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Long-ignored ethnic strife cuts off Pakistan’s gas

By Ben Arnoldy

Read at The Monitor Global Outlook for full story, photos and links: Long-ignored ethnic strife cuts off Pakistan’s gas

Millions of Pakistanis are suddenly without gas supplies after ethnic Baloch separatists blew up three pipelines from gas-rich Balochistan Province to the country’s most populous Punjab Province. The attack serves as a powerful reminder that the forces of entropy in Pakistan are not limited to Islamic militants and hostilities with neighboring nations.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, it was Pakistan’s ethnic divisions that kept some analysts up at night. An illuminating summary of those concerns can be found in this 2000 essay from Robert Kaplan, who has since restated his basic argument here: “Islamic ideology, like communism in Yugoslavia, has proved an insufficient glue to form a prideful national identity.”

Pakistan has long defied predictions of collapse, and I have argued against some of that alarmism in the recent past. But it is safe to say that ethnic separatism in the province with the richest resources has hampered Pakistan’s ability to exploit its mineral and gas wealth, as well as its aspirations to be a regional hub for energy pipelines coming from Iran and Central Asia.

The state-owned gas company estimates it will take at least two days to fix the pipes. The Baloch Republican Army (BRA) has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was highly unusual for knocking out three pipes at once and doing so inside Punjab Province.

“Attacking the pipelines in Punjab is a very powerful symbol that you are attacking the seat of power,” says our correspondent in Karachi. “This attack has really registered the Baloch insurgents’ struggle on a national scale, which I don’t think any other attacks so far have been able to do in the same way.”

The BRA is seeking independence for Balochistan. Most Pakistani provinces resent the dominance of Punjab Province and its claim on government resources and attention. Nowhere is that more true than in sparsely-populated Balochistan, where parts of the province still have no gas hookups while pipelines carry gas from the provinces’ wells to the Punjab.

The previous civilian government made promises of greater federalism that largely went unrealized, says our correspondent. Statements in support of some Baloch grievances made by Nawaz Sharif before his elevation to prime minister last year will also likely go nowhere.

“As far as the Sharif government strategy is concerned, … it has been operating on an understanding where they expect that militants won’t attack them in Punjab. And now that this has happened, they are going to go back to what the military’s handbook clearly seems to be,” says our correspondent. That means: “Go after Baloch insurgents again, and do the sort of targeted operations that don’t make it out into the press because there’s very limited media access to Balochistan.”