Located at the crossroads of Central Asia and South Asia, Balochistan has a significant geostrategic location in the region. It has been the center of interest for the major powers for a long period of time. The Great Game of the 19th century was played between Great Britain and Russia in this very region which included the present day Northern Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces of Pakistan. The arid and barren Southern Balochistan did not figure at that time, with its sparsely inhabited semi-desert and mountainous terrain. Ironically, these very attributes and its geostrategic location have made it finally significant during the 20th and 21st centuries to many major powers such as the United States, Russia, the China, Central Asian Republics, Iran and India. With the emergence of Gwadar, located east of the Strait of Hormuz and facing the open sea without any choke points, Southern Balochistan has now also become a gateway to the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor has increased the geopolitical significance of Balochistan manifold.
Balochistan is a province of Pakistan and whatever importance it has, including its significance for major powers due to its geographical location, equally applies to Pakistan. However, there are geo-historic and socio-economic peculiarities of Balochistan which necessitate the selection of the word ‘Balochistan’rather than ‘Pakistan’s Geostrategic Significance’. This province is least understood by national and international stakeholders alike and ought to be described in some detail. The politics of major powers here, especially in the Southern Balochistan, have had a destabilizing impact which ought to be managed by Pakistan for securing vital national interests.
Rigours of Geography
Balochistan is an arid semi-desert, mountainous land with less than 3 inches’ yearly rain. Consequently, there are no rivers or lakes. Ancient karezes and springs have all dried up during the last 40 years or so, partly due to tube wells relentlessly mining water from depths of 800-900 feet, with an ever lowering water-table, and partly due to persistent droughts. Even the 770 km long coastline of Balochistan has no underground sweet water and has to depend on sporadic rains. In Kech (Mekran) Division, the first line of four oases separated over a distance of 300 km east-to-west, which has allowed the establishment of Hoshab, Turbat, Tump and Mand towns, is nearly 200 km north of the coastline with no water in between.
Northern and Eastern Balochistan receive the tail-end of the monsoon rains and even westerly disturbances bring some rain in the winters, allowing for agriculture. Besides, they have historically had some legal and some illegal trade with Afghanistan and financially are better off. Nasirabad enjoys irrigation through a canal system but it is a small part of this huge province, restricting economic benefits to them only.
The population in the Southern Balochistan is the hardest hit due to the rigours of geography. The climate is harsh and the area get very little rain, with some areas not receiving any rain in certain years. Given the dry and shade-less terrain, and with summer temperatures routinely reaching 50 degrees Celsius, it has a very sparse population that is impoverished and dependent on livestock, fishing along the coastline or petty jobs for survival. Barren, inaccessible plateaus and rocky mountains, often with no water often for hundreds of kilometers, used to once provide protection to highwaymen. Now militants find safe havens in these barren lands with no fear of being intercepted in areas that have no tracks.
Southern Balochistan’s western border touches the Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran which has a Balochi-speaking population. This porous border also helps militants who can easily slip into Iran. Southern Balochistan has thus become the soft-underbelly of Pakistan for the latter’s enemies, hence the focus on this name rather than Pakistan.
Historical Background – From Gedorasia to Three Balochistans
The narrow strip of the coastline comprising Mekran (Kech) in the present day Southern Balochistan is first mentioned in post Alexander’s invasion in 325. B.C as Gedorasia. Several centuries later, Southern Balochistan became known as Turan, part of the greater province of Khorasan in the north. Being barren and non-productive, this part of present day Balochistan did not attract bounty hunting invaders, explorers or even the attention of historians. However, from the 18th century onwards, the word Balochistan began appearing in history. There have been three Balochistans with different political-maps whose existence is generally unknown; they create wrong perceptions today, giving birth to politically motivated expressions like ‘deprivations’, ‘neglect’ and ‘left-behind’ in Pakistan. This ought to be explained further.
