Counter-Terrorism: Why Baluchistan Matters

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January 29, 2006: Not all the violence in Pakistan is related to Islamic terrorism. Not all the angry tribesmen are motivated by religious beliefs to commit terrorist acts. There are several million Baluchi tribesmen in southwest Pakistan who are upset over stingy outsiders. As a result of this anger, the Baluchis have supported drug gangs, terrorist organizations, and a generally bad attitude towards the Pakistani government.

Baluchistan has 36 percent of the countries natural gas, and only four percent of the population (spread thinly over 180,000 square kilometers). Some 80 percent of this natural gas is exported, and the Baluchis only get about twelve percent of what that gas is sold for. On top of that, corrupt officials steal much of what they are supposed to get. Now the government wants to expand drilling and mining, and remove more of Baluchistan's wealth. The tribes are, literally, up in arms over this. Since the Summer of 2004, there have been several dozen violent incidents each week, ranging from tribesmen shooting at government facilities, or employees, or blowing something up (electricity transmission towers, roads, gas pipelines and so on.)

The government doesn't want to go to war with the tribes, partly because the Baluchis are good at fighting. For centuries, the Baluchis have been in demand as mercenaries all over the region. Many (no one is quite sure how many) troops in the Pakistani armed forces are Baluchis. The region has never believed itself a part of Pakistan, but has not been able to break away. Large scale insurrections every few decades, yes, but the Baluchis have never gotten close to separating themselves. That may be changing, with the help of al Qaeda. The Baluchis are Sunni Moslems, and their tribal culture encourages a conservative form of the religion. Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization propelled by a very conservative version of Islam.

Iran, a Shia nation, is a deadly enemy of al Qaeda (conservative Sunni Moslems believe Shia Moslems are heretics), and has always opposed Baluchi independence. Iran has a million Baluchis of its own, and any Baluchistan lays claim to a chunk of southeast Iran.

Baluchistan is not all Baluchi. About 40 percent of the seven million inhabitants of the region are (30 percent) Pushtun tribes, and (10 percent) other groups. Most of Pakistan's coastline is in Baluchistan, as are two of the navy's three bases, inhabited by many of the non tribal people. The tribes may control the back country, but the Pakistani government has a better position when it comes to the coastal communities, and cities in general.

The independent attitudes of the tribes, and their Islamic conservatism, has made the tribal territories a hospitable place for al Qaeda. Moreover, there's nothing for al Qaeda to attack in Baluchistan, so no al Qaeda bombs killing innocent civilians, and turning the locals against the terrorists. The Baluchi tribes already know how to do bombs, and regularly use them against government targets. For al Qaeda, Baluchistan is a place to hide and recruit. The more heated the current situation in Baluchistan becomes, the more dedicated the Baluchis are to protecting al Qaeda, and volunteering for that organization. The Pakistani government does not want to fight another major campaign against the Baluchi tribes, like it did in the 1970s. But the government will not surrender the province to the tribes, and give up the natural resources, and coastline. A peace deal with the tribes is likely to include giving the tribes more autonomy, and authority to host whoever they want, including al Qaeda. The next al Qaeda base could be Baluchistan, a side effect of a Pakistani peace deal with the tribes.

 


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