David and Goliath

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

The title of this piece risks inviting the ire of our overly sensitive ruling elite, who hate being compared with anything that is not heroic and glorious. I find myself hard-pressed to find a more suitable title when an overwhelmingly superior force is pitted against a small but resolute group of people demanding rights over their resources and a life with dignity.

Quite recently, General Musharraf had said that these weren’t the seventies and the Baloch nationalists wouldn’t even know what hit them. Though in bad taste, it was true; military technology has progressed by leaps and bounds because the world can only be dominated through the barrel of the gun. Weapons development has always been the basic tenet of faith for the oppressors.

These decades have seen the emergence of smart bombs, unmanned drones that hunt down adversaries, miniature homing devices that guide missiles to their targets as in the case of Sheikh Yasin or Nek Mohammad. Weapons development has been awesome, but hasn’t yet assured a definitive victory for their possessors because people’s wars have also radically developed to a higher stage. The Vietnam War, the Palestinian Intifada and the Iraqi people’s resistance are all proof of this advance. With the weapons becoming more and more destructive and sophisticated, people have devised new tactics aimed at frustrating the best of the armies and weapons. It is glaringly apparent that people can neither be suppressed by wars nor by active colonization.

Let us briefly compare the opposing sides here. Islamabad enjoys the support and blessings of the super bully; it would expect and get direct aid against any indigenous uprising by proving it to be a threat to global security, as it has in Waziristan. They have absolute air superiority and certainly must have learnt lessons from their failures in the 70s.There are more roads in place now and more outposts in the area. Another factor that could favour them is their relentless effort to range Baloch against Baloch by subsidizing and favouring those who can stand up to the nationalist forces. So far, though, they haven’t had much success, certainly not due to lack of trying. Any Baloch who at this critical juncture makes the mistake of helping Islamabad will be condemned forever.

Pakistan has one of the most formidable armies of the world on paper .The ground reality however poses diverse problems. The soldiers will be encumbered by the terrain in spite of radically improved means of transport. Conventional armies are very much dependent on logistical support. Without the basics they are at sea. Long and vulnerable supply lines are therefore needed. They need clean drinking water and healthy rations; they say a soldier marches on his stomach. A soldier on an empty stomach is a soldier very low on morale. Regular soldiers cannot survive on the available supplies in their areas of operation because of their poor quality. All regular armies have this inescapable problem to cope with in varying degrees in different seasons. Our summers pose even greater problems. Little wonder that winter was selected for this operation.

The renewed conflict has once again brought the ubiquitous Baloch guerrilla into focus. In the 70s he was dedicated, resolute, resilient and elusive, and survived with rudimentary logistics and commonplace arms. Not much has changed since except that he is more resolute and much better armed. Now he is led by an experienced cadre which had its baptism by fire during the 1970s insurgency and in Afghanistan, where they faced continuous attacks from the Mujahideen. He has been exposed to a lot of struggles in the world, has seen more injustice and has evolved to a higher level with the passage of time. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the he is more than ready to shoulder the task imposed on him now.

Though at a disadvantage then, he had survived the onslaught and fought back. His basic aim at present will also be to survive and defend himself. Such conflicts tend to be protracted and cannot be restricted to specified areas. The fluid battle lines will favour him. He knows the terrain and is very mobile. His ability to move in difficult terrain at night and hide during the day is phenomenal. His walking stamina is also bewildering. The tribesmen also have a fantastic sense of orientation. I have seen people unerringly lead through those places in the darkest of nights in areas which they had passed at night several years before.

I know from personal experience that he is not encumbered by logistical factors .The guerrilla survives on the barest minimum, living off the land. His equipment too is very basic, just the assault rifle and ammunition with a little flour and a Khalli (small water skin). He knows where water collects; the quality of water doesn’t matter much and neither does the quantity of food. A kilo of flour suffices for a couple of days. He kneads it with a little water to make a Kak, which is made by heating a rounded stone in a fire, then wrapping it in the kneaded flour and placing it by the fire, rotating it until the outside is baked as well. Kak doesn’t lose its quality with time. He does sometimes get meat when some tribesman at great personal risk treats the guerrillas to a Sajji (roasted meat). The host is invariably punished for his generosity by the government.

Unfortunately, as in all conflicts, the population once again will be bearing the brunt of collateral damage. Policies of collective punishment were employed in the past and could be more brutal and systematic this time around as the threat is greater. These unjustified and illegal actions only help increase the antagonism and the resolve of the affected people.

The two forces in my view are evenly matched in their resolve to defend what they think is right, though the numerical and technological advantage lies solely in favour of the army .They can sustain low key operations for a long time. The guerrilla on the other hand doesn’t lose heart easily as he is accustomed to hardships by the very form of his existence. He fights for honour and dignity, taking all the difficulties in his stride and making it difficult for the opposing forces to break his indomitable spirit. In such conflicts, things that may seem perfect on paper do not always turn out according to the script in reality. Victory for the superior forces is certainly not a foregone conclusion because it is the human element that ultimately determines the outcome of all struggles.

Edward G Browne in his book, A Literary History of Persia, mentions two events which he thinks changed the course of world history. One was the defeat of the well equipped Persian army by the ill-fed and ill-trained forces of the Arabs, inspired by their religion and resolve, and the second being the defeat of the well equipped armies of the Arabs by the Mongol hordes armed with rudimentary weapons and riding bareback horses. The annals of military history are full of surprises. It seems more surprises are on their way with the inevitable defeat of the US in the Middle East topping the list, followed by many lesser events the world over. The course of history is once again in a desperate need of being changed in favour of dispossessed and oppressed humanity. Is somebody listening?

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 1 August 2006 in The Post

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