THE BLOG
08/31/2015 11:02 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

How Pakistan Negotiates With Balochistan

Disclaimer: The title of this article has been inspired by the remarkable book How Pakistan Negotiates With the United States by Ambassadors Teresita C. Schaffer and Howard B. Schaffer. Pakistan has a distinct way of dealing with different countries and it also applies divergent methods while tackling internal conflicts and crises. Islamabad, for instance, is more likely to forgive the Taliban and negotiate with them in the north than to talk to the separatist Balochs in the Southwest.

The Baloch narrative is loaded with stories recollecting how Islamabad took their willingness to negotiate for granted and converted those occasions as excellent opportunities to humiliate them.

For example, when veteran Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, who had formerly served as the governor and the chief minister of Balochistan but had developed sharp differences with the then military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, had agreed in 2005 to negotiate with Islamabad, he had been promised that the army would send a special plane to pick him up from the nearest airport in his home district. The Nawab reportedly waited for several hours. However, when General Musharraf, who had unleashed a military operation against the Baloch nationalists who sought maximum control over the province's mineral wealth, learned that the seventy-nine year old Nawab, the leader of the Baloch insurgents, had agreed to visit Islamabad and negotiate, he purposefully instructed his juniors not to send the plane to fly the opposition leader to Islamabad. Musharraf's apparent motive, some say, was to humiliate the old Baloch leader and bring him to his knees.

When Musharraf's ego prevailed and talks between the Pakistan army and the Baloch never took place, the senior Bugti was eventually killed in a military operation in 2006 and the insurgency in Balochistan turned into such a conflagration that it has continued for one decade and even worsened.

Only last week we witnessed a stunning change in the situation when Brahamdagh Bugti, a prominent Baloch separatist leader, took the media by storm with his staggering announcement to relinquish the demand for a free Baloch state if the people of Balochistan wanted to remain a part of Pakistan. That sounded like a lame excuse to give up his position because he has been the leader of the Baloch people and has had the authority to lead the public opinion. The people would do only what he would tell them to do because he began to lead them at the time of chaos, conflict and uncertainty in 2006. Leaders across the world emerge when people look up for some authority figure to lead and protect them at the time of threat and hopelessness. Mr. Bugti's interview with the BBC was the most dramatic change of mind ever seen in one decade by any key player from both sides of the conflict.

However, a week after Mr. Bugti's unilateral softening of stance, Pakistan's army chief General Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have not even officially commented on the Baloch leader's dramatic shift. For them, it does not appear to be a big deal. For Mr. Bugti, there must be a sense of déjà vu. This is exactly what Musharraf did to his grandfather ten years ago when he was ready to talk to him.

It is impossible that the army chief, who is generally believed to be the most powerful authority in Pakistan, or the prime minister, did not notice Mr. Bugti's announcement to reconcile with them since it remained the biggest news on the national media for around 24 hours. But when Pakistan's two highest-ranking civil and military decision makers pretend as if they don't know what has just happened, it reflects Pakistan's distinct way of dealing with Balochistan.

The country's top leadership is totally, and rightly, self-assured that there is no way that the Baloch insurgents can overpower the powerful military nor can Balochistan break away like Bangladesh did in 1971. This feeling of assurance has generated a very indifferent and smug attitude in Islamabad. That means that the leadership in Islamabad does not find itself in a state of urgency to resolve the conflict in Balochistan. They believe it can never get out of control and they can manage it any time they want. This attitude has perpetuated the conflict.

If Mr. Bugti had hoped that negotiators from Islamabad would quickly run to warmly hug him over his change in position, that is probably not happening. Islamabad wants to wait and see what actually happens in the meanwhile. The right-wing newspapers, which vehemently oppose the Baloch insurgents, are insisting that Mr. Bugti and other Baloch leaders were no longer capable of continuing the war against Pakistan and they ultimately had to give up. Therefore, they suggest, government should not concede to any of the Baloch demands because they are no longer in a position to force the government to meet their demands. For example, the right-wing English paper, the Nation, argued in its editorial on August 28th, "Bugti is the one compromising, not the state."
On another front, Mr. Bugti has also come under sharp criticism from hardliner Baloch organizations, such as the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), an underground armed group that continues to seek a free Balochistan. The BLF has regretted his 'hasty judgment'.

The more the army and the prime minister keep Mr. Bugti at arms' length, the more they will expose him to internal criticism from fellow pro-independence comrades. He has surprised [or some may say 'disappointed'] many followers and will have to start from scratch should he want to repair the trust of the pro-independence camp in the wake of Islamabad's continued disregard for his offer to give up the demand for a free Balochistan. Any given day, Islamabad will benefit from this situation because division and misunderstandings among the Baloch leaders will weaken sections of the resistance movement and alienate the leaders from each other.

When Islamabad keeps silence, it doesn't mean that it is not negotiating at all. It is just a different way of negotiation. That's what we are seeing toward Balochistan.