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Baloch Could Divide Administration and Congress on Pakistan Policy

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According to Western diplomats and policy experts, the State Department's recent remarks on human rights violations in the Baloch region of Pakistan are as far as the U.S. Government and Obama Administration are willing to go in support of Baloch separatism. Absent a complete rupture in U.S.-Pakistan relations, the Baloch's best option to secure American support now rests with Congress. If the Baloch can tie their cause to the larger Congressional efforts to undermine U.S. aid to Pakistan, they could force the Administration to re-evaluate its current policy approach. Organized outreach to think tanks, non-governmental organizations, universities, interest groups, and media outlets would support such efforts. The Baloch are quick to point out that they are making progress on these fronts, such as Congressman Gohmert's statement in support of Balochistan's independence following the State of the Union. But, experts point out that a successful lobbying campaign will require the Baloch diaspora to rally around stronger leadership and demonstrate a deeper financial commitment. Until they can take on such responsibility, experts do not believe they can fully capitalize on anti-Pakistani sentiment in Congress and secure stronger American support for their cause.

Assessing State's Commitment

Since 2004, the Baloch have been engaged in an ongoing insurgency against the Pakistani government. This is the fifth insurgency since the partition of India and many Baloch now appear unwilling to accept anything short of independence. Their cause has gone largely unnoticed in the West; overshadowed by the war in Afghanistan, the conflict in the North-West Frontier Province, the lingering Kashmir situation, the Pakistani and Iranian nuclear programs, and the larger War on Terrorism. But, in the last year, the Baloch diaspora have rallied around two actions by the U.S. State Department which they believe demonstrate increasing U.S. support for their cause. The first is the ongoing effort by the U.S. State Department to open a consulate in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. The second is U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland's public remarks on Balochistan on January 13, 2012.

While the opening of the U.S. consulate would enhance U.S. engagement in Balochistan and Ms. Nuland's remarks are a clear acknowledgement of U.S. concerns over the human rights situation in the region, Western diplomats and policy experts caution the Baloch not to misinterpret the State Department's commitment to their cause. The State Department has not expressed concerns for genocide in Balochistan, as that would have legal consequences. Furthermore, from the perspective of Andrew Eiva, an experienced Washington lobbyist, there is still no "movement toward supporting Baloch independence at the State Department. Like Sudan, there is instead a strategy of piecemeal negotiations to divide the resistance, maintain the policy of stability, and oppose regime change." In his view, even the consulate push for Quetta should be interpreted as an attempt "to temper Baloch aspirations" rather than buoy them.

Eiva is not alone in this opinion. When asked to comment, a senior Western diplomat formerly based in Pakistan reinforced these views: "Ultimately, the Baloch are looking to weaken the Pakistani state. I don't think the United States is looking to weaken the Pakistani state. If anything, they want to make it stronger. The whole Holbrooke effort was to help the Pakistani state become more effective at governing their country."

While some Baloch might harbor hope that the souring of relations between the U.S. and Pakistan could give impetus to support for Baloch independence, the Western diplomat downplays such notions: "Pakistan is still an ally of the United States. The Americans are going to work with Islamabad on what is going to happen in Balochistan. Go back to Ms. Nuland's statement. That's as far as the Americans are going to go with this."

In fact, the Western diplomat believes that the current low in U.S.-Pakistan relations will further undercut support for the Baloch cause in the Obama Administration: "The Americans have enough on their plate with Pakistan as it is without Balochistan. Especially now that relations are at a low point, the American focus is on getting that relationship back on track not on making things more difficult. President Obama has been clear on what U.S. interests are in Pakistan and number one is getting al-Qaeda. The Americans are not looking to weaken that effort and everything in Pakistan must be viewed through that lens."

The Baloch diaspora is not without voices who share these concerns. Malik Siraj Akbar, a Baloch journalist in the United States, is one of them. He argues that "the Baloch community is blowing State Department comments out of proportion. They think there has been a U-Turn on U.S. policy but there hasn't been one. As this point, the U.S. might be concerned about human rights but they do not support independence. I don't think there has been a policy shift."

