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Musharraf's hour of reckoning

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January 20, 2005 20:34 IST

Part I: Is Balochistan burning?

Don't push us. It is not the 1970s, and this time you won't even know what has hit you,' President Pervez Musharraf is reported to have warned Baloch nationalist elements during an interview to Geo Television, Pakistan's private television channel, on January 10.

He issued this warning while replying to a question on the deteriorating law and order situation in Balochistan due to the protest movement launched by Baloch nationalist elements, spearheaded by an organisation which calls itself the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).

Not much is known about this organisation. It is possibly an off-shoot of the Baloch People's Liberation Organisation (BPLO), patterned after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which was active in the 1970s in the wake of the birth of Bangladesh.

It tried to emulate the Bangladesh freedom struggle, but the government of Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, then in power, managed to crush it with the help of the army and air force, forcing its leaders and remnants to take shelter in Afghanistan, the UK, France and the then USSR.

Musharraf is not wrong when he warns the Baloch nationalists 'it is not the 1970s.'

In the 1970s, the Pakistani political leadership as well as the military were yet to recover from the traumatic loss of East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was known before 1971. The army was still in a state of demoralisation with senior officers blaming each other for the humiliating debacle in East Pakistan.

The US was yet to replenish all the equipment lost by the Pakistani armed forces in East Pakistan. Pakistan was not a military nuclear power. There was no terrorist or insurgent movement in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir to keep the Indian security forces preoccupied.

Indira Gandhi, whom the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment respected, feared and hated, was still at the height of her power in India. The then Afghan government in Kabul was a close ally of India. Consequently, worries over the possibility of the Indian and Afghan armies helping the Baloch nationalists, either overtly or covertly, was a factor influencing Pakistan's policy.

Despite all these inhibiting factors, the Pakistani army and air force, on Bhutto's orders, intervened and ruthlessly put down the nationalist movement though they took many months before they could root it out.

The Shah of Iran was at the height of his power and influence in Tehran and he was determined to see that the BPLO did not succeed lest it had an adverse impact on Iran's control over its Balochs. He had reportedly assured Bhutto that if India intervened to help the Balochs, his army would enter Balochistan to help the Pakistan army crush the Balochs. This imparted some confidence to the Pakistani leadership.

Today, Pakistan is a nuclear power. Jihadi terrorist organisations from Pakistan continue to keep the Indian security forces bleeding in J&K.

India has had a succession of prime ministers who have no stomach for using the stick against Pakistan.

Afghanistan is ruled by a government, which is strongly under the control of the US and hence unlikely to meddle in Pakistan's internal affairs. Pakistan's economy is improving steadily. Musharraf is the blue-eyed boy of the US and other Western governments. US economic and military assistance has been resumed to Pakistan on a generous scale.

The army has been in receipt of considerable US military supplies such as helicopter gunships, surveillance equipment, arms and ammunition etc meant for use against the remnants of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front in Pakistan's border areas. Musharraf could easily divert them for use against the Baloch nationalists and the US is unlikely to raise any objection.

Despite all this, there are many negative factors too, which should be a cause for concern for Pakistan.

First, when he put the Baloch revolt down, Bhutto was still the popular leader of Pakistan with considerable public support particularly in Punjab and Sindh.

Musharraf enjoyed such popularity for a few months after he seized power in October,1999, but his popularity has declined today because of his supporting the US in its operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and his refusal to lay down office as chief of the army staff in violation of the solemn promise made by him at the beginning of last year.

The Coup in Pakistan

Bhutto did not have to contend with strong Islamic fundamentalist and jihadi terrorist elements. Due to the policies followed by Zia-ul Haq and his successors as the army chief, including Musharraf himself, the jihadi terrorist elements have become a Frankenstein's monster.

There was no large-scale Shia-Sunni tension in the 1970s. The frequent Shia-Sunni violence was a product of Zia's encouragement of sectarian forces and this has become worse since Musharraf took over in 1999, spreading from Punjab to Sindh, then to Balochistan and now to the Northern Areas.

Musharraf has had till now the unquestioned support of all the officers of the rank of major general and above, but at the lower levels there is hostility to him -- in the army and air force. This was evident from the involvement of some junior officers of the army and the air force in the two unsuccessful attempts to kill him in December 2003, and the recent escape of one of them, who had been sentenced to death in November 2004, from air force custody.

Even earlier, it was known that the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) has penetrated the army.

In September 1995, General Abdul Waheed Kakar, the then COAS, discovered a plot by a group of army officers headed by Major General Zaheer-ul-Islam Abbasi, acting in complicity with the HUJI, to assassinate him and Benazir Bhutto, the then prime minister, and capture power.

Recent Pakistani media reports have indicated that some of the army and air force officers involved in the December 2003 plots to kill Musharraf were members of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, thereby indicating penetration of the military by it too.

In addition, it is believed that there has been penetration of the army by the Hizbut Tehrir too.

An army infiltrated by anti-US and anti-Musharraf jihadi terrorist elements cannot be a fit instrument for counter-insurgency duties in Balochistan.

The military campaign against the Uighur, Uzbek, Chechen, Kazhak and Arab survivors of the IIF, who are operating from South Waziristan, has not been successful, despite claims to the contrary made by army spokesmen.

Violent attacks on the army continue to be reported. Already about 210 military and paramilitary officers are reported to have lost their lives there and South Waziristan is threatening to become a mini-Iraq.

At a time when victory against the terrorist remnants is not yet in sight in South Waziristan, it would be unwise for Musharraf to open up another front in Balochistan.

The continuing prosperity of the Pakistani economy depends on stability in Balochistan. Industries and power stations in the rest of Pakistan have already been affected by the frequent disruptions of gas supply from Sui in Balochistan by the BLA. A prolonged military conflict between the military and the Baloch nationalists would cause a setback to the economy.

Moreover, there is large involvement of Chinese personnel in the Gwadar port construction and other projects in Balochistan. There is already considerable tension amongst the Chinese residents following the killing of two of their colleagues by improvised explosive devices in May last year by as yet unidentified elements.

A military conflict and the resulting instability would add to this nervousness and could come in the way of further Chinese involvement in projects in Balochistan.

Finally, there has been a deterioration in the law and order situation in other parts of Pakistan since Musharraf joined hands with the US in October 2001 against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

More reports from Pakistan

The sectarian clashes have spread to Gilgit and Baltistan in the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir, which are directly administered by Islamabad.

Since the middle of last year, normal life has been frequently disrupted due to the exacerbation of the anti-Shia violence and the sprouting of anti-Ismaili violence in these areas. Musharraf has been watching helplessly without being able to stop this violence.

Any military operation in Balochistan against the nationalist elements has to be fast and surgical, if it has to be effective. Otherwise, a prolonged conflict would make the situation intractable.

In 1971, General Yahya Khan and his senior generals convinced themselves, just as Musharraf seems to have convinced himself now, that the army will have a walk-over in the then East Pakistan.

The result: An independent Bangladesh.

Any hasty and over-confident action by Musharraf could create a similar situation in Balochistan. Musharraf may end up by being another Yahya Khan, the COAS in 1971, or another Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, who came to be abused as the butcher of the Bangladeshis.

B Raman