Baluchistan: Is It a New Battleground for US and China?

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SOROOR AHMED analyses, in the backdrop of ongoing turmoil in Baluchistan, the games being played by the United States in that resource-rich province.

President Pervez Musharraf has gradually been feeling the pain of supporting the United States of America. After killing thousands of people in Waziristan – in the process losing hundreds of his own soldiers – and rendering thousands orphan, widow and homeless, his government realised the folly and on September 5 he made peace with the so-called Taliban remnants in the region. According to the agreement the Pakistan government, inter alia, will cease operation and the Taliban would abide by the law of the land. A day later the general flew to Afghanistan to meet Hamid Karzai, whose writ runs only within Kabul rather than the whole country. It is to be seen whether the agreement has the blessings of the US or not.

Musharraf’s volte-face surprised many observers. After all it was his government, which under the pressure of the lone Super Power of the world initiated operation in Waziristan. At one time 70,000 to 80,000 forces were deployed to ‘suppress’ the Taliban who according to the government version took refuge in that area after being ousted from Afghanistan. However, many independent sources confirmed that Musharraf’s action was directed more against the local people and the Afghan jihad veterans from different countries who opted to settle in the region after the war in Afghanistan was over in late 1980s, and less against the real Taliban or Osama bin Laden.

Whatever be the truth the fact is that Musharraf finally agreed to mend fences with them. He did not claim that Taliban have been wiped out but rather conceded that they exist. This peace with Taliban remnants came only after the NATO forces claimed that they killed 200 rebels in a big operation in South Afghanistan. The irony is that only a few weeks ago the US-led NATO forces said that only a few dozen Taliban fighters were left in that country. Then how is it that they killed 200 of them? Or is it that they have killed innocent citizens?

Musharraf has realised that he has been over-stretched. He had to buy peace with Taliban because he had to fight at a new front in Baluchistan where the situation seems to be turning from bad to worse. With sea in the South and a small patch of border with China in north, Pakistan now seems to be surrounded by unfriendly countries on all its sides. Its relationship with India is not at its best and with US-backed Afghanistan already hostile, Musharraf is finding himself in a tight corner. Iran always looks at him with suspicion. Indian media reports suggest that Pakistan is already planning to pull back some of its forces in Kashmir to deploy in Baluchistan, the state that is fast emerging as the battleground for the possible future battle between the United States and China. If not the actual war, the cold war between the two has already started with Pakistan knowing nothing as to what it should do. China has already been locked in a cold war with the United States over North Korea and now the situation is fast deteriorating in this turbulent state of Pakistan.

The United States never liked any power to dominate the Pakistani coast. It supported the Mujahideen during 1980s not out of love for them but to see to it that the then Soviet Union never reached the warm waters of Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea via Baluchistan and Afghanistan. Similarly the United States would never like the Chinese influence to grow in the region whose strategic significance has suddenly increased much.

With Gulf of Hormuz dominated by Iran the loss of Baluchistan would be a great blow to the United States. Surely China, unlike the erstwhile Soviet Union, never dreams of occupying Baluchistan. But the rise of its economic interest in the region has brought it face to face with the USA. While the United States, with the help of Afghanistan is trying to increase its influence over Central Asia it is leaving no stone unturned to checkmate China. Further, Baluchistan would be the most suitable place to launch any future attack on Iran.

But the dilemma of Musharraf is that he is torn between the devil and the deep sea. Business-wise befriending China will be of great interest. China has been doing most of its business for the Middle East from Karachi Port and has since long been waiting for the coming up of a new port at Gwadar. In fact, the Chinese President will be coming to inaugurate the new port at Gwadar. While it is in the interest of China to have a peaceful Baluchistan, the Americans want to keep the pot boiling. Turmoil in Pakistan’s largest and the richest state would keep Musharraf in a fix. Thus Pakistan has been torn between two friends, the United States and China.

In the past the situation was quite different. Pakistan never had very cordial relations with the then Soviet Union. Pakistan has been in the US camp since the 1950s and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 pushed it further towards Uncle Sam. In such a situation it was left with no choice but to oppose the hostile Soviet Union. Today, that is after General Musharraf’s September 17, 2001 decision to join the United States in the so-called war on terror; Pakistan is in a piquant situation. Musharraf has always been telling his people that he has saved Pakistan by siding with the USA but in fact his country is far from secure. The truth is that had Pakistan not thrown its lot behind Bush so easily the USA would not have been in a position to control it. The USA lacks courage to take on both China and Pakistan simultaneously. At the same time China with so much economic interest at stake would not simply allow the destruction of Pakistan at the hands of USA. Whether China does anything or not, the truth is that China factor is always behind the USA in taking any adventure. It is back to square one for Pakistan.