Balochistan has been menaced by the overspill of the war in Afghanistan since 2001 which has brought the Afghan Taliban to the Pathan areas of Balochistan; the Pathans who make up as much as 40% of Balochistan’s population, are a majority in Quetta itself. According to US intelligence, much of the Taliban leadership regrouped itself in the so-called “Quetta Shura”, and was still based in Balochistan in late 2009. So far, this hasn’t been bad for Balochistan. On the contrary, the Afghan Taliban seem to have struck a deal with Pakistani security forces whereby they will not stir up militancy among the Pathans of Balochistan in return for being left alone.
Given Pakistan’s problems with Baloch militancy, Islamabad considers it especially important to keep the Pathans of Balochistan loyal. This is an additional reason for the shelter that Pakistan gives to parts of the Afghan Taliban leadership in Balochistan. Until early 2007, local journalists told me, the presence of these leaders was so open that it was very easy for Pakistanis (not Westerners) to gain interviews with them. Since then, however, US pressure has made Pakistan more careful and the “Quetta Shura” has been moved out of Quetta to more discreet locations in the Pathan areas in the north of the province.
The Afghan Taliban’s presence risks provoking the US into launching the kind of cross-border attacks that have been going on for years in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)* to the north; and there is also the risk that US and British military actions in southern Afghanistan will lead to a major influx of Taliban fighters into Pakistani Balochistan. This could well be disastrous for the province.
*amalgamated into Pakhtunkhwa province [former Northwest Frontier Province with capital at Peshawar].
If the Pathans of the province are stirred up against the Pakistani state, their latent tensions with the Baloch would also be awakened, above all concerning who should rule Quetta itself. Baloch nationalists who say that an independent Balochistan would be prepared to let the Pathan areas break away to joins new Balochistan, fall very silent when you ask them what then would happen to Quetta. With Pathans against Pakistan and Baloch (and other Pathans), and Baloch against Pathans, Pakistan and Iran (and other Baloch), and Hazaras and others caught in the middle, that would have all the makings of a really unspeakable mess.
Disputed history and population
Balochistan is closely linked to Sindh and many Sindhis and southern Punjabis are in fact from Baloch tribes which retain their tribal loyalties and much of their tribal way of life. Like the Sindhis, the Baloch tribes worship saints and shrines, and most have been impervious to the appeals of modern radical Islamist thought. Neither the Islamist political parties nor the Taliban have made any serious inroads among the ethnic Baloch. There does however seem to be some Baloch support for the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba movement, which has carried out savage terrorist attacks on the Shia Hazara community in Quetta.
Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan in size with 134,000 square miles and some 43 % of Pakistan’s land area, but with a small population of only 9-11 million people, being about 7% of Pakistan’s population.
Until 2010, the Pakistani central state allocated its support to provincial budgets according to population, resulting in a very small share for Balochistan. By the new Financial Commission Award of that year, however, the allocation was rebalanced to take account of poverty and revenue generation. This meant that Balochistan’s share went up from 7% to 9.09%, around 50% above Balochistan’s share of Pakistan’s population. This was not nearly enough to satisfy more radical Baloch nationalists, but increased Pakistan’s appeal to more moderate Baloch.
The contrast between territory and population largely shapes Balochistan’s particular situation and problems. Balochistan’s huge territory is home to the greater part of Pakistan’s mineral and energy resources (with the colossal exception of the Thar coalfields of Sindh). Its tiny population means that it has little to say in Pakistani national politics and little control over how its huge resources are developed.
The British put together the territories of what is now the Pakistani province of Baluchistan for geographical, administrative and security reasons, but from historically and ethnically disparate elements; in fact, the province is almost as much an artificial creation as Pakistan itself. Moreover, just as was the case with the Pathans and Afghanistan to the north, the British drew a frontier with a neighbouring state which cut the ethnic Baloch lands in two, dividing them between the British empire of India and the Persian empire to the west (with a small number in the deserts of Afghanistan to the north).
Baloch nationalists today claim a large chunk of Iran as part of the ‘Greater Balochistan” that they hope to create – thereby guaranteeing the undying hostility of the Iranian as well as the Pakistani state. The Jundullah movement for the independence of Iranian Balochistan is active in the western parts of Pakistani Balochistan on the Iranian border in alliance with Baloch tribal gangs who smuggle heroin from Afghanistan to Iran and the Gulf states through Pakistani territory. Pakistani and Iranian officials both firmly believe (though with little real evidence) that the US and British intelligence services are supporting Jundullah so as to put pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme. In October 2009, Jundullah killed several senior Iranian officers in a suicide bombing in Iranian Balochistan. The Iranian government accused US, British and Pakistani agents of being behind the attack. Pakistan hit back by arresting what it said were several Iranian intelligence agents operating in Balochistan.
