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The Pak-Afghan border at Chaman. – File photo by AFP
The Pak-Afghan border at Chaman. – File photo by AFP

Over the last two months, a small faction of Congressmen has laid the foundation for an alternative Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. They do not favour strengthening relations with the Pakistan government nor do they accept normalising relations with the Taliban, if it leads to Pashtun dominance in Afghanistan. Instead, they propose backing remnants of the Northern Alliance seeking to establish semi-autonomous provinces in Afghanistan and Baloch nationalists hoping to create an independent state of Balochistan.

In one broad stroke, their proposed “Berlin Mandate” would redraw the political borders of the region contrary to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of two of the administration’s most important partners in the War on Terrorism, as well as Iran. While their initiative might not have broad domestic or international support, their policy proposal is maturing and garnering increased attention as a result of a number of high-profile events. Whether you agree or disagree with their new AfPak approach, it is critical to understand its rapid evolution over the last few months and recognise that their efforts to promote self-determination in the region will not end with the Balochistan sovereignty bill.

Berlin Strategy Session In early January, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher led an unofficial strategic exchange with Afghanistan’s newly formed National Front. Held in Berlin, the meeting reportedly discussed “alternatives to Hamid Karazi’s consideration of including the Taliban in Afghanistan’s coalition government.” Representatives Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Steve King (R-IA), as well as Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief, were in attendance.

The attendees explored constitutional reforms that would make Afghanistan a federal system. By vesting political and economic power in the provinces, they argued that pro-American minority ethnic groups could be safeguarded.

Following the meeting, Rohrabacher expressed fear that the re-emergence of the Taliban as a major political force in Afghanistan risks “(betraying) those Americans who shed their blood in the last decade” and selling out “the brave Afghans in the North Alliance who cast their lot with (the United States) after 9/11 in order to defeat the Taliban dictatorship.”

Rohrabacher’s comments likely belie his faction’s inherent fear that centralised power threatens to enable the Pashtuns, who comprise approximately 42% of the population, to dominate and take advantage of the US troop withdrawal to extract revenge on the minority groups who overthrew the Taliban government in the months following September 11th. They may also reflect the concern that the re-emergence of the Taliban would provide Pakistan with the strategic depth necessary to counter American and Indian influence in the region.

As expected, the Berlin proposal was condemned by Karzai and others who saw it as an assault on Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, the attendees were impenitent, even willing to accept that proposal’s implementation could lead to the partition of “Afghanistan between the minority-dominated north and the mostly Pashtun south.”

Gohmert’s SOTU Comments Only a few weeks later, Congressman Gohmert’s rebuttal following the US State of the Union (SOTU) intensified the debate. In video remarks following Obama’s address, Gohmert argued: “We need to rearm the people who are the natural enemy of our enemy, the Taliban. That’s the Northern Alliance.”

By pushing for the arming of internal groups, Gohmert further challenged Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But, he did not stop there. In the same breadth, he also called for the independence of Balochistan from Pakistan: “Let’s talk about creating a Balochistan in the southern part of Pakistan. They’ll stop the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and all the weaponry coming into Afghanistan, and we got a shot to win over there.”

In connecting support for the Northern Alliance and Baloch nationalists, Gohmert linked Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) policy under what could be called the “Berlin Mandate.” In this revised proposal, he effectively laid the foundation for a new US policy approach for the region: Moving forward, the US should support carving out an entire Pakistani province into an independent state and a handful of Afghan provinces into semi-autonomous territories to advance long-term American strategic interests in the region.

Balochistan hearing Soon after Gohmert’s remarks, Rohrabacher’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations called a public hearing on Balochistan. Though not a sub-committee member, Gohmert was invited to sit in on the proceedings and provided the right to make a statement in line with a full member. The hearing also featured a number of witnesses, including Ralph Peters, a military analyst and author of the now famous 2006 article entitled “Blood borders: How a better Middle East would look.”

Although the hearing was purportedly called to discuss human rights in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, Peters‘  written remarks largely focused on the viability of regional borders. In the end, his testimony suggested that US support for the dismemberment of Afghanistan and Pakistan would be in America’s strategic interest.

By featuring Peters, the Congressmen knowingly provided a public platform for Peters to assault the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This rankled some of the witnesses, who saw such statements as further undermining the on-the-ground human rights situation in Balochistan.

Balochistan Sovereignty Bill Less than a week later, Rohrabacher, Gohmert, and King introduced a new bill before Congress stating that the Baloch nation has a historic right to self-determination. The Congressmen thus went from purportedly familiarising themselves with Balochistan to calling for Congress to recognise its right for sovereign independence in less than a week. They also quickly extended the geo-political debate over Balochistan beyond Pakistan by making reference to Baloch lands in Iran and Afghanistan.

The bill especially raised the ire of many Pakistanis, who questioned the sincerity of calling the Balochistan a hearing on human rights and attacked the Congressmen for seeking to further undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial sovereignty. However, it was met with widespread support from the Baloch diaspora, who saw it as an important milestone in their independence efforts.

