil himself to further his cause for an independent Balochistan. This line of thinking and action is to be expected. Separatist or resistance movements in history have invariably sought safe havens in neighbouring countries and relied upon foreign governments to aid and abet them. In our own neighbourhood, Pakistan has provided such support to the resistance in occupied Jammu & Kashmir for nearly thirty years and to the Afghan Taliban for nearly two decades. So this caveat effectively makes such an offer of reconciliation a non-starter. Why then has it been made?
Shahzain Bugti’s disgruntlement with the PTI has been progressively worn on his sleeve. Indeed, he was edging closer to exiting the alliance with the PTI in the same manner as Akhtar Mengal did last year when he took his party into the PDM camp. It now makes good propaganda to designate a scion of the Bugti tribe, whose tribal leaders are in revolt, as a SAPM, and it makes good tactics to offer amnesty to the insurgents on the eve of a Taliban seizure of power in Kabul who may be subsequently leveraged by Pakistan to withdraw support to the insurgents. By linking reconciliation to cutting ties with India, Islamabad is incentivizing them to think seriously about laying down arms and returning home. Will this ploy work?
The anti-Pakistan forces based in Afghanistan – Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Baloch separatists, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda – are not about to disband or clutch at any parachutes made in Pakistan. Everything will depend on how long it will take for the Ashraf Ghani regime backed by the international community led by the United States to collapse and for the Taliban to extend their control over all of Afghanistan. Even then, the Taliban are likely to take into account Pakistan’s role in this critical period in aiding or hurting their cause before deciding how to treat these groups. Much will also depend on the domestic and foreign policies of the Taliban post-seizure of power and consolidation.
In short, Imran Khan’s offer of “reconciliation and harmony” to the Baloch through the offices of Shahzain Bugti is a non-starter, for now at least.