However, in a sign of hellish complexity of this part of the world, Jundullah and the Baloch smugglers are also responsible for smuggling weapons and recruits to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Thirteen suspected international Islamist volunteers, including three from Russia (apparently Tatars), were intercepted by the Pakistani army during my stay in Balochistan. One was a doctor, seemingly on the way to boost the Taliban’s primitive medical services. I do not know what happened to them.
To the Kalat territories and those of the independent tribes, the British added Pathan territories to the north. These were taken from the nominal sovereignty of Afghanistan and, like the tribes of FATA, the tribes of northern Balochistan were split in two by the Durand Line drawn by the British to divide their sphere of influence from Afghanistan. They retain close tribal links to southern Afghanistan, and strong sympathies for the Afghan Taliban.
Some of the leading Pathan tribal families of northern Balochistan originated in what is now Afghanistan, and fled to British territory to escape from the ruthless state-building of Emir Abdur Rahman towards the end of the nineteenth century. After 1977, Pathan numbers in Balochistan swelled greatly by a new wave of Pathan Afghan refugees, this time from the wars which erupted after the Communist takeover and the Soviet and Western occupations of Afghanistan.
Balochistan‘s third major ethnicity, the Hazara, also fled from Afghanistan to escape from Abdur Rahman. They are Shia of Mongolian origin from the central highlands of Afghanistan, and between 200,000 and 300,000 of them now live in Quetta and a few other towns. Like the Mohajirs of Sindh, their uprooting from their ancestral territory in Afghanistan has helped turn the Hazaras of Quetta into a remarkably well-educated and dynamic community (possibly also with the help of aid from Iran, though they deny this fervently). They have by far the best hospitals and schools outside the cantonment, and their cemetery breathes a sort of Victorian municipal pride in their community’s heroes. They are especially proud of their prominence in the Pakistani military, and of the fact that a Hazara woman has become the first female fighter pilot in the Pakistani Air Force. Tragically, though, their cemetery also bears witness to the many Hazaras killed in recent years in anti-Shia terrorist attacks by the Sunni sectarian extremists.
Finally, there are the Punjabi and Mohajir “settlers” (as they are known by the Baloch), who moved to the region under British and Pakistani rule. Put all these other ethnicities together, and the ethnic Baloch (i.e. the Baloch-and Brahui-speakers) are at best a small majority in Balochistan. In Quetta itself, Baloch may be as little as a quarter of the population, with Pathans the majority. But nobody really knows for sure.
In 1901 British officials conducted a census which recorded down to the last child the population of all but the most remote tribes in Balochistan. More than a century later, in 2009, the Commissioner Quetta Division could not tell me within half a million people the population even of Quetta itself. This, however, was not mostly his fault. Apart from the general weakness of the Pakistani bureaucracy when it comes to gathering information, the main parties among the Pathans successfully urged their Pathan followers to boycott the last census in 1998, in the hope that this would help the Pathan Afghan refugees to merge with the local Pathan population, become Pakistani citizens, and boost Pathan political weight in Balochistan.
This boycott means that the official figure of 6.5 million people for that year (4.9% of Pakistan’s population) was almost certainly a serious underestimate. According to the 1998 census, ethnic Baloch formed 54.7% and Pathans 29.6%, with the rest divided between Punjabis, Hazaras and others. But the Pathans claim to be 35-40% of the population, and they may well be right. Almost as many ethnic Baloch live outside Balochistan as within it, though the figures are very hard to determine because many no longer speak Baloch but, while retaining Baloch tribal customs, consider themselves Sindhis or Punjabis.
Fear of ethnic swamping has been one factor in repeated Baloch revolts in both Iran and Pakistan, and the development of Gwadar has only increased these fears. In Pakistan, until the Islamists revolts after 2001, the Baloch were the most persistently troublesome of all the ethnic groups. There was armed resistance in 1948-49, after Kalat’s accession (under considerable duress) to Pakistan; unrest again in the late 1950s after Balochistan was merged into the “one unit” of West Pakistan and the promises of full autonomy to Kalat state were broken; and a serious revolt between 1973 and 1977, after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto dismissed the moderate nationalist government of Balochistan as part of his moves to centralise power in his own hands, and arrested its leading members.
In all of these cases, however, most of the unrest was concentrated chiefly in one tribal group, and only parts of that group -in the late 1940s and 1950s, parts of the Mengal and other tribes of the old Kalat state and, in the 1970s, parts of the Marri tribe with certain allies. This allowed the Pakistani state to play on the deep traditional rivalries between the tribes and between sub tribes of the same tribe, and eventually through a mixture of force and concessions to the Sardars of the rebel tribes, to bring these revolts to an end. It was also never entirely clear if the rebellions concerned were themselves really aiming at full independence, at greater autonomy within Pakistan, or at benefits and redress of grievances for the particular tribes concerned.