The riddle of Baluchistan
When the British army advanced through Baluchistan in 1839, one of its officers wrote that the Baluch were so treacherous that the troublesome fiefdom required an “exaction of retribution” and the “execution of such arrangements as would establish future security in that area”.
Mehrab Khan, the Khan of Kalat, was executed, 400 of his tribesmen were slain and the British began their gradual occupation of the area.
More than 170 years on, the Baluch territory – 220,000 square miles of mountains and arid lands that are now divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan – are just as troubled as they were during the Great Game.
Clandestine operations, murky deaths and shifting tribal loyalties are replete with modern adjustments such as suicide bombings, natural gas, and the presence of Americans who have replaced the British as the superpower.
The long-simmering conflict had been largely forgotten until last Sunday when it burst on to the international stage following a suicide attack targeting the Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. Forty-two people were killed, many of them high-ranking members of the elite corps. A second roadside attack hit a Revolutionary Guards’ vehicle. Several arrests have been made.
Controlling their Baluch minority populations with their nationalist aspirations has not been any easier for the Iranian or Pakistani governments than it was for the British colonialists.
Sunday’s attack took place during a meeting in the town of Pishin between Sunni, Shiite tribal chiefs and the Revolutionary Guards leadership, who were put in charge of the province’s security in April because of escalating violence.
They have held a number of similar conferences in the past with the view to contain a conflict that is becoming increasingly sectarian, and halt drugs and guns smuggling in the poverty-stricken province.
Sistan-Baluchistan is home to 1.4 million Baluchi who speak their own language and are ethnically different from the majority Persians. The territory became part of Iran in 1928.
“These conferences are networking events and bring people together who might otherwise never meet, either because of animosity, rivalry or simple lack of proximity,” said Mahan Abedin, the director of research at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Noor Ali Shooshtari, the most senior commander killed in the attack, had made his personal mark on the programme and was trying to expand it.
A shadowy group named Jondallah, or soldiers of God, founded in 2002 or 2003 in Iran, has claimed responsibility and published a statement that said it was avenging “the wounds of the Baluch people which have been bleeding for years without end”.
The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have accused Britain, America and Pakistan of having a hand in the attacks and have said the leader of Jondallah had direct contact with British and American intelligence services.
Washington, London and Islamabad have denied the accusations. A delegation of Iranians is expected to visit Pakistan shortly to present evidence.
While unsubstantiated accusations and denials are flying around, what is clear is the violence is escalating in Pakistan and Iran.
Sunday’s attack was the deadliest on Iranian soil in many years. In May, a Shiite mosque was bombed, killing 25. Last year Jondallah kidnapped and killed 16 Iranian soldiers and in 2007 it claimed responsibility for bombing a bus.
“The nationalist cause is pushed towards extremism by the brute force of Iranian military and security forces who do not tolerate even the slightest vestiges of any dissent or civil activities by the Sunni Baluch people,” says Abdol Sattar Doshoki, a Baluch activist and analyst, speaking from London.
In both Pakistan and Iran the Baluchi are an oppressed minority, says Ahmed Suleman Daud, the 35th Khan of Kalat and direct descendant of Mehrab Khan, who was executed by the British.
“As far as the state is concerned they are almost fourth-grade citizens,” says the khan. “Suppression is continuing, thousands of people are missing, doctors, engineers, people like that, and even women are missing, kept as sex slaves by the army, and these things don’t go very well as far as the Baluch are concerned. It is the same in Iran.”
Baluchi nationalists in Pakistan, which annexed their previously independent territory in 1948, want a separate state and the movement is secular. In Iran, however, Baluchi nationalism has become mixed with religious extremism.
Jondallah has stated in the past that it does not want a breakaway state but wants Iran to respect human rights and the culture of the Baluchi.
Human rights groups have documented a litany of arrests, killings, torture and repression in both countries. “We can’t speak our Baluchi language, it is not taught in any of the schools and we are the richest mineral-rich area of the region but we are the most poor,” says the Khan of Kalat.
Pakistan’s Baluchistan province is home to between four and eight million Baluch who are in the throes of an insurgency that has been raging since 2000 when the government began exploring in depth its vast oil and natural gasfields. The Baluchi were excluded from the provincial government.
The khan, a major symbol of Baluch nationalism, lives in a three-bedroom house in Cardiff,
Wales, and is seeking asylum in Britain because he fears assassination in Pakistan. He chose Wales because it reminds him of the mountains back home.
“When I remember my country I take a stroll in the mountains,” he says.
He fled Pakistan in 2006 after convening a tribal jirga, or gathering, in which 1,500 Baluch activists, tribal leaders and politicians agreed to take their cause to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The khan spent months travelling across the Gulf states, including the UAE which is home to many Baluchi migrant workers, to try to galvanise support.
High-ranking tribal chiefs are being targeted by the Pakistani security services. Among the most prominent was the Oxford-educated Nawab of Bugti, who escaped to the mountains near Kohlu with several thousand armed tribesmen but was killed in a military operation in 2006.
He had been demanding greater autonomy and a higher share of revenues for his people from Baluchistan’s natural gas.
“We are not aggressors; we are just defending ourselves and we are fighting in our land,” says the khan.
The stakes are high.
Pakistan is already fighting militants in Waziristan and needs the gasfields to develop its economy.
There is concern that Iran’s relations with Pakistan will take a turn for the worse and endanger plans for a gas pipeline running between the two countries through Baluch territory, which would see Iran supply 750 million cu ft of gas a day to Pakistan over the next 25 years.
In Iran, the only Shiite-majority country in the world, the authorities are worried about a possible Sunni insurgency.
Meanwhile, America’s role in Sunday’s attack is not clear.
In 2008, the respected American journalist Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine that under the Bush administration Congress had authorised up to US$400 million in covert operations, including assisting Jondallah in a bid to destabilise the Iranian government.
Col Sam Gardiner, a retired air force commander who has taught military strategy at the National War College in Washington, believes the allegations are true.
He pointed out that Jondallah was not on the state department’s list of designated terrorist groups.
“It is almost prima face evidence of US involvement. It was clear early in the Obama administration that they had decided to cut ties with the groups that had been working inside Iran with one exception — Jondallah,” he said, speaking from Washington.
“If it was a terrorist group even the intelligence community ends up being restricted. The American government and personnel are prohibited from dealing with terrorist groups.”
With little international attention the Baluchi have no choice but to defend themselves, says Faiz Baluch, an Iranian Baluchi who was acquitted of terrorism charges in England this year and has spoken in the House of Lords about the issue.
“The international community has ignored the issue. The Baluch are actually left with no other option but to stand up to these regimes and defend themselves against the atrocities that these states are committing.”
Write to Hamida Ghafour: email@example.com