Balochistan continues to be in the eye of the storm and the bloody trail of bomb attacks. The ethnic/sectarian violence and wave of missing persons has persistently rocked the turbulent province. Much has been commented about what ails the province: deprivation, neglect, missing persons’ issues, human rights abuse, insurgencies, repressive military action, corruption of successive provincial regimes, lack of royalty for mineral resources, feudal lords’ suppression of their serfs and minions. All of these may be contributory to the turmoil and strife in Balochistan, but the root cause is Balochistan’s location. The troubled province is situated at the locus of numerous international conflict zones.

To its west lies Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province; in the northwest, the Helmand province of Afghanistan; while to the south lies the coastal region of Makran through whose desert Alexander the Great’s 80,000-man army marched westward in its disastrous retreat from India in 325BC. All the three bordering regions form a part of the current great game. Afghanistan continues to be occupied by the US-led Nato/Isaf forces, whose horns are locked with the Taliban, who, though displaced in 2001, have regrouped and are challenging the occupation troops contemplating an exit strategy. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s northwest tribal belt and Balochistan’s region adjoining Afghanistan is suspected of harbouring Taliban fighters. Simultaneously, Iran is being intimidated by Israel on a weekly basis, while the Obama administration has, reportedly, drawn up an attack plan. In its grand strategy, Iran’s access via Balochistan is a promising possibility.

Coming south, the 400-mile long Makran Coast, running from Iran eastward along the Arabian Sea, constitutes an area of immense strategic importance. The newly-constructed port of Gwadar offers immense opportunities. The Soviets had eyed Gwadar as the ultimate prize during their decade-long occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their agenda was to overrun Balochistan and export the hydrocarbon wealth of Central Asia through it. However, destiny had other plans; they were denied their imperial visions. In the wake of Soviet retreat, the US giants, like Unocal and other oil firms, intrigued by the idea of building energy pipelines from the Caspian Sea across Afghanistan to Indian Ocean energy hubs, like Gwadar, toyed with the plan of establishing their base in the region. Time will tell whether the rationale behind 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan was the control of the energy routes, but ample evidence points towards it - in which, Balochistan holds the key.

In 2000, Musharraf had invited the Chinese to fund a deepwater port at Gwadar. A few weeks before the 9/11 tragedy, the Chinese consented while their commitment to the project intensified after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Although China spent $200 million on the first phase of the project that completed on schedule in 2005; apparently, owing to US pressure, Pakistan gave PSA International of Singapore a 40-year contract to run Gwadar port in 2007.

The Balochis comprise less than four percent of Pakistan’s 180 million population, yet Pakistan’s natural resources, including copper, iron, uranium, gold and potentially rich oil reserves and natural gas, abound in Balochistan. The province produces more than a third of the country’s natural gas, but remains submerged in poverty. Certainly, successive governments are to be blamed for the Balochistan imbroglio. But there is a method in the madness as various powers are vying for its control and shift the blame on the FC. The gambit appears to be: “Give a dog a bad name and hang him!”

Take the recent spate of violence involving the miners’ massacre, the carnage at the ANP rally and other bloody incidents, which have occurred at a time when the entire national focus is on the law and order situation in Balochistan; where the CJ is personally addressing the issue of the missing persons’ case and the PM was visiting the troubled province. The Baloch nationalists, perhaps driven by their foreign masters, have chosen this particular moment to drive home their nefarious agenda and hold the FC responsible for the missing persons demanding its withdrawal from Balochistan, thus removing the last impediment in the fulfilment of their designs.

n    The writer is a political and             defence analyst.

    Email: sultanm.hali@gmail.com