Exploring Congressional Options

While the Administration and the State Department might not be willing to serve as stronger advocates of Boloch interests, the community is not without options. In speaking with prominent members of the Baloch diaspora in the United States, a variety of alternatives appear under consideration. Perhaps the most promising is Congressional outreach.

Dr. Wahid Baloch, President of the Baloch Society of North America, believes that the Baloch have made significant progress on this front in the last two years. In addition to his personal outreach to Vice President Joe Biden, late-Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressmen Gary Ackerman, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Brad Sherman and Russ Feingold, Dr. Baloch cites recent comments by Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) as examples of increasing support for the Baloch cause. According to Dr. Baloch, the community is even "working to create Congressional Caucus on Balochistan within the next year. I believe it will be bi-partisan and help to advance our case even more."

One of the strongest proponents of the Congressional option is Eiva. Given the growing discontent within Congress over the Pakistani aid, he believes that the Congress could be persuaded to take up the Baloch cause if for no other reason than to undermine the continued flow of aid to Pakistan: "There are 40-50 Congressmen who are sympathetic to such causes. Some have (already) called our South Asian policy an upside down policy. Even though Pakistani aid is now locked in for a five year run, there have been sparks of rebellion. Pakistani aid is vulnerable." In his view, it is unfortunate that thus far the Baloch have not taken advantage of the improving conditions in Congress to further their cause.

If the Baloch diaspora is serious about effecting a shift in U.S. policy, Eva stresses that they need to raise the funds necessary to introduce legislation in Congress that would tie their cause to larger U.S. foreign policy interests in the region: "The Baloch need to pull together 2-3 times more money than they have already raised. They then need to hire a professional lobbyist and draft a legislative mechanism that ties the Baloch cause to five or six other American interests in South Asia. These interests could include the prevention of genocide, stopping the spread of Islamic extremism, promoting an independent and economically viable Afghanistan, mitigating the threat of the Pakistan nuclear program, and countering Pakistani efforts which undermine counter-terrorism cooperation."

Once the Baloch diaspora marshal the funds necessary to get individual Congressmen behind such a bill, Eiva believes they could be successful: "Congress might consider legislation that says the U.S. should be on the side of freedom and that Pakistan has not supported American interests in the region. Friends of the Baloch could lead such an effort with the backing of influential members of the diaspora and link it with other efforts aimed at cutting Pakistani aid. The argument that American jets, gunships, and bullets have been used in the genocide against the Baloch would help get us to the tipping point."

Other Policy Alternatives

Outside of political mechanisms, the Baloch in the United States are promoting a number of other policy and non-policy initiatives in support of their cause. While the Baloch diaspora does not appear united and mobilized around these initiatives right now, prominent Baloch in the American diaspora claim that there are efforts underway to do so. Ultimately, their success almost certainly will hinge on whether the Baloch can organize around these issues and garner the requisite funding and support to advance them with external stakeholders.

Ahmar Mustikhan, a vocal Baloch activist, is an advocate of a number of the most prominent policy alternatives: "Despite the budgetary crunch, the minimum the U.S. can do in its own long-term interests is to launch the Voice of America Balochi Service, re-start the USAID program, open its consulate in Quetta, talk with Baloch leaders when it comes to Balochistan, and help the Baloch escaping persecution in both Western (Iranian) and Eastern (Pakistani) Balochistan."

Unfortunately for Baloch activists, experts point out that the majority of these alternatives still require active support from the U.S. Government. While there is the possibility that some of these efforts will eventually succeed, the Western diplomat that I spoke with does not think that the Baloch should expect U.S. government backing anytime soon: "I don't see why the Americans would support those ideas. There has to be a motivation. The exile groups might think that these should be done by the Americans and Europeans should do these things to support their cause. But, I am at a loss as to why they think the Americans and others would be motivated to do them. Just look at Ms. Nuland's statement." Furthermore, experts suggest that even the initiatives that can be achieved will have to be implemented in a way to minimize blowback from the Pakistani government.

