The Paradox of US-Baloch Relationship

By Malik Siraj Akbar

During her recent visit to the Baloch capital, Quetta, Anne Woods Patterson , US ambassador to Pakistan, reiterated Washington’s decision to establish a consulate in Balochistan. The announcement came weeks after rumors that the government of Pakistan, after coming under pressure from the right-wing religious parties within the Balochistan coalition government, had refused to allow the establishment of a consulate in Balochistan.
Interestingly, Quetta never confirmed these reports officially. Only once did a pro-Taliban leader from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Maulana Abdul Wasay, who is also the senior minister in Balochistan cabinet, indicated in a media interaction that Washington would not be permitted to establish its consulate in Quetta.
While the US embassy officials have acted over-scrupulously in sharing more details about the role and responsibilities of the proposed “small consulate”, right-wing conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, have been too quick to bill it as an effort to accommodate the “ bad Blackwater guys” to stir trouble in neighboring Iran. The Iranian cultural center in Quetta has also been regularly endeavoring to create an anti-America lobby in the local media and social circles to expedite the anti-consulate propaganda.
The establishment of an American consulate in Balochistan comes at an extraordinarily hard time when Balochistan is in the grip of worst nationalistic and sectarian violence. Not many foreign investors, non-governmental organizations and tourists are willing to visit the province because of mounting security threats. In spite of all these repellent indicators, Washington’s decision to make an official presence in Balochistan is highly encouraging. This will surely boost the shattering confidence of the provincial government which has lost charm for the foreign investors.  With the setting up of a US, a lot of foreign investors and non-governmental organizations will hopefully start coming to Balochistan.
Having said that, a US consulate in Balochistan, a province which shares borders with two countries (Iran and Afghanistan) that house a great proportion of anti-US segment, will not be totally free from threats of terrorist attacks. Taliban will make every effort to target US interests in Balochistan as they do not see the consulate in the context of developmental programs. They believe the consulate is intended to solely monitor their activities and locate their hideouts supposedly present in and around Quetta city.
In the backdrop of this situation, the US government will obviously need supporters in Balochistan against the religious fanatics.  I always wonder who the real supporters of American are in Balochistan. After all the provincial government, which is heavily dominated by the right-wing mullahs from JUI, cannot be a reliable friend of America.
Can the Baloch nationalists become new allies of Washington?

Very little information is available to analyze the nature of relationship and trust, if there is any, between Washington and the Baloch nationalists. Balochs may be secular and democratic; they have always looked at Moscow for ideological guidance. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, America did come up with its New World Order but the Balochs refused to reconfigure their friends even though Moscow stopped providing any kind of moral and financial support to the Baloch nationalist movement.

There are two schools of thought among Baloch nationalists in terms of determining US-Baloch relationship.
Firstly, the armed groups have a calculated approach towards Washington. They may be willing to accept any kind of assistance if it is meant to fight Islamabad. In an interview with veteran journalist Najam Sethi, Nawabzada Hairbyar Marri, a London-based top Baloch leader, said it was preferable for the Balochs to live under American slavery than living as the slaves of the Punjabis, who dominate Pakistan’s military and civil adminsteration.
On the other hand, many Balochs are unwilling to become what they call “slaves” or a colony of America in case Balochistan gets freedom from Pakistan. The most prominent face of the Baloch resistance movement, Sardar Khair Baksh Marri, sounded in an interview with a Sindhi newspaper cynical about America’s unwillingness to directly negotiate with the Balochs directly. Nawab Marri, like many Balochs, believes Balochs wouldn’t have been treated badly in Pakistan if the US had not  supported the Pakistani establishment.
It is catch-22 situation for America as the Balochs, on the one hand, still view it as a reliable supporter of Islamabad and Islamabad, on the other hand, is increasingly getting suspicious of what they see as covert American penetration in Balochistan. Conservatives in Islamabad fear Americans are secretly negotiating with the Balochs on some important matters, including the independence of Balochistan.There is no evidence to substantiate such assumptions.
Based on the same assumption, the rightwing parties believe the sooner the Americans are prevented from setting up their mission in Quetta, the better.
Traditionally, the Americans have pretended not to pay much attention to the Baloch insurgency in its ongoing phase. It is this reason that unlike London, Washington did not ban the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the fiercest Baloch armed group. The Americans did not react angrily even after one of their nationals John Solecki, the Balochistan head of UNHCR was kidnapped by the Baloch Liberation United Front (BLUF).

Political analysts believe America has given too much space to the secular Baloch nationalists in spite of their un-American style of struggle. On their part, the Baloch armed groups and pro-independence Balochistan forces have still not formally discarded their ideological commitment with Moscow and connected with liberal democratic Washington.
Significantly, the other school of thought within the Baloch nationalists who were interested to redefine their relationship with Washington is that of the pro-parliament Balochistan National Party (BNP) and the National Party. Leaders from these parties are in fact closer to the American type of democracy. In spite of these similarities, these parties have not been able to gain much of American’s attention because Washington knows that these political parties no longer have full influence on the Baloch society.
BNP and NP neither have a significant presence in the parliament nor in the mountains, from where the Balochs are waging an armed struggle, to meet American expectations. Therefore, Americans do not take BNP and NP very seriously.
One such classic example of American hostility towards Baloch leaders is Washington’s continued refusal to issue a visa to former senator and member of the National Assembly Sanaullah Baloch. A former central secretary information of the BNP , Sanaullah Baloch’s visa was revoked by the Bush administration presumably on the recommendations of former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf.
In 2000, Sana had been granted a five-year multiple US visit (non-immigrant) visa . In July 2005, he traveled to USA (on non-immigrant five year multiple B1/B2 visa, granted in 2000) in order to participate at Center for Democracy, Development and Rule of Law prestigious summer fellowship at Stanford University CA.
In December 2005,  Mr. Baloch was nominated by the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). In order to attend the IVLP program, Mr. Baloch was issued J1 visa on 01 December 2005 by the US Embassy at Islamabad, Pakistan.
But in March 2006, Senator Baloch’s J1 visa was revoked before leaving to the United States of America for IVLP program.
I asked Sana about the possible causes for the revocation of his US visa, he said he believed the decision had been taken on the behest of Pakistan’s military dictator General Musharraf.
In 2006, Sana was awarded the prestigious Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship by the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED). His fellowship project was entitled “Democracy, Development, and Ethnic Politics in Pakistan.”
Though he applied for a J1 visa in September 2006 at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo (Norway) to avail his Research fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, Sana’s visa request was not entertained.
Sana’s case clearly indicates that Washington is still unwilling to make friendship with the Baloch leadership at the cost of annoying Islamabad. On the other hand, the armed groups have not hinted at starting some kind of reconciliatory relationship with the Americans.
Thus, the opening up of a new American consulate must not be mistaken for the inception of better relations between the Americans and the Balochs. Both sides have not started talking to each other about means to foster mutual understanding. They have not been very enthusiastic about developing better relationship with each other.
If Washington wants to win the hearts of the progressive and democratic Baloch leadership then it must open up its borders for leading Baloch leaders like Sanaullah Baloch. If Washington believes in the sanctity of the ballot then it should lift unnecessary travelling restrictions on Sanaullah Baloch, who is in fact the youngest parliamentarian ever elected in the entire history of Pakistan. For the Balochs, they will have to sacrifice their old relationship with Moscow and join the US camp to explore new avenues of cooperation and mutual understanding. We do not see any quick signs of change of hearts in near future.

(The writer is the editor of The Baloch Hal: editor@thebalochhal.com)