Trouble in Baluchistan

Four days after his death in a Baluchi cave hideout the body of the tribal Bugati leader and politician, Nawab Aqbar Bugati (77), was brought by an army unit to the cemetery in Dara-Bugati where he was buried without the presence of relatives, friends or the tens of thousand Baluchis who saw the charismatic Sheikh Nawab as their leader.

The drama began two weeks ago when the Pakistani army, backed by helicopter gun ships, commando units and special police detachments, stormed the Bugati mountain hideout. Since then the Pakistani government declared a policy of appeasement towards Taliban supporters hoping to put an end to wide spread insurgency along the border with Afghanistan.

According to a military spokesperson, General Sultan, “the cave exploded mysteriously, burying the chieftain, his two grandsons and at least four other Baluchi leaders, under a pile of rocks, which army engineers, in an attempt to deceive Bugati’s followers, said “were so big that months would be needed to retrieve the bodies. While events surrounding Bugati’s death created a wave of violence in the natural gas rich province bordering Iran to the west and Afghanistan to the east, the army embarked on a covert operation to retrieve the bodies, probably to confirm that the old feisty warrior-politician, who was a cabinet member in the past, was indeed dead.

Apparently Pakistan’s ruler General Pervez Musharaf sounded a sigh of relief as military forensic experts positively identified one of the decomposed bodies as that of the leader who was perceived by many Pakistanis as a symbol of the true spirit of Pakistan, a nation of many tribes and colors. In the background of this event lies growing tension over the distribution of wealth accrued from natural resources in an area regarded by nationalist Baluchi tribesmen as their undisputable homeland.

Baluchistan is also the battle ground where the Baluch Liberation Front (BLF) has been fighting for decades for self determination, which in recent years have been spilling over into Iran and Afghanistan Baluchi tribal areas.

The Musharaf administration in Islamabad is aware the instability poses a danger not only to the unity of the country but also a threat to its economic assets. It is a well known fact that each time BLF guerrillas or tribesmen attack any of the gas production sites, the resulting shortage is felt across the country.

In the latest series of attacks, attributed by the Pakistani intelligence mainly to the Bugati tribe, tribal fighters were more brazen than ever. They even resorted to direct attacks on security installations guarding oil and gas fields, from time to time raiding government or rival tribal targets along a 400 mile pipeline stretch. In the last few months, since the end of the harsh winter, dozens of people were killed, including many soldiers and members of various Pakistani police force units. Hundreds were reported to have been wounded.

The police claim the material damage goes into tens of millions of dollars every month. A few of those affected by the attack were civilian workers and families of gas industry workers, including foreigners and militia guardsmen. An army and police assessment from August came to the conclusion paramilitary forces are at this stage incapable of protecting the vital pipeline. The Pakistani military is weighing new ideas to protect the pipes using new intelligence monitoring systems such as were used to locate the exact hideout of Nawab Aqbar Bugati.

Musharaf administration critics blame the president and his top advisers for acting too slowly and for neglecting to secure the flow of natural gas earlier. They say the president was not vigorous enough to push harder and put into practice cooperation between Pakistan and her neighbors on the matter of natural gas flow. The critical neighbors are Iran and India. The former enjoys a fairly good relationship with Islamabad and the latter is still trying to figure out how to implement newly signed agreements of cooperation and attempts to ease border tension.

For the time being the three-country gas project plan is lingering. Musharaf’s administration blames India for stalling the negotiations and for delaying implementation of the project because, as one official said: “India has no interest in helping Pakistan overcome internal, social and economic problems.” Another claimed the Indian government is silently helping the BLF as part of what he described is: “An Indian dream to divide and weaken Pakistan.”

Gas and energy economists have been closely watching the effects of more attack waves on the country’s economy, and as has been reported in the local and foreign media, concluded Pakistan has five years at the most to deal with the situation before shortage in energy supplies seriously damages the country. The government immediately responded to these worrying evaluations. A decision was made to avoid canceling the Pakistan-India-Iran project but on the other hand, not to wait much longer for Delhi to join. A Pakistani delegation notified Tehran to go ahead with the plans for an Iran to Pakistan gas pipeline.

Islamabad is fully aware the crucial point of gas shortage will come in 2010 and that Pakistan will have to buy more from Iran which, as expected, will gladly oblige. On Jan. 5, the Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namder Zangeneh and six of his top officials met in Islamabad with a group of Pakistani officials headed by the Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Amanullah Khan Jadoon. The one-day meeting brought closer to realization a separate Iran-Pakistan gas deal. Visible was the fact gas shortfalls in Pakistan will increase from a current 400 MMC (million cubic feet of gas per day), to about 4 billion cubic feet per day by 2025.

Following the one day meeting the president instructed the military to plan a defense system to protect an Iran-Pakistan gas project. Among the main questions the military is now expected to tackle is the issue of continuous and simultaneous surveillance and monitoring of a number of gas fields and pipelines. “We will need to re-shape our air force and purchase a substantial number of unmanned surveillance aircraft to control such a vast area,” said one air force officer reacting to the plan during a meeting between the U.S. and Pakistani military.

The other angle in Pakistan’s expected acute gas shortage is the question of Iran’s overall involvement in the country. One Iranian “price tag” for large scale cooperation with Islamabad is to rein in anti-Shiite insurgents attacking not only local Shiites but occasionally also Iranian experts and technicians working in Pakistan. One such case was the riots in Gilgit in the remote northern mountain region, not far from the famous K-2 mountain peak. At least 21 Shiites including the local religious leader Aga Ziauddin were killed in a series of attacks in recent weeks causing thousands to flock to the streets, forcing the district governor to impose a curfew.

This sectarian attack initiated by Sunni agitators was condemned by the Iranian government and even by the Hezbollah Shiite terror group based in Lebanon. Another concern the Pakistani intelligence has to cope with are Hezbollah terrorists, many of whom are well experienced in fighting in the region, some volunteering to the Taliban, and many now ready “to punish” Sunni Pakistanis. One Hezbollah preacher recently promised in a mosque north of Zakhle “to defend with our soul and blood any member of our faith under attack of infidels and even Muslims.” Although the Hezbollah threat has yet to be proven by actions, Pakistani intelligence officers advised not to ignore it saying that sooner, rather than later, the country will suffer from Shiia terrorism disguised as Shiia militia or defense groups.

The goals for 2010 and the crisis expected by 2025 should the gas industry not be able to provide the population’s growing needs and those required for the country’s overall development, will ultimately endanger the stability of any government whether a military dictatorship or a fledgling democracy. The adequate supply of natural gas and oil will be critical factors in Pakistan’s aspirations to achieve her growth and development goals.

Yoram East
Yoram East is a retired Israeli colonel born in Jerusalem, who writes about foreign policy and goings-on in the Middle East. Sadly, Yoram passed away in October 2010.