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“Congress should support dismembering Af-Pak”

February 21, 2012

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.