In 1739 the Shah of Persia, Nadir Shah Qachar conquered Delhi. However, he let the Mughal King rule in his name as a tributary and returned to Persia. In 1742, Nadir Shah divided south-eastern Persia into two provinces, Sistan-Balochistan and Kalati-Balochistan. Kalati-Balochistan, till then known as Turan, was more or less the present day Southern Balochistan. It had more Brahui living there than Baloch. Brahui are of Dravidian stock that migrated from Marwar in the east during ancient times, likely following the ingress of the Central Asian hordes. The Brahui speak an ancient language having no similarity to Balochi or any other Indo-Arian languages, and they have distinctive features. The Baloch on the other hand are taller, fairer immigrants from western Arabia with sharper features and speak a modified form of Persian. After the death of Nadir Shah, his General Ahmad Shah Durrani, now the ruler of Eastern Persia and Khorasan (which constitutes much of present day Afghanistan), and the conqueror of Delhi also, placed a Brahui Mir Nasir belonging to Ghandawah, south of Sibi, as the Khan of Kalat who was to rule Kalati-Balochistan as his tributary in 1761. This was the first Balochistan.
In 1838, the British walked into Quetta, then known as Shalkot, to deter an apprehended invasion by the Czar of Russia through Central Asia. They established a military station there, naming it first Kotta, then Quetta. They attacked Kalat and killed the sitting Khan of Kalat Mir Mehrab on suspicion of not being loyal enough to them against the distant Czar of Russia, but let his brother and later his son rule, continuing as vassal state to Kabul. In 1856, the sitting Khan of Kalat Mir Khudaidad submitted to becoming a vassal state of the British rather than Kabul, now called Afghanistan, a name given by the British which caught on.
After the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-9, the British occupied the adjoining region south of Afghanistan and ruled it directly, later naming it British Balochistan. However, the British Army remained in Afghanistan even during WWI and only evacuated it in 1919 when the Czar of Russia had been overthrown by the Bolsheviks.
British Balochistan was formally created in November 1893 during a diplomatic meeting chaired by the English diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand, and which was attended by ambassadors of the Czar of Russia, the Shah of Persia and King Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan. The entire border of Afghanistan was decided upon on the occasion, drawing a line between the Russian controlled Khanates of Central Asia, Iran and colonial India. The British even ceded the Wakhan Corridor, part of Northern Chitral, so that Afghanistan could become a complete buffer state between Russia and the Colonial British Empire of India. Erroneously, only the border between Afghanistan, British Balochistan and now Pakistan, earned the name of the Durand Line; in fact, the entire border of Afghanistan is the Durand Line. British Balochistan, governed as Chief Commissioner-ate, comprised parts of Kalati-Balochistan, Persia, Nasirabad district of Sindh and the southern adjoining areas of Afghanistan. While mostly populated by Pashtuns, Hazaras, settlers, Christians, Parsis, Hindus, Sikhs, Sindhis, Khetran, Marri, Bugti, Rind and Dombki Baloch, some Kurds and Brahui also lived here. This was the second Balochistan.
In 1947, on Independence, British Balochistan and Kalati-Balochistan were named as Quetta and Kalat Divisions and were given to administration by West Pakistan under one Commissioner named for both the Divisions. During the next 23 years there was no Balochistan. In 1970, with the One Unit being abolished, the Quetta and Kalat Divisions were merged and the present Balochistan emerged. This is the third Balochistan.
This third and present Balochistan has peculiarities which other provinces of Pakistan do not share and which ought to be explained. In 1843, the British had established all other provinces of present day Pakistan – Sindh, Punjab and NWFP or present day KPK – through conquests. These three provinces were created 127 years before Balochistan; consequently, they are far ahead and well integrated socio-economically as well as in education. They are more mature in politics and governance, tribal culture and feudalism having mellowed down to a large extent. On the contrary, Balochistan is still totally tribal, not allowing for Police except in the towns, and a rag tag tribal outfit of Levies from the British-era. It is unsuitable to ensure law and order, thus necessitating the employment of para-military Frontier Corps as the first responders to any law and order situation. Balochistan also remains behind the other three provinces of Pakistan in every aspect of the Human Development Index.
