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Negotiating With (Exiled) Baloch Leaders

By Malik Siraj Akbar

It is unclear what Balochistan Chief Minister Dr. Malik Baloch actually means when he says he will ‘take’ a jirga to exiled Baloch leaders Harbiyar Marri and Bramdagh Bugti to convince them to sit on the negotiation table with the Pakistani government. A Jirga is normally ‘convened’ not ‘taken’ to a place. However, since the enraged nationalist leaders are currently living in exile, the head of the provincial government plans to send a delegation of tribal notables and influential political figures to Europe to negotiate with them.

Before doing that, the C.M. says he is going to convene an all-parties conference (A.P.C.) on Balochistan in order to develop a mechanism to push the disillusioned Baloch leaders to talk to the government. Dr. Malik is so enthusiastic about his plans that he is not deeply concerned about the outcome of his strategy. He says he does not worry at this point whether or not the Baloch leaders will heed his request. Yet, he is determined to establish contact with them and also optimistic about the outcome of his endeavors.

In the past, different official leaders shared their plans about possible talks with Baloch armed groups and exiled leaders in an effort to buy more time. It is too early to judge whether Dr. Malik is also buying time like his predecessor Nawab Aslam Raisani or he is struggling to conceal the rifts within his own coalition government over the issue of cabinet formation and governance.

When Dr. Malik recently visited London, he did not meet any of the Baloch leaders. He told the London-based correspondents that he would not meet with the exiled leaders because, he admitted, the government had still not taken ample confidence building measures to win the Baloch trust.

The recent A.P.C. in Islamabad, which mainly focused on the issue of terrorism and talks with the Taliban, entrusted Dr. Malik the responsibility to approach all Baloch leaders and initiate talks with them. Since the A.P.C. was also attended by the heads of the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.), it felt as if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani were on the same page on Balochistan. Previously, Generl Kayani had implicitly said that the army would only support talks with those who believe in the supremacy of the Pakistani constitution. That said, he would not negotiate with those who call for a free Balochistan.

The prime minister and the army chief’s expression of trust in the chief minister has a positive as well as a negative connotation.

On the positive side, there seems to be an acknowledgement of the fact that Balochistan is a region with its own traditions and political culture. A part of the problem in the past has been Islamabad’s ignorance about Balochistan and the failure to learn the art of negotiating with Baloch tribal and political leaders. General Musharraf, for instance, made a blunder in his dealing with Nawab Akbar Bugti. Without realizing the social and political consequences of killing a prominent tribal chief and a key political figure, Musharraf ignited fire in Balochistan by ordering the killing of Bugti. We assume that the prime minister and the army chief realize that a Baloch chief minister would be an appropriate interlocutor between the federal government and the Baloch. At least, he can prepare the ground for more serious talks in the future.

On the negative side, it seems that Sharif and Kayani are intentionally distancing themselves from a critical national issue. We all know that the Balochistan chief minister is too weak and powerless to carry the burden of such a big conflict. So far, the Pakistan army, the Frontier Corps (F.C.) and the intelligence agencies have been blamed for orchestrating the conflict in Balochistan. Therefore, it is the top civil and military bosses in Islamabad, not the provincial chief minister, who have to come forward, own their old mistakes and provide a road-map for peace in Balochistan.

There are genuine reasons to be cynical about Sharif’s commitment.

Last month, Sharif raised the Balochistan issue with the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in his meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Subscribing to the military-promoted narrative of the alleged Indian involvement in Balochistan, the prime minister asked his Indian counterpart to refrain from interfering in Balochistan. Sharif’s flagrant discussion on Balochistan with Dr. Singh shows that Islamabad still does not feel the guilt of its own crimes against the Baloch and it blames other countries for the mess in the country’s largest province. As the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, Dr. Singh should have instead raised the issue of human rights abuses in Balochistan and reminded his Pakistani counterpart that groups like the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly blamed the Pakistani security services, not their Indian counterparts, for political assassinations and dumping the bullet-riddled dead bodies of the Baloch civilians.

Without the full support of the army, Dr. Malik would remain so powerless that even talks with the Baloch Students Organization (B.S.O.-Azad), the pro-independence student outfit, if they ever take place, will not yield any positive outcome.

In Pakistan’s large cities, mainly in Islamabad, some confusion is now rising within the army, the government, the media and the policy circles as to why a “nationalist chief minister” should face any hardship negotiating with fellow nationalists. It is very important to make a clear distinction between the Dr. Malik-type of nationalists and the ones fighting in the mountains and supporting the movement from overseas. The sooner the establishment makes the distinction between the two, the better it is to skip illusions.

Dr. Malik type of nationalists enjoy zero influence over those who ask for independence. They do not share the same goals and modes of struggle. In fact, the Baloch armed groups view Dr. Malik and his types as ‘traitors’ who have ‘sold out’ to Islamabad. Therefore, they are keen to target these pro-Pakistan leaders wherever they see them and absolutely unwilling to talk to them.

Meanwhile, there are at least three major leaders that the government would ultimately have to talk to in order to initiate serious dialogue.

First, Dr. Allah Nazar, head of the Baloch Liberation Front (B.L.F.), is the only one among the three leaders who is still inside Balochistan. Today, the B.L.F. operates in more districts than any other insurgent groups. Even the Baloch Liberation Army (B.L.A.) and the Baloch Republican Army (B.R.A.) do not have similar influence in the non-tribal parts of the province. The B.L.F. is active in Kech, Gwadar, Panjgur, Awaran and Lasbela districts.

Second, the government should talk to Harbiyar Marri, the London-based pro-independence leader who significantly influences sections of the pro-independence groups. Although he has never confirmed his affiliation with the B.L.A., it is speculated that the group does not defy his instructions.

Third, Nawabzada Bramdagh Bugti, the Switzerland-based head of the Baloch Republican Party, must be approached for talks. Mr. Bugti has a large following among the Bugti tribesmen and even outside the tribal region.

The government does not need another A.P.C. on Balochistan because parties that are likely to participate in it do not matter with regards to the Baloch issue. Those who matter are either in the mountains or living on exile.

The task of negotiating with the Baloch requires consistent commitment and engagement. The government should prove its sincerity and willingness to talk to the Baloch leaders with substantial confidence building measures.

Editor-in-chief The Baloch Hal; Huffington Post writer; Former Hubert Humphrey Fellow; ex-Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow at National Endowment for Democracy. Washington DC.

Faiz Baluch