Drone strike on Balochistan: Where is the right target?
By Malik Siraj Akbar
US President Barrack Obama has committed an additional 30,000 troops under his new Af-Pak policy announced at United States Military Academy in West Pont, New York. Under this plan, Washington is contemplating withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan in the next 18 months. According to Obama, the US will firstly break the Taliban momentum and then work with the United Nations and Afghan people for a more effective civilian government.
After the announcement of the new policy, alarming bells are once again ringing in Balochistan about possible CIA drone strikes. Washington has been asserting its concerns that Mullah Omar, the one-eyed reclusive Taliban leader, and a six-member Quetta-Shura are hiding in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan which is 120 kilometers off Khandahar, the Afghan city used by Taliban as their headquarters.
The Peshawar-based US Consul General went a step further on December 5 saying that besides Taliban big guns, some Al-Qaeda leaders were also hiding in Quetta. Dawn quoted Candace Putnam, the Peshawar USCG, as saying, “I don’t know where Osama bin Laden is on any given day, but we do know that some of the leadership is sitting in Quetta and that they (Al-Qaeda leaders) travel back and forth from Afghanistan to Pakistan.”
Previously, Karachi Consul General of the United States, Stephen G Fakan, during a visit to Quetta, had reiterated his country’s stance that Taliban leadership hid in Quetta. “Everybody is saying the Taliban live and operate from Quetta. The Quetta shura comprises people who devise policies for the Taliban while sitting in Quetta,” he said in a press conference in October.
There was a sharp as well as angry response by the Balochistan government to the statement of the US diplomat. On October 13, 2009, the Balochistan Assembly unanimously passed a resolution demanding of the United States to review its approach as drone strikes might unleash a new wave of anti-Americanism in the country’s largest province.
According to a December 3 New York Times report by Scott Shane, “The White House has authorized an expansion of the C.I.A.’s drone program in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas…. American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time — a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas — because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide.”
Opposing drone strikes does not necessarily translate into supporting Taliban. The Balochistan government surely fears collateral damage if drone strikes are carried out in Balochistan. However, the resolution passed by the Balochistan Assembly does not have much significance because it does not represent the aspirations of the people of the province. As the popular progressive political parties of Balochistan boycotted the general elections of February 2008, the present Balochistan Assembly comprises of the people who have a soft corner in their hearts for the Taliban and religious militants.
For instance, the anti-drone resolution was presented in the state legislative assembly by none other than Maulana Abdul Wassey and Maulana Ghulam Sarwar, both members of the pro-Taliban right wing Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). That is where the actual problem starts and the policy makers in Washington need to seriously understand what is happening in Balochistan.
Currently, Balochistan is the center of two battles, which are often confused by Washington as one. Firstly, the secular and democratic Balochs are waging a political struggle for rights enshrined in the UN Charter and various internationally recognized conventions. Secondly, Taliban are battling their war of survival by hiding in different parts of Balochistan. The government denies the presence of Taliban in Balochistan because it views the Baloch nationalists as a greater threat than Taliban.
Hence, the state apparatus has been lavishly used to empower the pro-Taliban forces in Balochistan to counter the Baloch nationalists and block their entry in the provincial assembly. For instance, the pro-Taliban JUI-F grabbed an unprecedented 16 seats of the Balochistan Assembly in the general elections of 2002. Currently, with 11 seats in BA, the JUI-F holds key ministries and is powerful enough to influence the polices of the provincial government, as was seen on October 13 this year while passing a resolution to oppose drone strikes against Taliban.
Diplomacy should be given a chance before launching drone strikes in Balochistan. Islamabad had very close ties with the Taliban and their supporters for three decades. Therefore, it is impossible to believe that it does not actually know where the Taliban leaders are hiding. Pressure should be mounted on the government of Balochistan as well as that of Pakistan to seriously act against Taliban by launching widespread search operations against them. The international community should observe the activities of the Pakistan police, Frontier Corps and other law enforcement agencies in order to find out if they are wasting their energies in confronting the democratic Balochs or endeavoring to protect Taliban.
These double-standards cannot be exposed until international media and observers are allowed to visit Balochistan and move freely to see the ground realities. The Baloch nationalists have never felt threatened from the international community’s presence in Balochistan then why is Islamabad shying away from such an idea?
Our biggest fear is that if international journalists and observers are not allowed entry inside Quetta and other parts of Balochistan, the anti-Baloch elements in the country’s armed forces and intelligence networks will possibly mislead the Americans and direct the drone strikes on the Baloch population. This can be validated from the fact that the Americans spent hefty amounts to build the capacity of the Frontier Corps (FC) but the newly acquired skills and equipment were used against the democratic Balochs rather than the pro-Taliban elements.