The British did not develop Kalati-Balochistan at all. Even in British Balochistan, which was directly run by them, they undertook the bare minimum of socio-economic development, considered strategically necessary to defend against any potential Russian invasion. Within the present day Balochistan, the northern part called British Balochistan was administered by the British since the 1880s and was well ahead of Kalati-Balochistan in 1947. This lead of 60 some years has also had its adverse effects on the socio-economic state of Southern Balochistan inhabited by the Baloch. This is not because of Pakistan; rather it is historic reality.
Weak Standard of Education in Balochistan
At the time of Independence, there were only nine high schools in British Balochistan and no college. In Kalati-Balochistan, there were only madrassas; no school was being run by the British. In 1948, the first college was opened in Quetta and in 1971-73 the first higher education institution, the University of Balochistan (UoB) was established. In 1972, the first democratic government of Balochistan expelled 3,500 teachers (and 3,200 Policemen) belonging to Punjab, which was nearly 80-85% of the total strength of the teachers. The dearth of educated persons was so great that the school teachers and headmasters subsequently appointed were near illiterate and, at best, had only passed 5 grades; also, these appointments were mostly on political considerations.
In 1986, also on political considerations, 84 persons holding fake Masters degrees were appointed as ‘helpers’ in UoB without any codal formalities. A year later, they were regularized without undergoing any Selection Board’s scrutiny, again under political pressure. Many are still ‘serving’, generally as university-based politicians and are incapable of teaching. However, some of them did acquire requisite education and became proper teachers. Politics to the detriment of education has become so prevalent that there are no Student Unions in the colleges and universities. There are ethnic student organisations and teachers’ Academic Staff Unions who practice politics in these institutions. To name only UoB, there are over a dozen student organisations based on ethnic basis supported by various politicians of Balochistan. Eight are called Baloch Student Organisation (BSO), each being supported by a different sardar (tribal chieftain).
The cumulative effect of mismanaging education has resulted in a socially acceptable culture of cheating, manipulating results, buying fake degrees, and even of PhD candidates taking proxy exams. Merit has ceased to matter. Bribes or political clout has become the prerequisite for admission to education institutions and selection for jobs at all levels. No politician, and consequently no bureaucrats, took notice. Indeed, one high public office holder bragged in a Convocation that he had, “bought [his] B.A degree for Rs. 42,000”. Yet another high public office holder ridiculed education by saying,“A degree is a degree, regardless of whether it is fake or real”. For political expediency, there was a rush to open schools, colleges, universities and sub-campuses of universities without consolidating the quality of education and hiring and training suitable teachers. Cumulatively, this has greatly lowered the standard of education in Balochistan at all levels. Technical education has been finished altogether and the students often opt for subjects which have little demand in the market. These colleges and universities go on producing hordes of semi-literate degree-holders incapable of passing outside tests or getting a job, and are thus being left behind. However, there are certainly exceptions and this is not universally applicable to all education institutions and graduates of Balochistan.
This sizeable youth only seeking government jobs becomes disgruntled when they fail to qualify in tests or do not have a strong political connection to secure a job. They remain unemployed, blaming Pakistan for their condition. The situation is so dire that when competing even within Balochistan, they unfortunately meet with failure, and cannot compete with other provinces where the competitors are better educated. This group is an easy prey for foreign agents like Indian Naval Commander Kalbhushan Yadav, who hire them first for undertaking propaganda against Pakistan, then engaging in militancy and finally terrorism. What starts initially as a well-paying ‘job’, tends to create some genuine ideologues also willing to lose their lives in their endeavour to seek ‘independence’ of probably only Southern Balochistan.
Dubious Contours of ‘Independent Balochistan’
The contours of ‘Independent Balochistan’ have never been explained by any Baloch/Brahui political leaders or even the militants. It is a vague term which apparently covers the entire Balochistan province, where patriotic population of different ethno-racial origin, that is several times larger, lives peacefully. However, this vagueness is capitalized on by Pakistan’s enemies, including India, and lately also various spokespersons of the US and its allies. It was amusing to see Congressmen Rohrabacher (R-CA) and the former CIA Col Ralph Peter talk about Balochistan, whose name they pronounce as ‘Balookistan’. Congressman Rohrabacher introduced a resolution in 2012 in the US Congress and testified that, “Baloch people are divided between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. [That] they have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country.” This is akin to saying that a heavy Jewish presence in New York City justifies uniting the US with Israel; by corollary, Kashmiris and Palestinians operating under occupation are also in need of such a resolution and quite justifiably so.
