DAWN – “No peace in Balochistan without referendum” – Eddie Walsh

The hearing showed that there will be no peace in the region without a referendum of self-determination. That cannot be ignored.”

As the sole witness of Baloch ethnicity to speak at the recent Balochistan hearing before the United States Congress, M. Hossein Bor disagrees with comments that he was not relevant to the proceedings.

Not only was he the only witness able to speak as a Baloch, he points out that he also was the only one with deep subject matter expertise in foreign trade and investment in Southwest Asia. From this perspective, he hoped his testimony would have shed light on the unrealised strategic and economic opportunities that an independent Balochistan would provide to Americans, including the ability to contain a rising China and an emerging Iran, prevent an adversarial Pakistan from achieving strategic depth in Afghanistan, and ensure Baloch-American economic prosperity through new energy and mineral resource agreements. However, with little time to prepare for the hearing and only five minutes of allotted time to provide oral testimony, many of these points were not expressed. Bor therefore looks to this post-hearing assessment as a mechanism to share publicly for the first time what he has shared privately with Baloch nationalists and their supporters. As one of the five witnesses called before Congress, it is assured that these remarks will be closely watched by all side to the Baloch debate.

Great Game 2.0

To understand Balochistan, Bor believes that one cannot look at Pakistan’s largest province through the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) box. In retrospect, this is perhaps one of the strongest contributions that he could have made at the hearing.

For Bor, Balochistan must be understood in the larger context of South-western Asia: “As everyone knows, there was a great game in this same area in the 19th century and the Afghans and Baloch were the victims. This great game has now been renewed but, instead of the British and Russian Empires, the competition is now between China-India, China-US, Iran-US, Pakistan-India, and Pakistan-US. This competition threatens US strategic and economic interests.”

He therefore counters the opinion of other witnesses, who felt that the hearing should have been limited to the Balochistan province: “There are many interrelated issues at play. When one discusses Balochistan, you are discussing a way to contain China. You are also discussing economic relationships between Iran and Pakistan. And, you are talking about energy security for the US and its allies.”

With respect to China, Bor says that the strategic and economic importance of Balochistan cannot be underestimated: “If (the Chinese) build their port in Gwadar, they will have a land route from Western China to the Indian Ocean. This is of strategic interest to the United States because Chinese ships would have a direct route to China and no longer have to transit past the Indian and American navies. It therefore is logical that Balochistan should be concerned as part of the larger shift to the Pacific announced by the Obama administration. Furthermore, Central Asia has the largest oil reserves in the world after the Middle East. Balochistan provides an alternative way to get those resources to the international market beside China and Russia.”

He makes a similar argument for Iran: “Iran is an empire and they are using Baloch lands to try to become the dominant regional player. The Iranians are using the Strait of Hormuz as a chokepoint for a huge percentage of the world’s oil. They also are building a pipeline to Pakistan which violates UN sanctions. Such growing Iran-Pakistan cooperation is a major concern.” In his mind, an independent Balochistan extending from Karachi to the Strait of Hormuz would not only contain an emerging Iran but also provide a long-term security guarantee against China, Iran, and Pakistan emerging as revisionist maritime powers in the region.

Safeguarding Afghanistan

While Bor does not believe that Balochistan should be limited to the Af-Pak box, he nevertheless recognises its extreme relevance to any discussion on the future of Balochistan.

From his perspective, Balochistan must be viewed not as an internal issue for Pakistan but rather as part of a larger regional struggle between the Baloch and Afghan nationalists and secularists against Afghan and Pakistani fundamentalists: “Pakistan and the Taliban are based upon fundamentalist Islam. They are the natural enemies of secularists and nationalists. This provides the natural ingredients that bring Afghans and Baloch together. The Baloch issue therefore is bigger than the internal struggle between Pakistan and its three large ethnic groups.”

Bor hopes that hearing will spur a follow-on national debate that will increase American awareness of the larger regional dynamics at play with Balochistan: “Not everyone understands that the Baloch have been naturally allied with the Afghan minorities and Pashtuns. The governments in power in Afghanistan have historically supported the Baloch and neither recognises the Durand Line. That is why there will always be strong cooperation between Baloch and Pashtun nationalists. They also recognise that they need Balochistan to have access to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf.”

In familiarising themselves with the regional dynamics, Bor hopes that Americans will appreciate that the reincorporation of the Taliban into Afghan politics will not necessarily undermine Baloch nationalists: “There are all kinds of possibilities if the Taliban return to power. There is no guarantee that they will trust Pakistan anymore. Plus, they themselves never recognised the Durand Line. So, one cannot conclude at this time that this harms the independent Balochistan cause.”

He consequently sees multiple policy options on the table for policymakers which allow them to pursue difference Afghan policy options while still advancing Baloch rights to self-determination.

Unearthing economic wealth

According to Bor, one of the most overlooked reasons why Balochistan has emerged as a major issue has been “the tremendous deposits of oil, gas, and minerals. In addition to human rights and geopolitics, this is a major reason why it has appeared on the international radar.”

Bor believes that Balochistan will be of increasing importance to the international community in the years ahead: “The Chinese are late-comers to the energy security game. At this point, Western oil companies control mostly of the supplies. Central Asia is one region where this is not the case. This is driving economic competition.”

However, Bor fears that Americans, including those in Congress, do not recognise the economic potential of the region. He therefore sees the hearing as the mechanism by which to introduce economic opportunities in Balochistan into the wider national debate about the future of US AfPak policy.

New cards on the table

Bor believes that the hearing was historic for a number of reasons. Of course, it was the first hearing in the Congress to directly tackle Baloch affairs. But, more importantly in Bor’s opinion, the hearing introduced new policy options to Congressmen that “should have been considered years ago.”

Bor underscores the importance of having such policy options on the table: “One of the main areas of weakness for US policy in the Middle East and Southwest Asia has always been that it did not play to regional dynamics. This was true in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, there has always been support for the Baloch but the US was never willing to play this card. The US would not play the game in Iraq or Afghanistan and take advantage of regional dynamics. But, given Iranian and Pakistani brutalisation and colonialism against the Baloch, this card has finally been raised before Congress.”

He also feels that the hearing has reinvigorated the Baloch diaspora to work within the US political system to pressure their government to play this new card, “The Baloch diaspora was late in the Washington game on AfPak policy. They now recognise the importance of playing the game and understand how to do so as a result of the hearing.”

For these reasons, Bor is optimistic that the hearing was not just a one-off event to “tick off Pakistan.” Instead, he believes it marks an important milestone along the road to independence for Balochistan: “There are different positions in the US Government but US policies are changing. They now understand the strategic imperative of an independent Balochistan from the Strait of Hormuz to Karachi, Sindh.

The hearing and bill mark the first time in history that any member of the US Government has officially recognised an independent Balochistan. Even if the State Department and Administration do not support the hearing, they must now recognise that the kill and dump campaign by Pakistan’s military and intelligence is designed to destroy the very idea of secular and nationalist Baloch. The hearing showed that there will be no peace in the region without a referendum of self-determination. That cannot be ignored.”

Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also is a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Follow him on Twitter here.

The views expressed by this writer and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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