One hand clapping

April 02, 2005


FOR over 15 years now, every government in Islamabad has made the restoration of the supply of F-16s the centrepiece of its diplomatic and defence policies.

Elected leaders and military dictators have made the pilgrimage to Washington to plead their case. Successive ambassadors have spent their entire tenures in the American capital in a futile quest for the Holy Grail. And now, after all these years, Musharraf is the one to have hit the jackpot.

I suppose glasses of syrupy Rooh Afza must have been raised in toasts at GHQ and Air Force headquarters, and they must have danced a celebratory jig at the presidency. And once the two dozen F-16s of the initial consignment have arrived, I am sure Pakistani airspace will be more secure than ever before.

The problem is that the threat we face is not from the air, but from within. And F-16s, wonderful interceptors that they are, are useless against internal enemies.

Consider our immediate neighbourhood: Afghanistan, despite its old reservations about the Durand Line and its claim on Pakistani territory, is too weak currently to pose a military threat. Iran needs all the friends it can get in its present stand-off with the United States. And India, whatever our military strategists and nationalist, right-wing think tanks might say, has regional and global ambitions which preclude any desire to seek a fight with Pakistan.

Indeed, any objective observer will conclude that since 1948, Pakistan is supposed to have provoked armed conflict with India time and again. I am no apologist for New Delhi, but were I in a policy-making position there, my worst nightmare would be an unstable Pakistan on the verge of fragmentation. A war with Pakistan, with its potential for going nuclear, is the worst case scenario for Indian defence planners.

So what aerial threats are the F-16s going to guard us against? I am not suggesting that our armed forces should not modernize their equipment. We live in a dangerous part of the world where the security scenario does not take long to change. But the acquisition of the F-16s should not distract us from the fact that the real dangers that beset us are internal, whatever the source of their support and funding.

Recently, a reader e-mailed me an odd investigative report compiled by an organization called News Central Asia, based in Turkmenistan. Its website is given as www.newscentralasia. com, but as I am writing this from a very small town in Morocco, I do not have access to the Internet, and cannot comment on its credibility. However, the four authors (including one Pakistani from Quetta) claim to have travelled 5,000 kilometres researching this report, and to have interviewed two ex-KGB officers in Moscow who were once tasked with fomenting trouble in Balochistan to punish Pakistan for its role in helping the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation.

Misha’ and Sasha’, the two KGB sources, claim to have created the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) on the back of the old Moscow-leaning Balochistan Students Organization (BSO). After the Soviet pull-out, the BLA became defunct for lack of funding, but was allegedly reactivated recently under a young man who studied electronic engineering in the Soviet Union where he was cultivated by the KGB.

According to this report, the first training camp was established in Kohlu in January 2002 by two Americans and two Indians. The authors make it clear that they have been unable to establish any official support from New Delhi for this clandestine venture, but do claim at least Pentagon backing for the American presence. However, they do assert that the Indian consulates in Zahidan in Iran, and in Jalalabad and Kandahar in Afghanistan, have received a 700 per cent increase in their discretionary grant’ last year.

They also claim that disassembled arms like AK-47s, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mines, small anti-aircraft guns, ammunition and communication equipment are transferred from Kishangarh, an Indian village near the border with Pakistan where Balochistan and Sindh meet, to a transshipment point in Shahgarh, where these consignments are loaded on to camels, and then on to goods trucks where they are concealed by an upper layer of normal cargo. Apparently, they reach Kohlu in a few hours, as the distance is only about 180 kilometres.

Money, too, is pouring in. Allegedly, BLA foot soldiers are paid $200 each per month, while section commanders get $300 and above. Special bonuses are paid for successful missions. According to the authors, young Balochs are now driving around in flashy four-wheel drive vehicles.

Both Sasha’ and Misha’ assert that the difference in the two incarnations of the BLA is that this time, the sardars are in control when earlier, young, idealistic Balochs had been recruited. Among the subjects taught at the training camps are Greater Balochistan’, Baloch rights’, Punjabi tyranny’, sabotage as a tool for political struggle’ and, intriguingly, media-friendly methods of mass protest’.

The report quotes the KGB officers as concluding that the entire conspiracy is aimed at splitting Balochistan away from Pakistan to create a corridor from Central Asia for oil and gas to be transported to America. A secondary aim is to deny this area to China which is now in global competition with America for energy sources. Beijing’s activities in Gwadar and elsewhere in the province are not viewed with approval in Washington.

Now I am not a great one for conspiracy theories, and I am not about to swallow this report in its entirety. I am just passing it on to substantiate my earlier suggestion that the immediate threats we face cannot be met by F-16s, and that we need to tackle the enemies within. And while we might discard this report, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that arms and money are flowing into the troubled areas of Balochistan from somewhere.

Unfortunately, the alleged conspiracy in Balochistan is not the only threat we are confronted with. The jihadi groups are armed and dangerous as they have proved time and again. An ethnic organization in Sindh retains its potent arsenal and its urban fighting force. As Wana has demonstrated, tribal chiefs have their own well-armed militias and their own agendas.

And all of the above undertake criminal activities on a vast scale to arm themselves and to finance the lavish lifestyle of their leaders. Smuggling of every kind, car thefts, kidnappings, robbery and murder are all part of their repertoires. Alas, F-16s can do nothing to curb these elements. Nor can they alleviate the problems of poverty, disease and ignorance.

So if you hear the sound of one hand-clapping, that will be me, unsurprised by the imminent arrival of the new toys in our armoury.