The AfPak Apparition
The Baloch people are paying a very real price
for a videogame war on a phantasmagorical land
Someone in the American government has been reading Borges. This would explain the creation of a fantastical place called AfPak which occupies the same place on the map as the nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. AfPak has much in common with the shared border region of the two countries the same topography, the same militants with their perverted form of Islam, the same distrust of central governments. But there are distinctions. AfPak is, after all, an abbreviated place, so it takes all the complex realities of Afghanistan and Pakistan, ignores some, distills others and in so doing, distorts the picture. And of course, the strategies drawn up about AfPak are carried out in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
To say that AfPak distils complex realities is not to imply that AfPak itself is without complications. It is one entity but in two parts. One part has "good Taliban", with whom US officials are willing to enter into discussions; the other part has only "bad Taliban", who must be "taken out" by military force. One part is approached via troops on the ground; the other via unmanned drone attacks.
But now it seems troops on the ground are being considered for Pak as well, unless the Pakistan government, already locked in battle with the Taliban, also takes on the militants who have fled Afghanistan for Pakistan. The fact that expanding the Pakistan army's remit might cause an even greater escalation in suicide bombings is not, presumably, germane to AfPak strategy. But surely there's a lesson about opening up too many fronts, even in AfPak world?
Or perhaps all this talk of US escalation is just laying the groundwork for increasing the scale and scope of drone attacks. This videogame form of warfare press a button in Langley! Kill a terrorist in AfPak! is at present confined to the tribal regions of "Pak".
A senior US official recently claimed the drone attacks have killed 400 terrorists and only 20 civilians in Pak. This forms a sharply contrasting picture to the reality of Pakistan, where figures reported by both local and international press have placed civilian deaths in the hundreds. It appears the "Pak" to Pakistan conversion rate is about 1:50.
The AfPak strategists now want to expand drone attacks to the province of Balochistan, where many of the Taliban are allegedly based having unsurprisingly decided to flee the drone attacks in the tribal areas. In the world of AfPak, Balochistan is the new safe haven, and so it must be the new target. Of all the distilled and distorted complex realities of Pakistan, this is among the most egregious.
The province of Balochistan has been at odds with the central government of Pakistan since 1947. During the 70s, the Baloch separatist movement both secular and leftist led to a five-year military operation, ending with the withdrawal of the army and a period of martial law. In the succeeding years, nothing was done to seriously address the political and economic deprivation of the mineral-rich province. Islamabad controls Balochistan's gas, coal, uranium and other natural resources, but returns very little to the province in terms of revenue or infrastructure. The Frontier Corps (which the United States wants to "strengthen" as part of its AfPak plans) is viewed as an occupying power; hundreds or, more likely, thousands, of Baloch are among the "disappeared people" who, in the last decade, have been picked up by intelligence agencies and never seen again. It is no great surprise that there are loud demands for provincial autonomy, and great anger towards the centre.
One of President Zardari's first acts was to apologise to the people of Balochistan for all they have suffered at the hands of the state. On 24 November, his government tabled a wide-ranging package of reform for Balochistan. There is scepticism in Balochistan about the package, but at least some kind of start has been made to the vital issue crucial to Pakistan's hopes of coming through its nightmarish present of making Balochistan feel a part of the federation, with a stake in its future.
What might derail the process? The AfPak videogame. Whether the Taliban or al-Qaida are welcomed in Balochistan under a "my enemy's enemy is my friend" way of thinking or not does not alter the desperate need to prevent bombs raining down. Given the battles being fought between province and centre, how could the Baloch fail to see a tacit complicity of the Pakistan military behind every drone?
(R) thedailystar.net 2010