Quetta Front & the Baluchi Factor

As fighting in Afghanistan, particularly the south, intensifies U.S. policy-makers are beginning to shift their gaze to Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan and wondering if the northern regions of Baluchistan are – like the FATA on Afghanistan’s eastern border – serving as a Taliban haven. U.S. officials have even claimed that Taliban head Mullah Omar and his top leaders are living in Baluchistan’s capital Quetta.

This has, unsurprisingly, set off a spasm of denials in Pakistan along with the immediate conclusion in Pakistan that the U.S. was planning drone attacks in Quetta. Not helpful, in the context of American attempts to attach conditions to aid in the Kerry-Lugar bill.

Old News
Two points about this “new” front. First, Quetta should have been on the radar screen from the beginning – back in May 2003 The New York Times reported on Taliban gathering in Quetta. The reporter Carlotta Gall and her Pakistani photographer Akhtar Soomro were beaten up by Pakistani intelligence agents for their trouble.

Pakistan’s Other Insurgency
The second point is that most of the articles speculating about the Taliban leadership residing in Quetta ignore the ongoing Baluchi insurgency in the province. This is not an irrelevant point. The northern part of Baluchistan is dominated by Pashtuns the tribe that spreads across much of Afghanistan and into the NWFP and FATA. Quetta, the provincial capital, is primarily Pashtun but close to the Baluchi/Pashtun fault-line. The Baluchis have never particularly wanted to be a part of Pakistan. This interview with an underground Baluchi rebel leader gives some background as to the depth of Baluchi resentment against the “Punjabis” and the way their activities in Baluchistan are perceived. This article by a Pakistani journalist expands on these themes, arguing that Islamabad has systematically sought to exploit Baluchistan’s resources while not building physical or social infrastructure in the province that benefits its people. Most interesting, he argues that Islamabad sought to play the Pashtuns against the Baluchis and encouraged Islamist Pashtun groups as a bulwark against Baluchi seperatists.

As discussed on this blog before, Pakistan is rife with ethnic cleavages which complicate its counter-terror and development. The Pakistani army turned against the tribal Pashtuns when they became a clear threat to the state – coming down from their mountain strongholds and into the “settled regions.” But the Baluchistan Pashtuns may still be viewed as an asset, balancing the Baluchi separatists and providing a needed line into the Taliban and Afghanistan should (as many Pakistani strategists expect) the U.S. quit the region.

Books could be written about this – there are no pat policy solutions. But if the U.S. hopes to work with Pakistan to clamp down on this southern haven and generally build a stronger and more stable Pakistan, it will need to consider the Baluchi factor and its impact on Pakistani thinking.

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