The “Disappeared” of Balochistan

The “Disappeared” of Balochistan

Most Americans have no idea where or what Balochistan is. And the news that 14 Baloch activists were hanged by the Iranian government on July 14th after a monkey court trial for alleged terrorism has largely escaped the notice of the U.S. media.

It would have escaped my notice, too, but I have a personal connection to the Baloch, whose ancestral territory overlaps the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. In 2006, I travelled with friends to Quetta, Pakistan.

It was supposed to be a personal trip, but our host, the Khan of Kalat turned our two week stay into a primer on the current situation in his region, once a princely domain, now the largest province in Pakistan. We met with historians, tribal leaders, and attended a jirga hosted by Baloch independence leader Sardar Attaullah Mengal

The Baloch are fighting for their autonomy (both publicly and underground–there’s a Baloch political resistance and also a guerilla movement, the Baloch Liberation Army), and getting slammed from several directions at once. The Pakistan government doesn’t want the region to break away (Balochistan sits atop a king’s ransom in gold, natural gas, and strategic minerals, and it also controls a strategic corridor between China and the ocean–the Chinese are sinking big bucks into developing the new port city of Gwadur, on Baloch territory).

The Pakistani government has kept the poor, scrubby region woefully underdeveloped–they’ve built an expensive pipeline to suck out Balochistan’s natural gas, but spend almost nothing on the region’s water, roads, infrastructure. And the Pakistani military has been “disappearing” Baloch nationalists–journalists, politicians, and leaders of the activist Baloch Student Organization. The number of disappeared is in dispute–depending on the source it is between several hundred and several thousand. Baloch youth who are involved in politics know that at any moment they may be snatched away for“First Night of Torture Cell”.

In Iran, the Baloch are Sunni Muslims in a majority Shiite land. Just as the Chinese use their ethnic minorities (like the Uighur) as scapegoats to draw attention from domestic problems, the Iranians have been using the Baloch to send (c.f. above cited Guardian article) a “chilling message about the readiness of the Islamic Republic to act ruthlessly to defend its core interests during this time of domestic upheaval in Teheran.”

I don’t have time or space now to spin the nuances of the Baloch struggle in detail (I’ll return to it periodically)–this post is really meant as a “heads up” to alert all of you to an under-reported issue that will be getting more exposure in the coming months. The Baloch struggle has been popping up with increasing frequency ,and as the MSM follows the Obama administration and moves its resources from Iraq out to Afghanistan/Pakistan, it will be coming up more often.

Speaking of the Obama administration, where do they stand on the question of Baloch autonomy? So far, their position doesn’t seem to be all that different from the Bush administration, which is to avoid doing anything to offend Islamabad. Meanwhile, savvy observers of the region wonder whether Balochistan, its riches and the Chinese geo-political connection might have something to do with the U.S. shift back to the Afghan theater.

There are a few pieces of misinformation out there, however, that you should keep an eye out for. The first is that the Baloch are harbouring the Taliban, which has famously set up operations in and around Quetta. (Over the last few years, about the only press that Balochistan has gotten has been this Taliban-terrorist angle.)

While it’s true the Taliban are in Quetta, they’re not there because of the Baloch (who are NOT fundamentalists), but rather because of the Pakistanis, who are happy to have them there. The Taliban’s presence has given the Pakistani government a convenient excuse to keep lots of troops in the region to intimidate–and “disappear” the Baloch resistance. (And to keep getting money from the U.S. to pay for these troops).

Another bit of misinformation (for instance, in Seymour Hirsch’s New Yorker articles) is that the U.S., via the CIA, is somehow bankrolling the Baloch resistance. While it’s hard to prove this one way or another, the impression I got during my talks with the Baloch in 2006 was that the CIA money story was a lie, encouraged by the Pakistani (and Iranian) government to discredit and marginalize the Baloch resistance. The tribal leaders we spoke with (three of the biggest five in the region) indeed seemed genuinely puzzled about what the U.S. wants in the region. (And where to go and who to talk to to get their side of the story heard).

Nor does the resistance show evidence of being either well funded, or trained by specialists (they blow up natural gas pipelines and attack Pakistani army convoys now and then). But the meme that the Baloch are terrorists, Taliban and/or agents of the CIA (or the Indian government) keeps repeating.

And Baloch keep disappearing.

 

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