Sunday, February 20, 2005

ASSESSMENT: Threat of Civil War grows in Pakistan province


Baluch tribesman+ In the vast jumble of rocky deserts and mountains that dominate southwestern Pakistan, "the Baluch people are ready for a war," said Mohammed Din, an unemployed Bugti tribesman who kept an eye on an outpost of Pakistani troops here last week.Diplomats and scholars in this country agree: President Pervez Musharraf, who for many analysts remains America's most critical ally in its global war against Muslim extremist groups, faces a threat of civil war in Baluchistan, Pakistan's biggest and poorest province. The Baluch uprising threatens to distract and politically weaken Musharraf as he pushes his army into a difficult offensive against al-Qaida, the Taliban and their allies in the districts just north of here. +

20/02/2005

Threat of Civil War grows in Pakistan province

JAMES RUPERT

DERA BUGTI, Pakistan -- In the center of this dusty town's only real intersection, Pakistani paramilitary troops peer out from a thick, round tower of sandbags, training machine guns on the main streets. Other government soldiers watch the town from fortified nests on the adjacent hilltops.

The men they monitor so warily are hundreds of ethnic Baluch militiamen of the Bugti tribe, who brandish automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades as they patrol the town and its surrounding mountain valley in columns of pickup trucks. Neighboring Baluch tribes also have taken up arms, and guerrillas have blown up electrical power lines and trains in recent weeks.

In the vast jumble of rocky deserts and mountains that dominate southwestern Pakistan, "the Baluch people are ready for a war," said Mohammed Din, an unemployed Bugti tribesman who kept an eye on an outpost of Pakistani troops here last week.

Diplomats and scholars in this country agree: President Pervez Musharraf, who for many analysts remains America's most critical ally in its global war against Muslim extremist groups, faces a threat of civil war in Baluchistan, Pakistan's biggest and poorest province. The Baluch uprising threatens to distract and politically weaken Musharraf as he pushes his army into a difficult offensive against al-Qaida, the Taliban and their allies in the districts just north of here.

Baluchistan's tribal nomads, most of whom live by raising goats or sheep in these dry lands, have rebelled repeatedly for more autonomy under Pakistani rule, the last time in the 1970s. In the past three years, as the government has begun building military bases, ports and highways in the province, Baluch have resisted, saying the development is stealing their land, handing valuable Arabian Sea coastline to newcomers from other parts of Pakistan and marginalizing the Baluch in their own province.

Baluch guerrillas have stepped up attacks on government targets in the past year, and the violence escalated last month after government officials appeared to be covering up a rape committed in Bugti tribal lands, allegedly by a Pakistani army captain.

Musharraf's military government has lost popularity in Pakistan with its offensives in the Waziristan region against al-Qaida and the Taliban, just north of here. Pakistani analysts and foreign diplomats say civil war in Baluchistan would further darken the government's image and distract a military already overburdened by its missions and governing a country of 160 million people.

Militant, anti-Western Islam has found little foothold among Pakistan's estimated 8 million Baluch -- so far. But as many as half of the province's people live in abject poverty, twice the rate of Pakistan's dominant province, Punjab, according to an independent research group, the Social Policy Development Center.

In Dera Bugti, like most Baluch towns and villages, clean drinking water and paved roads are rarities. "A real sense of deprivation and destitution has built among our youth, our intelligentsia and our mullahs ... and these conditions make us vulnerable to Islamic radicalization," said Hakim Baluch, a retired head of the provincial administration who now edits a magazine on Baluch affairs.

In the 1800s, British armies fought repeated battles to colonize Baluchistan as a buffer zone to protect Britain's prized colony of India next door.

Since Pakistan's independence in 1947, it has ruled much as the British did, with a combination of armed force and payoffs to the region's autocratic tribal leaders to keep them loyal. "We have remained a colony of second-class citizens," said Kachkool Ali, a provincial legislator who, like many Baluch, demands autonomy for the province.

In the 1970s, Pakistan's army needed four years and helicopters lent by the Shah of Iran to subdue the Baluch guerrillas. Baluch analysts say any rebellion now would be wider and more bloody. "Despite our poverty, the Baluch have more information about the world than before," and the tribes "are more heavily armed and better trained in guerrilla warfare" than three decades ago, Hakim Baluch said.

But Musharraf and the military are confident. "Don't push us," Musharraf warned Baluch leaders in a TV appearance last month. "It isn't the 1970s, when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won't even know what hit you."

Musharraf's tough talk alarms Pakistani editorial writers and foreign diplomats, who say it has tended to unite the Baluch. In what diplomats said was an effort to ease tensions, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker met last Monday in Karachi with Baluch tribal and nationalist leaders.

The leader at the center of the fight -- the Bugti tribe's chief, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti -- was not there. Bugti, 78, has not left his tribal headquarters here in nearly five years. From his mud-walled compound, the nawab meets each day with his tribesmen and argues the Baluch case in constant phone calls with politicians and reporters.

In past power struggles, Bugti often has sided with the central government, which pays rent -- millions of dollars a year, according to officials -- for the use of Bugti tribal lands at the country's main natural gas field.

But the government has lost the support of Bugti and other tribal leaders over its huge development plans for the Baluchistan coastline, including a port and a city to serve it at Gwadar, a naval base at Ormara, a coastal highway and other projects. "The government has not consulted the Baluch on these plans, but has simply declared that these 'mega-projects' will turn Baluchistan into a land of milk and honey," Bugti said in an interview.

Bugti and the chiefs of other powerful tribes -- the Mangals and Marris -- say land for the projects secretly has been shunted to senior military officers and powerful families from Punjab province and Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city. The contracts and jobs from the projects will go to these elites, rather than to Baluch, they say.

Worse, in Baluch eyes, is that the rush to develop the coast will draw in millions of Punjabis and Karachi residents who eventually would outnumber the Baluch in their own homeland.

"The sardars [tribal chiefs] are fighting this because they are not getting the cut" they expect from projects on Baluch land, said Hakim Baluch. "But the feeling of being exploited is shared by ordinary people."

The evidence of exploitation, Baluch people say, is the gas fields here in the Bugti tribal lands. For 50 years, they have supplied Pakistan with most of its natural gas, pumped in pipelines to the big cities and industries of Punjab and Karachi. But Baluchistan's capital, Quetta, was the last city to get access to gas, and most people in the province cannot afford it. Baluch anger erupted last month after a female doctor at the Sui gas field, in Bugti lands, was raped, allegedly by a Pakistani army captain. When authorities appeared to be covering up the case, Baluch guerrillas attacked the military units guarding the field. In a storm of rifle and rocket fire, 15 people were reported killed and the gas plant was damaged, forcing Pakistan to cut off supplies to many homes and businesses.

Since then, guerrillas have blown up electrical lines, railroads and army trucks. Pakistan officials have suggested some foreign actor -- India, Iran or even the United States -- must be backing the sudden uprising. "Actually, it might be tycoons from Dubai [the main port of the United Arab Emirates] who will lose out" if a competing port at Gwadar is developed, said Baluchistan's provincial prime minister, Jam Mohammed Yusuf.

But a Pakistani intelligence official who asked not to be named said the government had no evidence of foreign involvement. In a drive through Baluchistan last weekend, extra troops could be seen guarding roads, bridges and pipelines -- and the army has said it will accelerate plans to build more permanent military bases in Baluchistan.

"More bases?" demanded Mohammed Din, the jobless Bugti tribesman. "They are occupying us like a foreign country. We are waiting only for the order of our nawab to attack them."