The Balochistan meeting

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An election gimmick or a serious move?

The briefing by Qamar Zaman Kaira at the end of the high level meeting on Balochistan is more remarkable for what it leaves out than what it states. We are told that the army wants a political solution to the Balochistan lawlessness How come there was no word about bringing the killers of Akbar Bugti to book, release of the people picked up by the agencies, end to forced disappearances and dumping of the dead bodies bearing signs of torture? There is nothing about ending the ethnic cleansing of the Hazara community and no measures to rein in the ISI and MI.

Instead of removing the highly unpopular Frontier Corps (FC) to the borders, the meeting has done the opposite. The task of stopping the smuggling of narcotics has been withdrawn and the over 50,000 strong force has been assigned the full-time duty of controlling the civilian areas. During the last many years of FC’s presence in the province, its performance has been marked by criminal negligence and a cynical disregard for the law.

The force has simply failed to protect the Hazara community and the religious minorities including Hindus. Hazaras have been butchered during terrorist attacks on their processions while their community leaders and common members have been hunted down like partridges. Several wealthy members of the Hindu community have been kidnapped for ransom. Hardly a sectarian terrorist is ever caught or killed and if this ever happens, it is by sheer mistake. There is a widespread perception in the province that the sectarian terrorists enjoy the protection of those who matter.

The FC has been accused of involvement in abductions. As CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry observed during a hearing in the second week of May, “Prima facie, there is sufficient evidence against the FC of abducting missing persons.” He also reportedly remarked that the FC was involved in more than 80 per cent of the forced disappearances in the province. To shift its control to the chief minister who has not been able to control even his own cabinet makes no sense. The force needs to be withdrawn in toto from the populated areas of Balochistan.

What does Kaira mean when he says that the FC has been placed under the control of the chief minister? The FC has maintained all along that it was working under the civilian government. This is what the present IG FC Maj Gen Obaidullah Khatak told Geo on February 18 this year. Asked by host Salim Safi regarding who had mandated the peacekeeping role to the force, pat came the answer, “Balochistan government.” “We receive orders from the chief minister and carry them out.”

We have been told that the COAS is convinced that Balochistan is a political issue and the military option cannot be a lasting solution. One has yet to see any indication of a change of heart in the army. Gen Kayani continues to maintain that not a single solider of the army is involved in any military operation in the province. Human memory being selective, he chooses to forget that the FC is led by high ranking army officers that include a major general and a brigadier at the top and several colonels, majors and captains leading various units of the force. The matters of policy are decided entirely by the star studded FC high command and operations led by active service officers. Thus, the issue of whether it is the army or the FC conducting the operations in Balochistan is no more than a matter of semantics for the common man.

There was no word in Kaira’s briefing about reining in the ISI and MI despite the Supreme Court having raised the issue at several occasions, the latest on May 23. The CJ told Khushnood Lashari that people were pointing fingers at law enforcement agencies like the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Military Intelligence (MI) and Frontier Corps (FC) for abduction of people and extra judicial killings. It is widely known that the ISI and MI are often involved in kidnappings not only in Balochistan but in other places of the country also, the case of the 11 Adiala jail missing inmates being one example among many. To bring peace to Balochistan, there is a need to make the ISI and MI accountable to the law of the land.

That the committee to initiate talks with the nationalist parties is yet to be nominated indicates the lack of a sense of urgency in the government. The high level meeting was convened only after widespread public protests over Balochistan being treated like another East Pakistan and the Supreme Court warning of the imposition of the state of emergency in Balochistan. This shows that the government is in fact reacting to the situation instead of being really convinced of its paramount importance. Many believe that if the move had been made three years back some five hundred lives could have been saved. The federal government is moving much more seriously on the division of Punjab, with cut off dates and all that, than on resolving the issue of Balochistan. One wonders under the circumstances whether the high level meeting on Balochistan was an election gimmick or a serious move.

The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.

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