by Mashaal Gauhar
The prized deep water port of Gwadar represents an important trade route to the Arabian Sea for countries like China and the landlocked Central Asian republics
The recent three-day army operation to root out ISIS militants from the restive province of Balochistan underscores the severity of a conflict which has claimed countless innocent lives. In the wake of the operation, the Pakistan Army stated that ISIS infrastructure had been effectively dismantled in Balochistan. Sadly, endemic violence continues unabated. Last week China expressed ‘grave concern’ over the abduction and alleged killing of two Chinese language teachers from Quetta by ISIS — a tragic blow to the government’s efforts to ensure the security of the significant number of Chinese workers in the province.
Balochistan has been battered by chronic instability and carnage. On May 30th the Deputy Superintendent of Police Umerur Rehman was killed in Quetta. Earlier in May, ISIS claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on the convoy of the deputy chairman of the Pakistan Senate, Senator Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, in which 25 people were killed. In spite of increased security, marauding militant gangs claimed 100 lives in the month of February alone.
Last year, Quetta was convulsed by large-scale violence: the legal community was targeted in a devastating attack which left over 60 dead; 93 people were killed when Jamaatul Ahrar attacked a hospital; 62 people were killed after an ISIS attack on a Sufi shrine. Sadly, this accounts only for a fraction of the targeted assassinations and the brutal sectarian and ethnic violence faced by Balochistan on a regular basis. Balochistan’ besieged Shia Hazara minority have been the focus of relentless attacks by the banned extremist militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
A social and political order dominated by rigid feudal and tribal hierarchies has consigned the people of the province to lives of virtual serfdom, with vast numbers of people wholly dependent on the patronage of a feudal lord
Balochistan’s problems are manifold: its geostrategic location has made it a victim of a confluence of competing international interests. Viewed with a measure of disquiet by other regional players, the much-needed development of the Gwadar port has unfortunately further compounded instability in Balochistan. The prized deep water port of Gwadar represents an important trade route to the Arabian Sea for countries like China and the landlocked Central Asian republics. China holds a 40-year lease over the port which forms an integral part of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s ambitious vision to create a new trade network under China’s One Belt One Road initiative. In response, India has embarked on a $20 billion project with Iran to develop the port of Chabahar located on the Gulf of Oman and nearby by the Straits of Hormuz.
This would provide Pakistan’s nuclear rival with valuable access to Central Asia and Afghanistan. Pakistan is vocal about Indian interference in Balochistan, further straining fraught ties between Islamabad and New Delhi — exemplified by the ongoing case of the Indian operative Kulbhushan Jadhav arrested in Balochistan which is now at the International Court of Justice.
Crucially, social and economic developments have been systematically neglected in Pakistan’s largest and most deprived province. Balochistan represents a powerhouse of natural resources with its abundance of gold, oil and gas. In spite of this, widespread poverty, inadequate infrastructure and a lack of access to education and health services have been a heartbreaking legacy of successive governments with regard to Balochistan.
A social and political order dominated by rigid feudal and tribal hierarchies has consigned the people of the province to lives of virtual serfdom, with vast numbers of people wholly dependent on the patronage of a feudal lord. This has created a deeply unequal society where powerful chieftains have actively thwarted any meaningful development for the people of the province, often abetted by a central government seeking to build alliances with powerful tribal overlords and the electoral support of their pliant constituencies.
In December last year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised an improvement in the quality of life for the people of Balochistan with the commencement of much needed infrastructure projects, asserting that the development of the province was the right of the people. More recently in March the PM spoke of Balochistan’s emergence as an “economic tiger.” With the province still mired in acute poverty and conflict, such hopeful rhetoric stands at variance with the grim reality of the people of Balochistan.