As it is, there are seven to eight times more Baloch living prosperously and happily in Punjab and five to six times more in Sindh, than in Southern Balochistan, or even in the entire Balochistan province. Northern Balochistan is inhabited by Pashtuns, Hazaras, settlers from all over Pakistan, as well as many Afghan refugees, Uzbeks, Tajiks and even Iranians. They are die-hard Pakistanis. The Baloch clans of Khetran, Marri, Bugti, Rind and Dombki also live in north-eastern Balochistan. However, since long they have been living peacefully. Albeit, two sons of the deceased former Marri sardar and one grandson of former Bugti sardar are being hosted in Europe by Pakistan-bashing western powers as “Baloch leaders in exile”, to be showcased by the likes of Congressman Rohrabacher.
Balochistan’s ‘rich minerals’ have been deliberately exaggerated by vested interests to argue that they can sustain an ‘Independent Balochistan’. For Saindak and Reko Deq, these are underground minerals which have to be mined and sent abroad for refinement; and what comes to Balochistan and Pakistan may not be a great wealth. Natural gas at Sui is almost depleted. Other minerals are an economic relief for the local miners but nothing is in significant commercially rich-ore quantities. According to a June 2022 Revenue Collection Report of Pakistan’s Finance Department, the revenue collected from Balochistan is a meagre 1.67% of the national collection. What would be the wealth of the Southern Balochistan and ratio in this Revenue Collection to allow it to survive as an ‘independent Southern Balochistan’?
Recent Geostrategic / Geopolitical and Historic Developments
In 1970, the One Unit was abolished and the present Balochistan province was created by the merger of Quetta and Kalat Divisions, with a much bigger area and far greater mix of multi-racial/multi ethnic population than the erstwhile Kalati-Balochistan. A number of strategic developments took place from then on which ought to be known to understand where Balochistan, and indeed Pakistan, stand today and why. Very briefly:
- In 1970, the Soviet Union decided to break the American containment in its south by destabilizing CENTO. They tried creating insurgencies in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, all members of CENTO. A so-called London-Plan was hatched by the KGB in London which was attended by some Baloch and Brahui sardars belonging to Southern Balochistan and also some from Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan, to create Greater Balochistan. Nawab Muhammad Akbar Khan Bugti was not part of this group and was against them.
- In 1972, Pakistan transferred political power to these very Brahui / Baloch sardar, who had won the election held in 1970, of almost twice the size of Southern-Balochistan / Kalat Division they wanted to cede with. The London-Plan lost its charm for them. However, this was the beginning of the talk of ‘Independence of Balochistan’, which at that time implied only Southern Balochistan, or Kalat Division, the former Kalati-Balochistan. In the beginning of 1973, the then PM dismissed this provincial government on charges of serious misconduct / misrule and attempts at genocide of Jamotes of Las Bela.
- In 1973, the erstwhile Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) came into being, starting a KGB sponsored militancy astride two main roads of Balochistan only, which were inhabited by the Mengal and Marri clans. Indeed, the Mengals living in Noshki area did not join them. Similarly, the Khetran, Bajranis and Powadi Marri clans living in the Kohlu area also did not join the militancy. The militancy was basically to protest against the dismissal of the provincial government led by Attaullah Mengal and Governor Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo, and was limited to possibly about 10-15% of Balochistan only. In September 1974, some 1,500 Marri militants were surrounded by the Army who surrendered. Mr. Bhutto, the then PM visited the prisoners in Kohlu and announced general amnesty for all of them, notwithstanding that many of them had the blood of many civilians and soldiers on their hands. Most of them went to Afghanistan under orders of Sardar Khair Bakhsh Marri; some went to Moscow, including Balach, the young son of the Sardar.
