Bracing for Fallout

The most alarming message for Pakistan in President Barack Obama’s surge doctrine has been left unarticulated. But that ‘unspoken’ lists daunting challenges, Pakistan is yet unprepared for.

By Faryal Leghari (Geopolitics)

Published: Sat 12 Dec 2009, 10:17 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:49 AM

While US Secretary Defense Robert Gates may have provided some relief to Islamabad by saying that Washington has no definite knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, things are far from positive. Pakistan’s concerns stem from both the troop surge and the exit withdrawal, scheduled to start in July 2011. The implications are dangerous and bound to breed further instability. Pakistan stands threatened on both accounts. While continued presence of international forces is a major source of instability in the region, so is withdrawal. Troop surge of another 22,000 forces to complete the 30,000 figure, scheduled to be deployed by May next year, is aimed to wrest control from Taleban insurgents in the provinces of Khost and Kandahar and around Kabul. Helmand already hosts 4,000 US Marines besides a large British contingent. While breaking down the insurgent strongholds is deemed necessary it could lead to cross-border operations and an influx of insurgents into Pakistan.

A ground incursion by US special operation forces in 2008 at Angoor Ada, South Waziristan had led to a massive uproar. Violations of sovereignty by frequent drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas were not enough that fears of hot pursuit ground operations have hit an all time high. Maybe that is why more clarity on how this component of the US strategy translates for Pakistan is being sought by Islamabad.

More disturbing is the exit schedule that Obama’s top officials have now defended as flexible and conditional on security and one that will be gradually implemented in phases, at a very slow pace. This comes after wide-ranging criticism was levelled against the withdrawal timetable that was perceived as sending the wrong signals. An exit, eighteen month down the lane had rendered Pakistan to feel increasingly exposed and vulnerable. Especially after having suffered the consequences of extreme violence and instability these past eight years.

More than the ‘surge and exit’, US plans, to launch a bigger covert offensive in Pakistan have offset panic across the country. The fact that White House has authorised the CIA to increase drone strikes across the country is the icing on the cake. Not only will these be more frequent in battle-worn FATA, these will now cover Balochistan province.

The seat of a restive ethno-separatist movement allegedly financed from outside, Balochistan constitutes more than forty per cent of Pakistan’s total land mass. The most poorly developed but resource rich province borders Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Zabul and Paktika provinces in Afghanistan and Sistan-Balochistan in Iran. In a bid to target the Taleban leadership including Mullah Omar allegedly present in Quetta—capital of Balochistan—drone attacks in the province are likely to trigger a bigger disaster than envisaged.

The strategic significance of Balochistan cannot be underestimated. It hosts the country’s largest gas reserves at Sui and the world’s leading copper and gold reserves.

It is home to Gwadar, Pakistan’s deep-sea port on the Arabian Sea built with Chinese support, poised to be the hub of transnational Gulf-Asia trade. China’s close ties with Pakistan in the strategic arena —including the military and nuclear —is well known. A yet un-materialised aspect both United States and neighbouring India fear is possible Chinese military presence in the Arabian Sea.

From the security perspective Balochistan is a nightmare with organised crime syndicates running successful cross-border smuggling networks. Narcotics, illegal weapons and smuggled goods trade thrive in this sparsely populated and poorly manned region that hosts a large Pashtun population besides ethnic Baloch and Brahuis.

Quetta’s second largest majority after ethnic Baloch is Pashtuns that are almost all of Afghan descent. According to UNHCR findings, Balochistan, hosts a large number of the remaining 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees at present in Pakistan, which incidentally is the world’s largest refugee population. While almost 2 million registered Afghans refugees were successfully repatriated since 2002, the ones remaining continue to pose a big security challenge. It is especially important considering the easy accessibility to the border for people from both sides. The ethnic-tribal linkages with Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Baloch in Iran have played in the hands of miscreant elements, whether it is Jundallah launching attacks on Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Taleban slipping back and forth from Afghanistan, not to forget the organised crime groups.

The other source of trouble is the Baloch separatists being allegedly financed by India. Pakistan officials have also alleged India’s support to anti-state elements in FATA particularly Waziristan. Claiming to have evidence, Islamabad has warned India openly to refrain from destabilisation of security. Furthermore concerns about Indian activities in Afghanistan that are specifically anti-Pakistan have been transmitted to Washington. In fact US Commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal’s report noted that covert Indian activities are creating problems with Pakistan.

Governor Balochistan Zulfiqar Magsi made an interesting comment the other day that was widely reported in the Pakistan press. Brutally honest, Magsi questioned the furore over the threatened drone strikes in Balochistan: has not the US paid money and thus acquired the right to do what it pleases?

Islamabad is already derided for its cowardice in admitting a tacit agreement with the Pentagon for allowing drone strikes. Credit however must be given for continued (but futile) efforts to pressure Washington to transfer drone aircraft to Pakistan in a bid to curtail US infringement of airspace. Ignoring Pakistan’s demands in this regard only confirms the biggest issue of trust deficit that is not only corrosive but has created a dangerous imbalance in a strategic relationship between critical allies. It is doubly significant in intelligence sharing.

The danger of a rapid escalation of instability in Pakistan is close to brimming over. Clamour at distancing itself from what is perceived as a US war, one in which further involvement will be suicidal, is getting louder by the day. Is this the cost Pakistan wants to bear? For an ally that refuses to keep it’s interests in consideration, that is hell bent on achieving misguided objectives and does not care at bulldozing anything enroute? Care must be taken to prevent this at any cost.

Pakistan’s survival as a state is at stake. It must not allow the US to take any more concessions in the name of counterterrorism. It is at a crossroad where it realises the implications of not checking militancy within and must be trusted, something it has proven over and over again. As for Islamabad it must do more to address the genuine grievances of its people. Baloch people need much more from the federationthan withdrawal of cases against its leaders and paltry packages. A consistent failure to do so in the past has led to elements within to exploit the situation with outside encouragement.

Faryal Leghari is Assistant Editor of Khaleej Times and can be reached at

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