Killing of Akbar Bugti threatens to further destabilize Pakistan

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The killing on August 26 of Nawab Akbar Bugti (pic, right) by the Pakistan army has sunk the already troublesome Balochistan province into chaos, with violence among Balochis in neighbouring Sind province as well as in the commercial city of Karachi. Violence flared up in most parts of the province as news of his killing by a missile strike at his cave hideout in Kohlu spread. The military has tried to claim that his death was an accident, as major general Shaukat Sultan, its spokesman, said at a press conference on August 29. He rejected earlier reports that a missile strike had caused the cave’s collapse, killing all inside. General Sultan alleged that a huge unexplained explosion occurred as four army officers and several soldiers entered the cave, killing all of them as well as those inside. The 79-year-old Nawab Bugti, head of the powerful Bugti tribe, has become a martyr for the Baloch nationalist cause, whose namaaz-e janaza (funeral prayer) was offered in absentia at the Ayub Stadium in Quetta on August 29 because his body had not yet been recovered.

While Bugti was no friend of his impoverished people, lording over them and striking terror into their hearts in typical feudal style, the military’s resort to brute force to resolve every problem has had disastrous consequences for the country. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, who has upset most Pakistanis by his subservience to the US, is wont to apply parade ground rules to complex political problems. Where it would be prudent to enter into a dialogue and negotiate, he resorts to force and believes that every political problem can be suppressed in this manner. Political commentators are already drawing parallels with the East Pakistan tragedy, when another military dictator, general Yahya Khan, opted for the gun over dialogue, resulting in the breakup of Pakistan

Bugti, who had served as governor of the province during the rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the seventies, and then as chief minister under Nawaz Sharif in the nineties, was regarded by many as Islamabad’s man in the province, but he fell out with Musharraf. In a televised speech in July, the general threatened to deal with Bugti and his tribesmen harshly if they did not lay down their arms. This has become Musharraf’s standard response to every crisis, and the sycophants who surround him do not have the courage tell him that his policies are exacerbating rather than solving problems. It took two years and hundreds of deaths before Musharraf was forced to change policy in Waziristan, where the unruly tribesmen fought the Pakistan army to a standstill. The iron fist did not work there; it is not likely to work in Balochistan either, where the situation is further exacerbated by a sense of economic deprivation. The province’s natural resources have made little improvement to the life of ordinary Balochis, who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are being exploited by the rest of the country. The Balochi sardars (feudal lords) have also played on this sense of deprivation, although they are equally responsible for the plight of ordinary Balochis, keeping them in bondage and deprived of proper education. But they are quick to exploit the sentiment of people that they are not in control of their political destiny.

This is best illustrated by the development of the Gwadar port. Military officers have become millionaires overnight by buying and selling real estate in the new port city that will serve as a gateway to Central Asia, but the Balochi elites have been largely frozen out of this bonanza as they have been from exercising control over the process of formulating and executing policy on Gwadar. The Balochi sardars want to be involved in decision-making processes and have a measure of control over the utilization of their province’s resources, something the military regime is not prepared to concede. This has led to lawlessness and has played into the hands of Baloch separatists, whom Musharraf has accused of being on the payroll of arch-enemy India. This may be true, but the general has hardly done anything to address the problem with any degree of sophistication; instead he has resorted to bluster, threats and the use of force–”a lethal combination that will make people more intransigent, rather than less. Where dialogue and a degree of respect are required, Musharraf thinks he can browbeat people into submission.

Even his own allies in the Pakistan Muslim League-Q faction had suggested that Musharraf initiate a dialogue, but the general was not convinced; the small coterie of military officers who surround him thought otherwise. They believed that they could divide the Balochis and use force to crush them; hence the military assault on Bugti’s hideout. Far from solving the problem, Musharraf has turned Bugti into a martyr and given the separatists a cause around which to rally the people of Balochistan. The ensuing violence, though foreseen, has surprised everyone by its intensity and how widespread it has been. Baloch separatists could not have hoped for a better pretext if they had planned to do something like this.

The province has been in low-intensity conflict for decades; during Bhutto’s reign, the military was used to try to crush the people’s aspirations. That campaign ended only when Bhutto was overthrown by general Zia ul-Haq. The latter proved more sophisticated than Bhutto in tackling the Baloch problem, and successfully turned the Balochis’ grievances against the soon-to-be-launched Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Those Baloch leaders who had sought refuge in Afghanistan during the military campaign were caught wrong-footed and lost support among their own people. Musharraf has once again given them an opportunity to rally against the central government.

Pakistan faces an acute dilemma; relations with India have soured because of Delhi’s obstinacy; there is trouble in Waziristan and the entire border with Afghanistan is unstable, amid demands from the US that Pakistan commit more troops there. Now Balochistan has been set alight, thanks to Musharraf’s simplistic policies. It is clear that unless meddlesome generals are banished to the barracks and people given an opportunity to determine their own destiny, Pakistan will not see peace and tranquillity. In the meantime, Musharraf has created another crisis that was completely unnecessary, especially in such a volatile province as Balochistan.

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