Tipping balance of power in Balochistan

The theatre of operations may extend beyond Balochistan into Sindh and Punjab. Attacks against soft targets may increase if the conflict intensifies

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

General Pervez Musharraf was correct when he warned the Baloch nationalists, reminding them that it wasn’t the 1970s. His words were in bad taste but not wrong. Military technology has progressed rapidly in the last three decades. Because oppressors, colonisers and imperialists have always tried to dominate the world through the barrel of the gun, weapon development is a basic tenet of their faith.

The three decades have seen the emergence of smart bombs; and the huge though not so smart bombs that have earned titles like ‘mother of all bombs’; unmanned drones that hunt down adversaries; mini homing devices that guide bombs and missiles etc. But weapon development, even when it is awesome, has not always ensured a definite victory. Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are cases in point.

As weapons have become more destructive, people too have devised new methods and tactics to counter them. Various peoples’ wars in the past three decades — from the Intifada to the conflict in Northern Ireland to struggles by the Kashmiris and the Tamil Tigers in South Asia — have proved this.

Pakistan has one of the most formidable armies in the world. It can hold its own against any conventional army. It has the latest weapons including nuclear bombs. Its soldiers are well trained. It has a very high officer-top solider ratio and is not lacking in command structure. Pakistan also has one of the largest defence budgets in the region. The army itself produces some of the weapons and their components. There are also other advantages it enjoys. But guerrilla warfare is a different cup of tea.

Unlike the 1970s, the army wouldn’t depend this time on Iranian gun-ships to fight the Baloch insurgents. Not only is it better equipped than it was in the 1970s, today it also enjoys the support and blessing of the USA. By linking it to global security, Pakistan would expect — and probably get — direct US support against any indigenous uprising.

But this is only one side of the picture; we should also consider the other. Let’s see if the Baloch fighter has kept up with the modern times and developments. In the 1970s, he was dedicated, resilient, adept and elusive. In spite of the lack of weapons and despite the numerical disadvantage, he survived the state’s onslaught.

Today he is better-equipped and more resolute. He has been exposed to more struggles in the world since the 1970s and has seen more injustice. He has learnt his lesson well. The Baloch fighter can still survive on rudimentary logistics. The command structure includes the experienced cadre which had its baptism of fire during the 1970s insurgency and in Afghanistan. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Baloch fighter is more than ready to shoulder the task imposed on him. If the state weaponry is more modern now, he too has evolved.

If there is fighting, the Pakistan Army soldier will be encumbered by the terrain in spite of improved means of transport. Armies are dependent on the logistical support to supply basics like food, water and sleeping tents. This entails long supply lines which are always vulnerable. Keeping outposts at very short distances is never feasible.

The soldier needs a regular supply of clean drinking water and healthy rations; an army they say marches on its stomachs. A soldier on an empty stomach is a low-morale soldier. Regular soldiers cannot survive on water and food available in their areas of operation.

The Baloch fighter on the other hand is not encumbered by these factors; he knows the terrain and is mobile. He knows where to find the water and its quality does not matter. As far as food is concerned, he can survive on a kilo of flour for a couple of days, which he carries himself. He survives on very little.

The tribesmen have a fantastic sense of orientation. I have seen these people lead through areas in the darkest of nights, which they had had traversed years earlier. They do not need instruments to find their way.

The Baloch survives on the bare minimum. He doesn’t lose heart easily as he is inured to hardships.

I would say that the two forces are evenly matched in their resolve to defend what they think is right. Admittedly the numerical and technological advantage lies in favour of the Pakistan armed forces. Another factor which could favour the government is its relentless effort to pit the Baloch against each other by co-opting those who can stand up to the nationalist forces. So far they have not had much success in this.

Collateral damage in this conflict, like in the past, will mostly be on the Baloch side. The people have suffered in the past and they will suffer again. Unjustified and illegal, such actions increase antagonism and the resolve of the affected people.

Victory for the government is certainly not a guaranteed outcome. Conflicts tend to linger on because not all people can be pacified by either colonisation as in Gwader or by military action. Also the theatre of operations may extend beyond Balochistan into Sindh and Punjab. Attacks against soft targets may increase if the conflict intensifies.

The suicide attacker, the newest tactic in urban warfare, may also enter the conflict. The weaker force, which launches a struggle against a formidable and superior force is now psychologically prepared for this eventuality at the very start. The suicide bomber is the product of collective decision-making that finds its expression in individual acts.

The armed forces of Pakistan have all the required weaponry and the training to carry out operations against the Baloch or elsewhere. The political atmosphere is apparently not conducive to such operations. Will this the state? There are indications that attempts are being made to gain the approval of certain mainstream political parties. But any political party that supports the government in its adventure will be paving the way for its own destruction. The Baloch will not see the blunder as forgivable

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com

This article was first published on 19 March 2005

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