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APC on Balochistan

February 16, 2012

HERE we go again. Another ‘all-party conference’ on Balochistan has been mooted, this time by the prime minister, who on Wednesday suggested that the APC would be held “as soon as possible”, this after a meeting with the foreign minister, COAS and ISI chief to discuss the security situation.

Last month, it was Nawaz Sharif who pledged to convene an APC of his own, and the government had immediately suggested it was willing to participate. Will the two APCs now be merged? It doesn’t really matter, for as long as the enormous gap between the rhetoric of politicians and the realities of Balochistan remains, the politicians are unlikely to lead the way to a solution in the violence-torn province. What are those realities? They’re fairly well known by now. Violence by both sides is up. The so-called ‘kill and dump’ policy of extrajudicial executions has claimed nearly 300 lives so far. Meanwhile, the Baloch separatists continue their campaign of violence, targeting both security installations and personnel as well as ordinary non-Baloch residents of the province.

In fact, a troubling new development is the targeting of Pakhtuns, in this case seven newly arrived labourers in southwest Balochistan, presumably by Baloch separatists. Until now, it had been the Punjabi ‘settlers’ who had been the subject of violence. Their killing was seen as a way of protesting Punjab’s ‘domination’ of the federation, and the Baloch in particular. Unfortunately for the Punjabi settlers, they were relatively soft targets. But the killing of Pakhtun labourers could have serious consequences for Balochistan given the significant Pakhtun population in the province and the long-standing demand of some Pakhtun leaders that the northern parts of the province, even Quetta city, be merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Whether the Baloch separatists have opened a new front in the province out of desperation or as a way of drawing fresh attention to their cause, the implications are terrifying. Baloch and Pakhtun leaders must reassert the importance of peaceful coexistence.

As for the APC, in theory it is a good idea but in practice will only work if the politicians are serious about bringing the warring sides, the Baloch separatists and the security establishment, to the table. A recent background briefing on Balochistan by senior security officials reflected how difficult that task is: the blame was almost wholly cast on politicians for putting self-interest ahead of the needs of the province. Of course, that perspective is questionable, if not problematic: as long as bribes and bullets are the preferred instruments of the security establishment for dealing with Balochistan, the province will never truly escape its unhappy past and present.