Friday :: May 22, 2009

Balkanization of Pakistan?

by eriposte

[NOTE: My posts covering South Asia are available at this link.]

Via Jan Frel, Pepe Escobar has an article in Asia Times "Slouching towards balkanization". It's a somewhat long article that goes into a discussion of power plays and shenanigans in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, and concludes thusly (emphasis mine):

In the long run, Obama's AfPak strategy may acquire its own relentless, volatile momentum of addicting the military in Islamabad to make war on their own people - be they Pashtuns or Balochis. So Washington may in fact be setting the slow but inexorable march towards the balkanization of Pakistan. If Pashtun cousins on both sides of the border - 26 million in Pakistan, 13 million in Afghanistan - would eventually find an opening to form a long-dreamed-of Pashtunistan, Pakistan as we know it would break up. India might intervene to subdue Sind and Punjab, keeping both under its sphere of influence. Washington for its part would rather concentrate on exploiting the natural wealth and strategic value of an independent Balochistan

Thus a Pakistan not unlike an Iraq still under US occupation - broke up into three parts - now starts to emerge as a distinct possibility. Unless an improbable Pakistani popular revolt, backed by middle-ranking Pakistani soldiers, rumbles on to make the top heads of the army/security/politico establishment roll. But drones, not guillotines, are the flavor of the moment in AfPak. 

I find this analysis to be highly superficial for the following reasons.

First of all, the Pashtun-dominated North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan - which would end up being part of any hypothetical Pashtunistan - has long been an extremely strategic region, for pre-colonial Mughal administrations, the British colonialists and then for Pakistan. One of the principal reasons is that the main trade - and invasion - route from Central Asia to South Asia passes through the NWFP. Additionally, the main land-trade routes from Pakistan to China pass through the NWFP. The NWFP also shares a border with Jammu & Kashmir - the border that was used by Pakistani invaders to attack Indians in the Kashmir region at the time of the India/Pakistan partition. In the event that the NWFP became part of Pashtunistan, that would pretty much raise the question of whether the Northern Areas (in Jammu & Kashmir) would stay in Pakistani control or fall to Pashtuns as well. Therefore, to think that the ruling elite in Pakistan would allow the formation of a Pashtunistan is, in my humble opinion, a pipe dream. It is also pretty unlikely that India would enjoy having a border region in Kashmir with a country that would be run by militant Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban, who would not only not hesitate to invade Kashmir but also provide a fertile ground for terrorists of all stripes intent on invading Kashmir. On the western side of the Durand Line, Afghanistan would not want to see a separate Pashtunistan - which means that realistically a hypothetical Pashtunistan would be a part of Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan is a land-locked province and the only viable paths to the ocean would be southwards through Balochistan and the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Sindh. Given that scenario, unless the Pashtun military and governing elite in Pakistan who have disproportionate power, influence and wealth in Pakistan today, want to commit political and economic self-immolation by supporting a Pashtunistan that would be cutoff from the sea, and thereby from major ports and sea trade, I seriously doubt that the idea of a Pashtunistan would be that appealing to them, aside from the short-term thrill of having their own country. For all these reasons, a hypothetical Pashtunistan would not be a stable reality.

Secondly, roughly 30% of the residents of Balochistan are Pashtuns and a large Baloch population is present in eastern Iran, which raises the question of what an independent Balochistan would even look like. In the 1970s, the Pakistani government under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto fought a Baloch insurgency with generous help from the Iranian government. What is the likelihood that Iran would want to see a chunk of its eastern region secede to form an independent Balochistan? Close to zero. Balochistan itself hosts the strategic port of Gwadar and has large mineral reserves (discussed by Escobar in his article). One of the main reasons why there have been several insurgencies in Balochistan against the Pakistani government is the perception that the Punjabi/Pashtun elite have been exploiting Balochistan for personal profit. To think that the Pakistani ruling elite will just give up their spoils in Balochistan lightly, especially after having put down multiple insurgencies throughout Pakistan's history in order to preserve those spoils, is rather optimistic.

Thirdly, Escobar's view that somehow "India might intervene to subdue Sind and Punjab" is highly unrealistic. India is on a long-term growth path and doesn't need any unnecessary wars. It is to India's disadvantage if the NWFP and Northern Areas get overrun by the Taliban. Further, Sindh has long faced unrest because of the feeling that the Punjabi governing elite have crushed the prospects for local Sindhis, ever since Pakistan came into existence. Sindhis likewise have taken a back-seat to the large population of immigrant Mohajirs in urban Sindh (especially Karachi). To think that Sindh would remain stable and want to remain part of the remainder of Pakistan is highly unrealistic.

Finally, Escobar's claim that "Obama's AfPak strategy may acquire its own relentless, volatile momentum of addicting the military in Islamabad to make war on their own people - be they Pashtuns or Balochis" reflects a lack of understanding of Pakistani history. Pakistan's Pashtun/Punjabi-dominated military became powerful in large part because of the need to make war on other Pakistani provinces - especially Sindh and Balochistan - to keep them linguistically and ethnically suppressed. Obama's "AfPak" strategy might result in the preservation of this terrible legacy (or it might not), but the Pakistani military needs no help for its pre-existing addiction.

All in all, I find this scenario thrown out by Escobar to be highly unlikely. Even if it were to come to pass, it would be one of extreme instability and a new equilibrium would soon be formed after more violence.

eriposte :: 10:05 AM :: Comments (1) :: Digg It!