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Way Out West

By Fram Dinshaw There you were thinking Pakistan was in serious enough trouble, what with Bhutto being killed sparking riots…

By Fram Dinshaw , in Asia's Weimar Republic Blogs , on February 15, 2008

By Fram Dinshaw

There you were thinking Pakistan was in serious enough trouble, what with Bhutto being killed sparking riots across the country, and the situation in the North West Frontier steadily simmering away, occassionally erupting into full scale battles between Taliban militants and government troops.

All that’s pretty big news for sure, but it’s nowhere near the full sorry story afflicting Pakistan. There’s trouble out West, in Baluchistan Province. This part of the country is a dry, rocky desert, one of the most remote in the world. In the summer, Baluchistan sees temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius, with fierce sandstorms and flash floods roaring through the desert gorges and valleys.

This harsh land, just next door to Afghanistan and Iran, has long been used by drug smugglers, bandits, and tribal insurgents as a hideout, and like the North West Frontier, the Islamabad Government has never fully controlled Baluchistan.

Things first turned ugly in 1973, when Baluch nationalists launched an insurgency which was brutally crushed after four years by Pakistan’s army, who were helped by Iranian pilots flying US attack helicopters. The local tribesmen resented Pakistani Punjabi settlers coming to their land to extract minerals, gas, and other resources. However, their efforts failed, and by the late 1970s, an uneasy peace took hold once more.

This old wound flared up once more in 2004, with Baluch rebels demanding a greater share of profits and development from the natural gas extracted under their soil by Musharraf’s government. This time, it was the Chinese helping Pakistan, as they built a port on the Arabian sea to ship gas abroad. The gas terminal was attacked by guerrillas armed with rocket launchers, killing three Chinese engineers.

Since then, violence has escalated, with tit for tat fighting between Baluchi militants and government soldiers culminating in the town of Dera Bugti being shelled and dozens killed in March 2005. Violence persisted into 2007, with a suicide bomb targetting a courthouse in Quetta, the provincial capital.

Normally, this could be just another local conflict, far away from us and our cushy lives. Many other conflicts are ignored like this. But this is Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are never far away. Just over the Afghan border, in fact. Baluchistan would be an ideal lair for al-Qaeda to move and spread its tentacles even further, releasing more jinns into an already explosive climate. Is this the new Wild West? You bet.