- The militancy of the Mengal clan on the Quetta-Karachi road around the Kalat-Khuzdar areas withered away by 1975. Later, its commander Khair Jan Baloch divulged that there were never more than 325 militants under his command. Complete peace prevailed in Northern and Southern Balochistan for the next 33 years till 2008, up to 7 years after the so called 9/11 and occupation of Afghanistan by the US forces.
- In 1974, India carried out its first nuclear test, thus compelling Pakistan to counter the emerging threat. In 1998, Pakistan, in response to fresh Indian nuclear explosions, also tested its nukes and thus it squarely became a target for the perpetual US disapproval, on and off sanctions and antagonism.
- After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, ironically, the tables were reversed. The US decided to let no rival emerge to contest its newly acquired global hegemony. Paul Wolfowitz’s Project for New American Century (PNAC) was quietly unleashed, resulting in 9/11 and the occupation of Afghanistan in October 2001. The CIA now revived the plan to contain Russia, China and Iran and keep Pakistan under pressure for strategic reasons. In 2005, Col Ralph Peter of the CIA published an article with a map showing Pakistan’s disintegration by 2015. This map and write up was duly published in the US Armed Forces Journal. It showed Southern Balochistan merging with Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan and revived the old KGB plan of creating ‘Greater Balochistan’. Only this time it was not meant to break up the US containment of the Soviet Union but to ensure containment of the Russian Federation and China. The old BLA of the KGB era, with several new names of militant groups to give the impression of a large scale uprising, was revived; this time it was done by the CIA and India’s spy agency RAW, using Afghanistan as a safe haven for launching terror attacks in Pakistan both in KPK and Balochistan. Sporadic terror acts were launched initially all over Balochistan, but were soon controlled by Pakistan and the patriotic people of Northern Balochistan. The occasional acts of terrorism continue even now, albeit being greatly reduced and generally restricted to Southern Balochistan.
- It must be acknowledged that everyone living in Southern Balochistan is certainly not unpatriotic or a militant. A great majority of Baloch, Brahui, all the Jamotes and those of other ethno-racial origins living in Southern Balochistan are patriotic and peacefully busy in routine activities of a civil society.
- However, the non-productive land of Southern Balochistan with sparse population, facing abject poverty that has lingered on since centuries, is now being used as a safe haven for militants. The history of the erstwhile KGB sponsored BLA militancy in 1973-75, the development of Gwadar and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) all have provided justification to the enemies of Pakistan for unleashing 5th Generation War through Southern Balochistan.
Geostrategic Location of Pakistan
The geographical location of Balochistan, indeed, Pakistan is very peculiar. It has been a bane in some ways and beneficial in others. Briefly, in 1725, Peter the Great expressed his desire for Russia to have access to warm waters. The straight line from St. Petersburg comes to Pakistani shores.
China wants to use Pakistan as an Economic Corridor to access global shipping lanes through Gwadar, bypassing the Strait of Malacca, and reaching out to Africa, Europe and Iran. Russia and the Central Asian Republics can all have this access to the Arabian Sea and beyond. However, the US wants to contain China, Russia and even the CARs and deny this natural Corridor of Pakistan. The geopolitical canvass is witnessing a sea-change in American foreign policy ever since the inclusion of India in the allied group of countries through initiatives such as the so-called Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad group. US-India agreements such as BECA, LEMOA, COMCASA, and the civil-nuclear deal have also exacerbated the regional security environment. All of these initiatives meant to strengthen the containment of China are indeed the last ditch efforts of the US to safeguard its eroding status of being the erstwhile sole superpower. China is unlikely to be contained but India has certainly been strengthened and is making more threatening noises towards Pakistan.
India has very long seaboards in the East and the West, but it is landlocked to the west and north. Pending resolution of disputes from the unfinished agenda of the Partition due to India’s intransigence, Pakistan stands like a wall, blocking India’s westward trade to Afghanistan, the CARs, Russia, the EU and Iran. India’s intransigence has made it deploy its armed forces nearly all along the border of Pakistan, and China in the north. Its hubris and uncompromising attitude have antagonized the entire South Asian region, including the tiny Hindu state of Nepal. Iran does not want the emergence of Gwadar as it will compete with Chahbahar for business, never mind the shallow port of Chahbahar. Pakistan is thus located in a geopolitical crush-zone confronted by the competing demands of major powers. It is a challenge, yes, but it is also an opportunity to provide connectivity to the competing major powers through diplomacy.