Even U.S. Government participation in conferences supporting the Baloch cause appears off limits at this time. According to a former senior American defense official with direct knowledge of the U.S. State Department's current policy approach on Baloch affairs, the Department of State is unlikely to allow U.S. government officials to participate in an upcoming Baloch conference in the United States this summer without a complete reconfiguring of the conference agenda to eliminate any ties to the Baloch separatist movement and internal-Pakistani politics.

For these reasons, experts suggest that non-government initiatives are far more viable for promoting the Baloch cause. Such efforts could include setting up new Baloch programs at Western and Indian think tanks, adding Baloch courses offered by South Asian Studies departments, starting private Balochi language media outlets, reaching out to U.S. and foreign media, and promoting Baloch cultural programs and exchanges. Some of these efforts may be in the planning stage but few have been implemented.

That said, the Baloch diaspora point out that their cause already is garnering increased recognition by international non-governmental organizations and think tanks. Dr. Baloch points out that the former U.S. diplomat Chris Mason on the Center for Advanced Defense Studies recently called for an independent Balochistan. The human rights violations in Balochistan also have been raised by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Asia Society. All of these efforts are helping to generate increased awareness for the Baloch cause, which the Baloch diaspora hopes will eventually put external pressure on the State Department and Obama Administration to take stronger action in support of Baloch interests.

Uncertain Outlook

Ultimately, experts assert that the success of the Baloch diaspora to garner U.S. support for their cause will depend upon whether the movement can unify, mobilize, and act in a coordinated manner to achieve a prioritized set of high-impact policy objectives and non-government initiatives. According to many observers, including Malik, this will require stronger leadership and organization within the diaspora: "The Baloch in the West do not have people who are willing to take responsibility for the movement. The problem is that the self-proclaimed 'leaders' in the United States have very few followers and the Baloch abroad do not accept them as leaders."

Baloch journalist Muatasim Qazi argues that the diaspora's success may also hinge on the Baloch leadership in Pakistan, Europe, and the Gulf recognizing that their cause ultimately depends on Western support: "The Baloch leadership should concentrate their efforts in lobbying for their cause in Washington if they want to succeed in their movement. They need to convince US lawmakers how an independent Balochistan would defend U.S. interests in the region." He was not alone in voicing this concern.

When asked to share his outlook on whether the Baloch will overcome these challenges and gain U.S. backing for their cause, Eiva puts the odds at 40%. But, he stresses that number would have been just 20% before the United States and European Union were successful in their intervention in Libya last year. He also points out that the odds would rise to over 50% if there stronger leadership emerged within the U.S.-based diaspora.

But, others do not share Eiva's optimism. In the words of the Western diplomat, "There seems to be a tremendous effort by the expatriates to bring in outside forces. But, if you look at Ms. Nuland's statement, this is an internal issue for the Pakistanis to resolve. The U.S. is going to deal with Islamabad on this. There is no reason for the U.S. to go off that path given the current direction of that relationship. ... The Americans are not looking to be the world's policeman. It is not a priority like the bilateral relationship with Pakistan or all of the issues with Iran. The exile groups are looking for a place in there but I am not sure that they are going to get it. They are trying to draw the West into issues that the West is not looking to get into."

This raises an interesting question: Has the current U.S. policy approach in effect given Pakistan the green light to violently suppress the Baloch without fear of reprisal? The Western diplomat says no; arguing instead that the State Department appears to be signaling that the U.S. views the Baloch issue is simply an internal issue for Pakistan to resolve. However, when pressed on the issue and asked what level of violence would force U.S. Government intervention, the response is far less reassuring: "I don't know what that line would be because there are such bigger issues for the United States in Pakistan."

In the face of such odds, it is not surprising that Baloch diaspora are resigned to a long, drawn-out campaign. In my conversations with the Baloch diaspora in the United States, Miran Gichki probably articulated this best when he said, "One must understand that the Baloch cause cannot be achieved in the next ten years - it will take a lifetime." His comments reflect the depth of the Baloch nationalist commitment, which was not lost on the British over a century ago and should not be lost on the Americans and Pakistanis today.

Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at CSIS and as vice chair of the International Correspondents Committee at the National Press Club.

Follow him on Twitter: @ASEANReporting