TIME Magazine: Pakistan's Other War
Islamabad is already battling al-Qaeda. Now it's facing an insurgency in Baluchistan
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- He's 80 years old, but Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a feudal lord in Pakistan's rugged Baluchistan province, wants to fight to the death. A Kalashnikov rifle strapped to his back, Bugti travels by camel through desert ravines and hobbles up cliffs to hidden caves where he plots ways for his Baluch tribesmen to ambush the Pakistani army. "It's better to die—as the Americans say—with your spurs on," says Bugti. "Instead of a slow death in bed, I'd rather death come to me while I'm fighting for a purpose." That purpose is to make life as difficult as possible for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Bugti is one of three Baluch tribal chiefs leading an armed uprising against Islamabad. In recent months the fighting has picked up. Hundreds of civilians have died, as well as nearly 400 government soldiers, and thousands of Baluch have been displaced. The conflict has diverted Musharraf's overstretched troops and U.S.-supplied weaponry away from the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Moreover, the President's aides say that he is convinced Bugti and fellow tribal leaders Balach Marri and Ataullah Mengal, whom he labels "miscreants and outlaws," want to kill him—a rocket attack on Dec. 14 in Baluchistan narrowly missed a public address he was making. The fighting flared immediately after. Musharraf, says an aide, has vowed he will "sort them out."
That's not going to be easy. The Baluch, a distinct ethnic group spread over Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, are fiercely independent and have been a thorn in Islamabad's side for decades regardless of who is in power. Baluchistan is rich in gas and minerals, yet it is Pakistan's poorest province. The government says it wants to develop the territory to improve the lives of the Baluch and to secure the country's energy needs. But the Baluch say they have been marginalized and do not receive adequate royalties from the central authorities for the extraction of the province's natural resources. Islamabad says the feudal chiefs are pocketing the royalties for themselves.
Bugti's clan, numbering about 300,000, was granted access to piped gas from the Sui fields on their land only a few years ago even though the gas had been pumping for decades and had already been flowing to major cities and towns. The government is also building a multimillion-dollar port, Gwadar, off Baluchistan's southern coast, which Musharraf hopes will one day rival Dubai in the nearby Gulf. The Baluch fear, however, that Gwadar will draw so many settlers from Pakistan's other provinces that they will become an underclass minority in their own land.
So the Baluch clans have gone on the offensive. They are sabotaging railways, blowing up gas pipelines and electricity cables, and attacking soldiers both in their garrisons and while they are on patrol on Baluchistan's desert roads. A mysterious group calling itself the Baluchistan Liberation Army has also sprung up. Bugti and the other tribal leaders say they have no link to the B.L.A., but Islamabad says the group is a creation of the feudal chieftains and that the insurgency is backed by India—an allegation New Delhi denies. B.L.A. snipers use World War II-vintage Lee-Enfield rifles to pick off soldiers whenever the Pakistanis leave their camps. On May 11 five bombs exploded in a police training camp outside Baluchistan's provincial capital Quetta, killing six policemen and injuring 13. No one claimed responsibility, but officials blamed the B.L.A. for the attacks. The fighting often stops the flow of gas to Pakistani cities and towns, and it has halted exploration for minerals. If the conflict persists, it could jeopardize Gwadar's future as well as a proposed oil pipeline from Iran to Pakistan, which would pass through Baluchistan. "Right now it's a low-intensity insurgency," says a Western diplomat, "but it could get very nasty."
Bugti symbolizes Baluchistan's character. He says he killed his first man when he was just 12, and his life ever since has been a series of unending blood feuds with other clans and with the Pakistani military. Bugti sees himself as a warrior fighting a noble cause. He is self-taught and an avid reader—until March, the library in his rambling, earthen castle was lined with hundreds of books on philosophy, Western and oriental religions and the European classics. Then the castle, and the library with it, were destroyed by army cannon fire. Bugti is a vegetarian, a rarity among the meat-chomping Baluch, and sups every night on a bowl of green chili peppers, according to a frequent guest. He once served as a federal cabinet minister—and later spent years in jail for insurrection. His band of men move between mountain hideouts, sleeping in caves. Bugti says he uses "a rock for my pillow." Reached through a satellite phone by Time in his mountain lair, Bugti spoke of how he deals with pain (he is partially paralyzed in one leg), temperatures of 45°C, and the perils of waging a guerrilla war against 26,000 Pakistani soldiers in Baluchistan: "Physical hardship—pain, the extreme heat—this is all a state of mind. You either give into it or not. And I choose not to."
The conflict in Baluchistan has consequences beyond its desert wastes. Pakistan is one of Washington's bulwarks in the war on terror, and receives around $600 million a year in U.S. military aid. According to Baluch rebel sources in Quetta and military sources in Islamabad, U.S. helicopters supplied to Pakistan for hunting members of al-Qaeda have been redirected to Baluchistan's deserts to fight Bugti and his two comrades-in-arms. Three Cessna aircraft, outfitted with sophisticated surveillance equipment and given to Pakistan last year by the U.S. to help catch heroin smugglers, have also been drafted into service against the Baluch rebels. Quetta military base sources say that when U.S. antinarcotics agents examined the Cessnas' flight records last month, they found that only seven hours were spent chasing drug runners, while most of the flying time was logged over Bugti's craggy domain scanning for rebel camps.
The U.S. military partnership with Pakistan was designed principally to take the fight to al-Qaeda and those members of the Taliban who have fled across the Afghan border. But a Pakistani military official in Islamabad says the Bush Administration is "fully in the know" that U.S. weaponry is also being used against the Baluch insurgency. "This is all part of a bigger battle against troublemakers challenging the state," says the official. A U.S. State Department official told Time that there's nothing in the agreement with Pakistan to prevent Musharraf using U.S. military aid against Baluch insurgents. "When we transfer the equipment for them, it's for internal security and self-defense," the official says. "There's no 'for al-Qaeda use only' tag on it." Unlike the Taliban and al-Qaeda operating further north along the mountainous Afghan border region, however, the Baluch are not Islamist militants. "They are secular and anti-Taliban," says Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group, "yet American guns are being used against them." (Bugti says he's an agnostic, and some clan leaders espouse socialist values and enjoy whisky.) Baluch sources say that U.S. surveillance aircraft and Cobra gunships have targeted tribesmen. The State Department official says, "We've seen no evidence that our equipment has been used to violate human rights."
The fighting is taking an increasing toll on civilians, say Baluch sources and independent observers. Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for the New York City-based Human Rights Watch, says that "scores of people have disappeared." Musharraf's forces, he says, are carrying out "a policy of abduction, illegal confinement and torture." The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has documented claims that after a truck hit a land mine on Jan. 11, killing three Frontier Constabulary guards, government security forces went on a rampage executing 12 civilians. Two tribal elders sent to recover the bodies were also shot, says the Human Rights Commission. Pakistani army officials deny that soldiers have engaged in abuse or indiscriminate killing. A Pakistani military commander in Baluchistan told Time that "the reason we are not going for a massive, one-to-end-it-all strike is the fear of collateral damage."
Pakistani officials say that Bugti and the others are desert relics, feudal lords willing to sacrifice their men in battle and delay progress, just to retain their power. Bugti says that a deeper issue of autonomy as at issue. "We Baluch believe that the best way to die is to die fighting," says Bugti. "Are we Baluch the masters of our own destiny? Because if that's taken away from us, then life doesn't really matter."
By Tim McGirk with reporting by Ghulam Hasnain/Dera Murad Jamali, Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad and Elaine Shannon/Washington