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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Operation Rethink

Can Islamabad get Quetta on the same page?

Written by Ejaz Haider |
September 17, 2010 2:13:36 am

Balochistan doesn’t like Punjabis,Shias and security forces. If one belongs to any of these three categories,one can likely end up dead. Punjabis and security forces are targeted by Baloch terrorist groups,Shias bombed by extremist terrorists. Caught in the conflict are journalists,threatened by all sides,some assassinated,others getting killed on the job.

Right in Quetta,the capital,areas like Saryab,Huddah,Brohi Road and Eastern and Western Bypasses are “no-go” areas for Punjabis. Much of the city,outside the heavily-guarded cantonment area,is dangerous for security personnel. Vehicles move fast and are heavily protected. Since 2009,nearly a thousand people have been killed on all sides and about double the number injured in assassinations,bombings,armed attacks and small-scale security operations.

The situation is getting bad because the federal and provincial governments do not seem to have any viable policy to deal with it. The government blames India for fomenting trouble. Given the relations between Islamabad and New Delhi,it would make sense for India to exploit the situation but the fact is the fissures are internal.

Last Tuesday Rehman Malik,minister for interior,declared — enough! No more shall the federal government tolerate violence. Between Malik’s ability to fumble in all languages known to man and the media’s unbridled passion to report the worst,the news said the federal government was planning a Swat-style military operation in Balochistan.

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Next day,after emerging from a meeting with the Balochistan chief minister,Nawab Aslam Raisani,and all the CM’s men,Malik said he had never talked about a sweeping operation; that there would be selective use of proportionate force contingent upon credible,actionable intelligence. He also said that the federal government had authorised the Balochistan chief minister to vest police powers in Frontier Corps (FC) to deal with the situation.

Even as TV channels were flashing this story,the Balochistan government delivered its riposte,saying no such decision had been taken in the meeting Malik was referring to,there would be no operation of any sort in the province,that FC had been violating its legal mandate and would be held accountable for that,and all issues would be resolved through dialogue,thank you.

In walks Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani,the inveterate head-in-the-sand all’s-well I-am-only-for-dialogue boss of Malik,declaring that Balochistan is the bailiwick of the provincial government and it can do what it thinks best. No operation was in the offing. The same sentiment was voiced by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

So,finally we have a consensus: no operation and Quetta taking the lead on Balochistan? Yes,if dramatic stasis can be called that.

No one wants the government to go into Balochistan shooting from the hip. But neither is chinwagging with multiple actors the only solution. It is now in the interest of separatist elements,minuscule though their numbers,to subvert any effort by the governments,federal and provincial,to address Balochistan’s grievances. Jaw-jaw needs to have a stick behind it.

The federal government’s Balochistan Package,announced with much fanfare in November 2009,hasn’t materialised on the ground. The provincial government,which immediately rolls up its sleeves every time Islamabad talks about Balochistan,is both inefficient and unwilling to do anything. Balochistan is caught in the radicalism of militant youth and the anarchic tribal traditions of the sardars. The provincial government represents the latter and is averse to doing anything that would break the status quo.

The fact is that the army and FC have been trying to fill the vacuum by appealing to the Baloch youth and initiating schooling and recruitment programmes for them. The army has given a complete concept paper on the development paradigm to both the provincial and federal governments and asked them to take ownership of these initiatives. These efforts have run into a wall. Technically,it is correct to expect Quetta to take the lead. In reality,Quetta is singularly incapable of that.

What should be done? First and foremost,Islamabad and Quetta have to be on the same page. Sparring of the kind we have just seen is not going to resolve anything. Also,dialogue doesn’t mean pacifist inaction. Those who use absolutist arguments against the use of force resort to dissembling. What can be done today with much less cost,if not done,will extract a much higher cost tomorrow. Use of force and dialogue are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary. Talking is supposed to reduce reliance on use of force and such use is meant to open up space for more meaningful talks.

Islamabad needs to follow up on its 39-point Balochistan Package which is currently in limbo. It was largely agreed upon by political actors in Balochistan and provides a good basis to move forward. Islamabad and Quetta also need to take the lead on initiatives begun by the army to educate Baloch children and increase Baloch recruitment in the security forces.

If Quetta wants to take the lead,it will have to show itself to be up to the task. So far,Raisani has done nothing to prove he can lead from the front or is even interested in doing anything other than nothing.

The writer is Contributing Editor,‘The Friday Times’,Lahore.

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