US Congress resolution further strains already frayed US-Pakistan relations
Relations between the US and Pakistan hit a new low when Republican congresswoman and US house foreign affairs committee member Dana Rohrabacher proposed a nonbinding resolution on February 17 stating that the Baloch people, who live in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and also in parts of Iran and Afghanistan, “have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country”.
Terming Pakistan a hardcore two-faced enemy, Rohrabacher compared the “struggle of the people of Balochistan”, Pakistan’s largest province, to the struggle of the American colonies against the British Empire and said: “It’s important to begin a serious discussion about an issue that’s been ignored, but shouldn’t be ignored.”
Balochistan produces more than US$3 billion of natural gas each year. Baloch nationalists accuse the Pakistan civilian and military bureaucracy of pocketing more than 90% of the revenues and giving the local Baloch a pittance since independence. Accusations aside, the majority of the provine’s Bugti tribesmen live in abject poverty in the mineral-rich region.
The resolution has sparked widespread outrage in Pakistan, further complicating Washington’s efforts to revive its vital anti-terrorism alliance with Islamabad. That alliance has been on a downswing since Pakistan closed its Afghan border to NATO forces and stopped the US from using its bases for air strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, after NATO forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistan soldiers in November 2011.
The National Assembly, Pakistan’s parliament, on February 13 passed a unanimous resolution strongly condemning the resolution and calling it “blatant interference” of the US into Pakistan’s internal matters, while Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said the resolution could only aggravate Pakistan’s already strained relations with the US.
Responding to sharp reactions by the Pakistanis, US President Barack Obama’s administration rejected Rohrabacher’s call for an independent Balochistan. Still, several thousand Pakistanis poured onto the streets of Islamabad on February 19, chanting “death to America” at a rally attended by supporters of right-wing, religious and even banned organisations. It was the latest show of strength by Defence of Pakistan, a coalition of around 40 parties chaired by Maulana Sami ul-Haq.
When he said “America wants to break Pakistan into pieces”, a clear reference to Rohrabacher’s resolution, the crowd gathered in a bustling business zone shouted “Death to America” and “America deserves one treatment: jihad, jihad”.
The coalition has attracted huge turnouts at rallies across the country that some see as a build up to the next general election, which could be called by the end of the month by a government reeling under the corruption and Memogate scandals.
On the same day as the rally in Islamabad, unnamed Pakistani security and diplomatic officials told The Express Tribune, an English news daily, that the US resolution was part of US “pressure tactics”. The US has been trying to get Pakistan to allow it to establish bases near the Iranian border in Balochistan for intelligence operations against Iran.
The Rohrabacher resolution came just a day after the Iranian president arrived in Pakistan for a tripartite summit in Islamabad between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran, already in a tussle with the US over its nuclear programme, is worried that a long-term strategic agreement between the Afghan Taliban and the US, currently being discussed in Qatar, may lead to permanent US bases in Afghanistan, just across Iran’s border, said Tanwir Ahmad Khan, a former Pakistani ambassador to Iran, in his February 20 column in The Express Tribune.
The US has always blamed Pakistan for helping the Afghan Taliban in their fight against NATO forces. Now that the US is in talks with the Taliban, an angry Pakistan refused entry in January to an American special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who wanted to discuss the US-Afghan Taliban talks with the Pakistan administration.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai too is unhappy with the US for being kept away from the US-Afghan Taliban talks.
Sensing an opportunity in the present anger at the US in the region, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was said to have arrived in Pakistan with an intent to encourage Pakistan to move further away from US plans in the region.
A Pakistani columnist, Salim Safi, who has written extensively on Afghanistan, said the trilateral summit in Islamabad was in fact a “protest sit-in” against the US.
On February 17, the presidents of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan ended the trilateral summit in Islamabad with a a joint communiqué that took a categorical stance that regional issues should be resolved within the region, and without any foreign intervention. Many in Pakistan endorse the declaration and consider the presence of US and NATO forces as the root cause of instability and hostilities in the region.
On the other hand, Balochistan is crucial to US interests for a variety of reasons. Most of Pakistan’s oil and gas resources are located in Balochistan, a third of which are controlled by US oil companies. For the same reasons, the region has become an important operational area for groups like Al-Qaeda in their attempts to hurt US economic interests in Pakistan in retaliation for the US war against terrorism. The terrorist groups are said to receive assistance from anti-US segments of the local administrations on both sides of the Pakistan-Iran border.
Significantly, security experts point out, Balochistan offers militants belonging to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits an escape route by sea to countries like Yemen. But most importantly, in the heated US-Iran dispute on the issue of the latter’s nuclear programme, Balochistan forms an extremely helpful window into Iran. If the US decides to overthrow the Iranian regime, the pro-US Baloch tribes, particularly the Jamalis, could be useful to Washington.
At another level, Balochistan is extremely important for the world from a socio-political point of view. Though surrounded by three nations with an inclination towards radical Islam — Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan — and also lately attracting fundamentalist groups, Balochistan has historically been a secular society.
Today, amid fighting between secessionist groups and the Pakistani army, regional chauvinists and non-Balochs, especially Punjabis, and also between many of the province’s own tribal groups, the region is witnessing a huge exodus of progressive and liberal Balochs — similar to the kind witnessed in Western Balochistan, which falls in Iranian territory, after the Islamic revolution of 1979 there.
US military and civil experts believe the exodus of those vital sections of Baloch society might create a vacuum filled with Islamic fundamentalists from all over the world.
But as Pakistan’s reaction to the resolution has demonstrated, any external ‘help’ in Balochistan would only make things more volatile. Relations between the cold war allies is at an all-time low. The tabling of the resolution promises to make matters worse.