An extraordinary hearing of the U.S. Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs on February 8 exclusively focusing on Pakistan's restive Balochistan province has triggered new diplomatic tensions between Washington D.C. and Islamabad. At least five members of the U.S. Congress belonging to both the Democratic and the Republican parties and a retired colonel of the military directly or indirectly called for supporting the Baloch right to self-determination.
During the same hearing, a panel of five witnesses, including representatives of the Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International, spoke of how the Pakistan government was using American weapons against the secular Baloch rebellion instead of using them against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. They told the hearing that Islamabad had manipulated the “war on terror” to commit widespread human rights violations against its Baloch political opponents.
The event, initially expected to be a routine hearing facilitated by Californian Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of the Republican Party, further shocked Islamabad when the chairman of the session and some other Congressmen asserted the need for redrawing Pakistan's borders, stopping its U.S. assistance and holding it accountable for allegedly killing American soldiers in Afghanistan by secretly funding the Taliban.
Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington D.C., Sherry Rehman, condemned the hearing, calling it an “ill-advised move” which could be “detrimental to the trust between Pakistan and the United States of America.”
The presence of Ralph Peters, a retired army officer who had proposed in 2006 in an article the idea of a free Balochistan, as a witness at the Congressional hearing seemed only to further infuriate Pakistan. As expected, Mr. Peters, the author of more than 20 books, said it was an “incontrovertible fact” that Balochistan was an “occupied territory which never acceded to Pakistan and now does not want to be a part of Pakistan.”
He also contended, “If a plebiscite or referendum is to be held tomorrow, it [Balochistan] would vote to leave Pakistan.”
Mr. T. Kumar, Amnesty International's director for international advocacy, asked Washington to apply the Leahy Amendment without waivers to all Pakistani military units in Balochistan. Under the Amendment, the U.S. Congress will be required to stop funding a state whose army is found guilty of committing human rights violations.
Congressmen Louie Gohmert, who had also supported the idea of an independent Balochistan in a recent interview, expressed anguish over the misuse of American weapons against the Baloch dissidents. Congressman Ted Poe also spoke of Pakistan in harsh terms, and defended the Baloch right to “separate themselves from an abusive government.”
Located in the southwest, Balochistan is almost half of Pakistan's territory, but is its most backward province despite vast reservoirs of gas, gold, copper and a port in Gwadar. The Baloch have faced at least five deadly military operations by the Pakistani Army since what they describe as Balochistan's “illegal and forceful occupation” by Pakistan in 1948.
Since then, the province and the centre have had very troubled relations on the issue of resource control and autonomy. The Baloch blame Pakistan's dominant Punjab ethnic majority, who outnumber the rest of the communities in the Army, bureaucracy, media and foreign services, for extracting their natural resources for their own benefits without giving the local Baloch the benefits of these mineral resources.
In the backdrop of widespread anti-Pakistan sentiments in Balochistan, Islamabad sees the Congressional hearing as an effort to interfere in its internal matters. The government of Pakistan has snubbed repeated calls by international human rights groups to stop abuses in Balochistan, but it is widely acknowledged that a civilian government lacks the ability to contain the methods deployed by the intelligence agencies to deal with a political dispute.
The Baloch, backed by reputed human rights groups, claim that Pakistan's intelligence agencies have target killed the backbone of the Baloch intelligentsia in a way that resembles what happened during the 1971 revolt in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Use of social media
The only difference between Balochistan and Bangladesh is the availability now of social media that Baloch activists have used skilfully to reach out to the world about what is happening in the province. In mainstream Pakistani media, reportage on the province is largely absent.
Several hundred political activists have disappeared since the conflict began in 2004, around 250 people have been found killed and dumped in deserted parts of Balochistan. These operations are not limited to one specific area but are being carried out across the province with absolute impunity. Many of the bullet-riddled dead bodies of Baloch youth show disturbing marks of torture.
The Baloch leaders and diaspora have widely welcomed the Congressional hearing. Mindful of the impression that the U.S. may be exploiting the Baloch only to settle scores with Pakistan, HairbayarMarri, a pro-independent Balochistan leader, thinks it is still not a bad deal. In a recent media statement he said the interests of the U.S. and Baloch did not clash with each other.
As expected of diplomats, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesman, said the U.S. administration was not a part of the Congressional hearing which, therefore, did not represent the policies of the Obama administration. Yet, the same spokesperson had last month voiced the “deep concern” of the U.S. over the ongoing violence in Balochistan, especially targeted killings, disappearances and human rights.
“This (Balochistan) is a complex issue. We strongly believe that the best way forward is for all the parties to resolve their differences through peaceful dialogue,” she had said.
Irrespective of the outcome of the Congressional hearing, the event in itself was a landmark achievement for those Baloch nationalists who have been struggling to internationalise their issues. Islamabad must be mindful of the fact that it can no longer commit human rights violations, curb basic freedoms and still remain unnoticed in the age of social media.
Buoyed by the hearing, Baloch nationalists hope that the next step, given Balochistan's geostrategic importance and vast natural resources, would be an international community-facilitated regional conference of exiled Baloch political leaders, that would educate the world about the aspirations of the Baloch people. All said and done, at present, Pakistan does not have a formula to fix Balochistan. The two-year-old Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e Balochistan package and the 18th Amendment are often cited by Islamabad as the best measures it could ever take to address the Baloch conflict, but have thus far failed in that mission.
(The writer, based in Washington D.C., is the editor of The Baloch Hal, Balochistan's first online English newspaper: Twitter: MalikSirajAkbar)