Prioritizing Peace in Balochistan

06/18/2013 08:30 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2013
  • Saleem H. Ali Chair and Professor, University of Queensland, Australia

Pakistan has become sadly immune to terrorist attacks in terms of the news cycle but a string of bombings in the volatile province of Balochistan on June 15 of this year were particularly alarming. The attack on the final residence of the founding father of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Ziarat, and a bomb targeting a bus of Shia women students at Sardar Bahadur Khan University and Bolan Medical College shocked Pakistanis at home and abroad. Although the two attacks were unrelated, their occurrence a few weeks after the election was not coincidental. Secular Baloch nationalist fighters and anti-Shia fanatical outfits are still intent on driving home the point that they are at war with Pakistan. Though the modus operandi of both groups is terrorism, the Pakistani government must be willing to differentiate between the two in terms of an engagement strategy. The Baloch separatists are driven to violence by a combination of alienation and worldly enticements of resource nationalism. They believe that by gaining independence they would gain control over their natural resources and assert their cultural primacy and become an affluent (and possibly secular) state. The difficulty of reaching these aspirations through separatism and finding alternative paths to addressing grievances of the Baloch can be negotiated through persuasion and tough bargaining.

On the other hand, the anti-Shia fanatical outfits, most notably Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, are driven by absolutist Sunni ideology and it is impossible to negotiate on any terms with them. Their end-game of driving out the Shia population from Pakistan is even more pernicious than the Taliban and is utterly unacceptable. They need to be fought or isolated, through a combination of commando police action to raid their hideouts and to quash their supply routes for arms and explosives. The same is true of the anti-Shia fanatics that are terrorizing Iraq. This must be done in parallel with an enforcement of existing laws against preaching of violence in seminaries and mosques, similar to what is undertaken in many of the Gulf States such as Qatar and Kuwait that have sizeable Shia populations and where Sunni sermons are carefully monitored. Theological differences will always exist and there can be room for debate and critique but preaching of violence should have no place in Pakistani society. It is also important to recognize that the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a pan-Pakistani problem and the disproportionate attacks in Balochistan are reflective of the lack of enforcement capacity in the province.

Now for Balochistan's peace plan - what do we need? First, the existing lack of underdevelopment in the province needs to be explained to the people. The narrative on this matter has been polarized between those who simply blame the feudal Nawabs for their lack of interest in community development and those who scornfully blame the Pakistani army for all ills in the province. As with most complex national phenomena, there is enough blame to go around. The lack of underdevelopment in the province is partly a result of a development strategy that focused on demographic centers for infrastructure, similar to what Nigeria undertook in its most populous regions. Let us not forget that Balochistan accounts for only 5 percent of the country's population. However, without a strong sense of national identity, it was naïve of both the Pakistani and Nigerian governments to not develop the regions from where natural resources were being extracted. This led to secessionist movements in both Ogoniland and Balochistan for similar reasons that continue to persist.

Unlike the United States which has a strong national identity and underdevelopment in resource-rich regions such as Appalachia is countenanced by communities for the greater "national good," the same cannot be said for states with weak national identities such as parts of Pakistan. Genuine grievances of the local population can of course be manipulated by foreign foes and opportunistic expatriates but the blame for the vacuum in leadership to address development concerns must be squarely accepted by the Pakistani State. The current government has a small window of opportunity to work with the newly elected provincial government to develop a peace plan. Education, energy and healthcare must be a priority for the province. The mineral resources, particularly the huge Reko Diq mine should be developed with a new revenue-sharing agreement that gives a much greater share of royalties to the Baloch, similar to how Canada has handled its revenue-sharing due to the Quebec separatist question. A Mineral skills training academy could be developed in Turbat to train Baloch youth and to prevent excessive migration from other areas. It is important to have this academy situated in Turbat rather than Quetta to give empowerment to the hinterland of the province.

The Baloch nationalists also need to read-up on recent separatist results. Bangladesh's separation is not comparable to Balochistan, because of huge differences in governance capacity and resource constraints. Countries like East Timor and South Sudan are more instructive comparisons on how difficult it is to build a nation without a broader state apparatus to support development. Even violent separations like the Balkan states of Bosnia and Serbia are coalescing again around the larger prize of European Union. South Asia should ponder ways of regional economic integration rather than further fragmentation, while retaining distinct ethnic identities and subnational governance.

Finally Pakistanis should not despair with all the turmoil around them. Countries like Colombia, Peru and even neighboring Sri Lanka show us how after decades of guerrilla warfare, they can develop and rebuild. Peace is possible in Balochistan and across the land but it will require a willingness to differentiate between absolutist religious zealotry and resource-driven provincial nationalism.