Managing the Impact of Major Power Politics
Domestic Initiatives. The adverse impact of the politics of major powers have to be managed both by Pakistan and Balochistan domestically, and diplomatically. The existing status of Southern Balochistan being the ‘soft-underbelly of Pakistan’ for its enemies must be changed by carrying out massive socio-economic development in this area.
Disinformation and / or ignorance of the people are the biggest weapons of the adversaries of Pakistan. Balochistan’s harsh geo-historic realities must be made known to our policy planners as well as our diplomats. That Balochistan has been suffering and continues to suffer the rigours of an unkind geography and that it joined Pakistan from a backward tribal status much later while other provinces had been in existence over a century ago, warrants a sustained effort at the national level to uplift it, especially Southern Balochistan. Balochistan itself must let its people know the true reasons behind its backwardness. This must be taught in schools and debated all over the province for to strengthen faith in the country and defeat the negative enemy propaganda. It ought to be repeated for years to create awareness across the board.
Education in Balochistan. Quality education within Balochistan ought to be revived by upholding merit and honest teaching, and mitigating politics within the education institutions. All stakeholder must be involved and weaned away from detrimental practices, firmly. Without quality education, both technical and academic, Balochistan has no future.
Creating Awareness. Tribal elders must be made to understand that global warming has further enhanced the existing scarcity of water and small habitats must be abandoned for bigger villages where the state can and should provide water, education and health facilities. The provincial share in national resources and its own earning of annual revenue must also be made known through the media so that false perceptions of ‘deprivation’ and ‘exploitation’ can be put to rest.
Handling Grievances. Credible elders should be encouraged by the government to engage in dialogue in Southern Balochistan to mitigate genuine grievances. Security must be ensured for all; even the kith and kin of militants ought to be treated as brothers and sisters. With compassion, efforts must be launched to win the hearts and minds of the people of Southern Balochistan. They deserve understanding, extra concessions and help. This will also wean them away from being the soft-underbelly of Pakistan.
Diplomacy. Pakistan has been managing a balanced act of diplomacy with competing major powers and India since long. It should continue to do so. We ought to smoothen the occasional rough edges in our relations with Iran. The US might have signed a number of protocols with India but the ground realities will not change as per its wish list. Ukraine, Norway and Sweden as well as Crimea and Syria are some of the examples which should sober down the US. If not now, then when the Republicans take over, which does not seem far. Besides, there are so many domestic fault lines which the US ought to focus on. Its unending worldwide wars are coming home to roost. Every other day, innocent people – even children – are killed by gun toting ‘warriors’ in the US. This violence which the US has kept unleashed on the world is being taken as routine within the US, resulting in growing domestic gun violence.
India, will not remain in the US camp for long, being too calculated in their gains and losses; nor would the US ever treat them like their Caucasian cousins. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is where India belongs, eventually. India will do well to coolly assess the ground realities, make up with its neighbours, end its embrace of the McMahon Line left by the colonial British, and cease promoting militancy in Southern Balochistan. Similarly, it should assess its losses by the occupation of Muslim-Kashmir and militarizing the McMahon Line for the past 75 years or so. The BJP government is being myopic. Pakistan should undertake Track 2 initiatives to convince the Indian intelligentsia of their self-created security black-hole which is consuming huge finances, accentuating security threats, promoting poverty and increasing domestic fault lines. The sooner they see the light, the better it will be for all concerned. This impoverished subcontinent ought to get out of the self-created security hype of India. Besides huge reductions in defense expenses, vacating Kashmir can enable India to normalize relations with Pakistan. It can then use the East-West corridor which Pakistan can offer for access to the Iranian, Central Asia, European and Middle Eastern markets.