“The federal government should either allow international aid or do more for the rehabilitation process in quake hit areas,” Dr. Malik Baloch, Chief Minister of Balochistan, the France-sized southwestern province of Pakistan, tweeted five days ago.
The chief minister’s anguished tweet followed little help from Islamabad to end theplight of nearly 200,000 people in Balochistan’s Awaran and Kech districts, despite passage of more than a month, since the September 24earthquake that measured 7.7 on the Richter scale played havoc there.
Dr. Malik Baloch made repeated appeals to UN and international agencies to come to the rescue of his impoverished people affected by the earthquake, that left400 dead and more than 1,000 injured and destroyed more than 20,000 homes and172 schools and left nearly 40,000 families homeless in one of the least developed regions of the country, in spite of its rich mineral wealth and natural resources, Islamabad flatly refused to provide no objections letters to UN and foreign agencies to venture into Balochistan and Dr. Malik Baloch’s appeal for international help fell on the deaf ears of a an army major general who heads the National Disaster Management Authority.
The worst affected area in question Awaran has long suffered because of Islamabad’s apathy towards Balochistan for more than six decades. Matters have been further complicated in the last 10 or so years when Baloch insurgents rose up in arms to disallow any development works.
The step-motherly treatment towards Balochistan is there for all to see. In all previous national disasters, whether it was Kashmir or Ziarat in the Pashtun belt of Balochistan, Pakistan solicited international help and opened its doors to foreigners but its handling of the Balochistan earthquake has caused anguish among the Baloch and be wilderment among internationals.
For example, the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders or Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) ran from pillar to post to get permission to go into Awaran without luck. The chief minister of Balochistan was keen to host the MSF, but Islamabad said no. Balochistan has already been out of bounds for the foreign media for more than a decade now.
The official explanation, if any, given by Islamabad is security issue for the foreign aid workers. In February 2009, John Solecki, who was the chief of mission of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Balochistan capital Quetta, was abducted by an obscure Baloch militant outfit that described itself as the Baloch United Liberation Front. Solecki’s driver was killed during the abduction. The New Jersey man was freed after more than two months of captivity.
However, development professionals in Pakistan say there is more to it than meets the eye. They say Islamabad for military strategic reasons does not want the arrival of foreigners in its politically sensitive under-belly at a crucial time when the NATO is planning to pullout from Afghanistan next year.
The recovery efforts in Balochistan have fallen on the bedrock of a geo-strategic policy pursued by the Pakistan military on the Western borders with Afghanistan. The policy, called the strategic depth policy, aims at ensuring Pakistan’s dominance over Afghanistan, according to Pakistani and international media reports.
Despite the change in civilian guard in Islamabad – earlier it was President Asif Ali Zardari, now it is Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif – Pakistan military has jealously guarded the policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan.
During the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, Pakistan army generals used to call Afghanistan “their fifth province.” Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate was one of the main architects of the strategic depth policy and was a frequent visitor to Afghanistan during the Taliban rule.
Political observers in Pakistan believe that it was this strategic depth policy that saw Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden find a safe haven next door to the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad. Meanwhile, the hapless Baloch victims of the earthquake in Balochistan will have to wait until the NATO troops pulled out from Afghanistan in 2014.
- Ahmar Mustikhan is a senior Baloch journalist, now based in the Washington DC area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org