Balochistan conference With the timeline from Berlin to Capital Hill properly established, it is important to return to an event which occurred after Berlin but before Gohmert’s remarks. To do so, this post needs to be personalized because the event is not yet in the public domain: My introduction to Ahmar Mustikhan, a vocal Baloch advocate in the United States, who I was told was arranging an important Balochistan conference for later this year.

In our follow-up conversation in mid-January, Mustikhan revealed: “I am organising a conference for this July. We will have important guests attending, including the former head of Afghanistan security and intelligence. We also expect to have US government officials in policy planning attend.” He also confided that he had broader support than the Baloch diaspora.

In retrospect, it appears that Mustikhan was describing at least one individual associated with the Berlin meeting. If true, it is interesting to note that Mustikan’s featured speaker for the Balochistan conference was an Afghan leader associated with the fight for Afghan federalism.

Unfortunately, at the time, Mustikhan would not provide contacts who could verify who would be in attendance. Nor was he able to provide a list of invitees, including the “US government officials in policy planning.” I therefore dismissed the conference as a non-story and did not report on it because of the lack of verifiable information.

With the benefit of time, I am now left wondering if the introduction to Mustikhan’s conference was a proverbial canary in the coal mine. Regardless of the viability of his specific conference, it is clear that the Baloch diaspora in the United States were already starting to more effectively mobilise prior to (and in-line with) Gohmert’s remarks. They also were garnering the attention of external parties, who may or may not have been supporting their efforts behind the scenes. Both warrant further investigation.

Over the horizon In-speaking with those following the Berlin faction in Congress, the general sentiment is that the introduction of the new Balochistan bill is not their final move. They almost certainly will continue to pursue support for both the Northern Alliance and Baloch nationalists regardless of whether or not they can garner support for the new bill. Such efforts are likely to further frustrate the Obama Administration, State Department, and Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan as they seek to work together on policies for the region post-US troop draw-down. However, it is unlikely that the Berlin faction will accept just frustrating the administration. Instead, they probably will seek to seriously challenge the administration on its AfPak policy record using Balochistan as the lever. This could present a major challenge to the status quo powers involved, especially in a presidential election year in the United States.

Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Follow him on Twitter.

The views expressed by this writer and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (10) Closed

Amit-Atlanta-USA Feb 22, 2012 03:14am
The US must call for a referendum in Balochistan under the auspices of the UN to decide if the Baloch want to stay on in Pakistan or secede.
farhan Feb 22, 2012 05:49am
Pakistan needs to focus on Balochistan. Must invest there heavily in education and vocational training so that they become economically stable. Trying to finish the insurgency by brute force may not work in longer term. Its better to bring development into the province and integrate it into mainstream. It is really very backward compared to Punjab and some of the grievances are real and not due to foreign hand
Face of Truth Feb 22, 2012 07:43am
Most revealing. Wake up Pakistani sleepers or be forever fallen
Ibn-e-Ashafque Feb 22, 2012 07:51am
The Americans have lost the war in Afghanistan. None of the regional powers that is China, Pakistan, Iran and Russia are supporting its contention to have permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Their allies are leaving earlier than expected. The Taliban inspite of teh hullabullo are not coming to the table.Hence, they are now threatening everybody in the region with mayhem. Americans can surely create lots of mayhem. They won't leave Afghanistan with dignity like the Russians. They will create mayhem and lots of it before being kicked out of the region.
KarachiKid Feb 22, 2012 07:22pm
Pakistan must call for a referendum in Georgia under the auspices of the UN to decide if the Georgians want to stay on in United States or secede. Sounds dumb, doesn't it Amit? I rest my case.
Muhammad Ahmed Mufti Feb 22, 2012 09:25pm
Baluch Sardars do not represent the Baluch people. The government should hold local body elections in the province and empower the real masses. Sardars should be tried for treason. At the same time the security forces must also be held accountable for excesses and the case people that are gone missing while in their custody.
zafar Feb 22, 2012 11:36pm
I am all for a referendum. I think baloch people do have the the right to secede from it's neighbouring states. I hope they make a just decsion. Nonetheless this King and Rohrbacher bill begs belief. The good americans are better of defending the borders of europe in more creative ways I think. Also at the same time I hope when balances change they encourage nations like India go for referendums in some of their own states as well. I am sure India will also get favourable responses.
Nz Feb 23, 2012 04:51am
USA is weaving a spider's web in AF-PK to contain China, Iran and Pakistan. It is pity; Pakistan has no visionery leadership to stop the world war III.
junaid Feb 26, 2012 05:56pm
some foreign factors have prevailed a sense injustice and inequality among the people of balochistan against the government. there are a few people who have worsen the situation of baluchistan. people of the baluchistan love paksitan. we love Pakistan. we hate sardars.
Zain - Ohio - USA Mar 01, 2012 08:22am
@Amit, You Indians have no business commenting on this matter. If you want to talk about Referendum, then Kashmir Referendum is long over due as it was agreed by India in the UN.