New Taliban rule and Balochistan
While, the Taliban’s [re]conquest of Afghanistan in recent times will indeed leave some far-reaching geopolitical and economic implications on the region, its prospective consequences on Pakistan’s domestic politics and internal security will also be extensive.
The Baloch insurgency in Balochistan is a critical issue with deep-rooted consequences in political and security spheres of Pakistan.
I would argue how the Taliban rule affects the Baloch insurgency in Balochistan – as a fifth wave of insurgency has been going on, though with lower intensity, since 2002.
Given the new scenario, and the opportunity it may likely to create, what should be the overarching strategy and approach of the Government of Pakistan and security establishment on one hand and nationalist forces in Balochistan on the other hand to amicably resolve this long and bloody conflict once for all.
The relationship of the Baloch separatist movement with Afghanistan has a long history.
It goes back at least to the very outset of Kalat State annexation with Pakistan in 1948 when Prince Abdul Karim, the younger brother of the then Khan of Kalat, travelled through Shorawak’s terrain, a north-western region of Balochistan, to take abode in Afghanistan in order to wage a guerrilla style warfare to fight against the Kalat annexation.
Similarly, in the early 1970s when the National Awamy Party-led coalition government was dismissed after just nine months of its formation by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, another separatist movement erupted in Balochistan.
Sardar Khair Bukhsh Marri, a powerful Nawab of Marri tribe and a revered political figure in Balochistan, took a self-exile refuge in Afghanistan along with thousands of Baloch separatists to lead a revolt in Balochistan against security forces.
Fast-forward in 2002, when the first Taliban regime was already toppled by the US-led coalition forces, the fifth, and somewhat the largest, armed resistance broke out in Balochistan.
Pakistan’s official position has invariably been that external forces from Afghanistan support the Baloch insurgents, and latter have camped their training and resting centres in Afghanistan.
This might not be possible without certain degree of complacency from the recently ousted regime in Afghanistan.
So, the Baloch separatist movement has a long association with Afghanistan and has invariably benefited from Afghan soil.
In so far as the new Taliban regime is concerned vis-à-vis Baloch separatists bases in Afghanistan and any foreign support that the former were getting through Afghanistan, the Taliban are probable to be less accommodating, if at all, and therefore wary of their presence in Afghanistan.
They are likely to clampdown the training camps of the Baloch separatists reportedly located in Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar, forcing them to relocate either to neighbouring Iran or South-western part of Balochistan.
Hence a strong control of the Taliban in Afghanistan will have consequential implications on the Baloch separatists and weaken them substantially.
While significantly changing geopolitical situation in the region may weaken the Baloch insurgency, it provides the Government of Pakistan with a unique opportunity to approach the Baloch separatists as well as nationalist political parties’ leadership for a harmonious and long-lasting resolution of Balochistan conflict.
Last month Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the Government of Pakistan was considering holding negotiations with the estranged Baloch nationalists.
However, despite the PM’s announcement with hopes to woo the Baloch separatists to negotiations in a rapidly changing politics in the region, not any noticeable and tangible initiative has been taken by the government to reach out to the Baloch insurgents for serious talks.
This reflects a grim lack of interest to addressing Balochistan issue through meaningful and constructive engagement.
Coupled with changed geostrategic imperatives, the separatists may also be stressed and the people of Balochistan are long frustrated from almost a two-decade conflict, the government and military establishment – the latter may bear responsibility, as they are believed to call the shots in Balochistan’s matters – should capitalise the space to abandon their security-centric approach in favour of political rapprochement in the province.
Just to start the process of reconciliation the government may take three main steps:-
First, as correctly pointed out by the PM during his last visit to Gwadar Balochistan’s issue has always been an economic and political in nature and, therefore, must be seen as such.
It goes without saying that the people of Balochistan are the most impoverished in Pakistan with devastatingly poor social and economic indicators.
The economic empowerment of the common people in Balochistan is a critical issue and, therefore, must take the central importance in any policy approach to the province.
While recently announced Rs 600 billion development package by the federal government for southern districts of Balochistan has profound significance in this regard, yet given the poor governance with high level of corruption and misuse of public resources at the provincial level, the federal government must have a comprehensive vision to conceive and implement the development projects to avoid any misallocation and local capture so that the package bears some tangible outcome for economic betterment of the province.
High level of unemployment, especially among the educated youth, is considered to be an underlying factor of disillusionments and grievances among the Baloch, which cause them to join insurgent organisations.
In the absence of any expanding private sector, employment opportunities are severely restricted.
The package should have a clear strategy to exploit vast potential that Balochistan can offer to create employment opportunities.
Second, there is serious dearth of politics of engagement and participatory governance in Balochistan.
The current provincial government, hand-picked by establishment, is not only corrupt in financial dealings and inept in governance, but also enjoys no legitimacy for any representation.
To foster the process of reconciliation, nationalist forces should be given a fair political space to compete for representation.
Third, for meaningful negotiations with separatists the leadership of nationalist parties with some legitimacy of representation got to be taken on board.
The provincial government cannot be trusted in political affairs, so may not be given any mandate on such sensitive issues. Balochistan experienced enough of isolation and misery. It is time to integrate and build.
It is about time that they are given ownership within the parameters of the Constitution of Pakistan to eliminate the deprivation of the masses in general.
—The writer is a political economist and currently serves as dean at Lasbela University, Balochistan