My big brother and I got into a shouting match about our country last summer.
We’d been talking about a trip I took a few years ago to Gwadar, a centuries-old fishing community that millions of Pakistanis ― including my brother ― see as a portent of a glamorous, wealthy and once-unimaginable future. Gwadar is located just by the entrance to the Persian Gulf, in the southwest of the exceptionally poor and rarely peaceful Pakistani province of Balochistan. Eventually, it’s supposed to become the crown jewel of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $62 billion branch of China’s “Belt and Road” plan to expand trade and relationships across Asia and Europe.
For Pakistan, the project is a way to provide for a rapidly growing and fractious population, already the fifth-largest in the world, and challenge Washington after years of tensions with the U.S. For China, it’s an opportunity to establish supply routes away from the American-dominated Pacific and sustain slowing economic growth, especially in the country’s vast western regions. Officials say close to half a billion tons of shipments — including of the Mideast oil that meets much of China’s needs ― will eventually flow through Gwadar each year.
I’m a skeptic, but there aren’t many of us. For the 200 million Pakistanis who, like me, were born and raised outside of Balochistan, the region is a national black hole. The province is the size of Germany and home to gas reserves and minerals we’ve been told will guarantee a Pakistani economic miracle. But it’s understood less as a real place than as our country’s version of the 19th-century American West ― and with little fanfare or accountability, Pakistan has subjected the province’s indigenous population, particularly the 7 million who belong to an ethnic minority called the Baloch, to decades of threats, kidnappings, torture and discrimination. The result has been four insurgencies, the most recent and vicious of them ongoing.
My brother thought I was being a naive liberal for warning that Pakistan’s plan to quash the Baloch and borrow billions from China could risk doom for the Islamic Republic. Many in our circle of well-educated Pakistanis believe Pakistan will figure out what it’s doing, or somehow manage nasty consequences like massive debt to the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. My brother plans to invest, and he’s obsessed with ensuring that our widowed mother is well-positioned for the billions in Chinese business, aid and loans that officials say will enter Pakistan by 2030. Our mother’s new neighbor in the tony suburb where we grew up is a Chinese executive protected at all times by at least eight security guards.
But a decade of writing on Pakistan has me convinced that predicting the country’s future is like politely asking fate to spit in your face. There’s one certainty in the only nuclear-armed country in the majority-Muslim world: The military, wealthy and unaccountable like no other institution, calls the shots. It’s thrilled with the Chinese project because it involves a massive infusion of outside cash without any pesky requirements about democracy. And it’s certain Balochistan should be handled with force and manipulation ― even though it’s never really tried the alternative.
On July 25, Pakistan held elections critical to the future the military has planned. Over the months prior to the vote, the army pummeled political leaders, the press and independent Pakistani civil society in a way it hadn’t for years. Top officers sought to consolidate power once and for all after challenges to their will by the governments elected since Pakistan’s last military dictatorship ended in 2007.
The poll results showed they get away with it. The general mood remains one of disarray: Pakistan’s most popular politician is now in jail; the Pashtun minority group, one even larger than the Baloch, is staging unprecedented protests; the currency and stock market are in free fall; the neighborhood is worsening as the Taliban and self-described Islamic State grow stronger and tensions rise between Iran and Saudi Arabia; and the U.S. is planning fresh ways to punish the country for its support of militancy.
The questions about Pakistan’s relationship with the Baloch — what they get out of the big plans with China, and if there can ever be an end to the bloody insurgency — are nowhere near resolved.
I’ve spent chunks of the two years since I took a tiny plane to Gwadar discussing Balochistan with high-ranking Pakistanis, well-informed Baloch, Western officials, human rights and humanitarian groups, businesspeople and analysts.
My questions have a lot to do with the particulars of this one province in one country ― how does Pakistan’s big vision of minting money and reordering world politics relate to the long, sorry story of a minority that’s never fully been treated as equal?
But they’re also about a dilemma faced by countries around the world as disconnects grow between modern, efficient capital and state power, and regular, emotional human beings attached to their identities and lands. Pakistan and China seem to think they can bully Balochistan to get what they want. Is real progress possible without justice?
The policy of treating the Baloch as a problem to be managed is as old as Pakistan itself. It was the country’s iconic founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who launched the military’s first operation into the province in 1948, reneging after only a few months on a gentleman’s agreement with the ruler of a 400-year-old Baloch quasi-state called the Khanate of Kalat. Small squads of Baloch nationalists launched rebellions that year and in 1958 and 1962.
In 1971, Pakistan’s first-ever general election put Baloch nationalist politicians in charge of the province for the first time. President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto initially approved. Then he fired the Baloch government over claims ― contested by historians and the U.S. ― that they were importing weapons from Iraq to fight a separatist war. Tens of thousands of Baloch launched a guerrilla campaign, and the Pakistani army, fresh from a loss in Bangladesh, fought with a bloody determination to restore its image. More than 8,000 people died.
General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto in 1977 and courted the Baloch to signal he could heal the country’s wounds. Preoccupied with nuclear ambitions and the U.S.-Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan, he left the Baloch to themselves, giving the community space to imagine what their society might look like in peacetime and allowing many an unprecedented shot at government jobs and education opportunities.
Then came 9/11. As the U.S. poured money into the Islamic Republic to fight the Afghan fundamentalists Pakistan and America once armed, military dictator Pervez Musharraf pledged an economic miracle in Balochistan that would include transformational development. Baloch leaders retorted that the rest of Pakistan already profited off their province’s natural gas. The dispute worsened throughout 2004, until early the following year, a doctor working at a state-owned gas facility reported that she had been raped by a group of Musharraf’s army officers. With the Baloch feeling their honor was under attack by what some already viewed as an occupying force, a true civil war commenced. By the summer of 2005, clashes had killed dozens of civilians. Negotiations were off the table and the weather was hot. And on Aug. 24, Pakistani soldiers responded to firing from a Baloch nationalist camp in the province’s northeast with a two-and-a-half-day assault culminating in the explosion of a mine at the entrance to a cave. The cave collapsed. Under it — unbeknownst to the Pakistani state, officials claimed — was Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a tribal hero and onetime governor.
“The rulers and the army have triggered an endless war,” one Baloch leader predicted. Bugti had held top government posts, even during Bhutto’s assault on the province in the 1970s, but retained credibility as a nationalist. For many Baloch, his killing suggested that no amount of prominence, righteousness or appeasement could lead to being treated as full citizens.
“The government puts their own people ... then they say they are ghaddar,” Balakh Sher Mazari, a former Pakistani prime minister, told me, using a loaded term for traitor. Mazari grew up with Bugti in the 1940s; they were giants in the first generation of Baloch leaders in Pakistan, and both spent decades carefully balancing relationships with the insurgency and the Pakistani establishment. “Why the hell would they kill Akbar?” Mazari said. “He never did anything!”
The Bugti killing prompted levels of Baloch rage not seen in decades, and for the first time, the province’s middle class professionals became as willing to confront the government as the tribal communities loyal to peers of Bugti and Mazari.
Both sides have since lost hundreds. Baloch militants see anyone working for the government, even teachers, as fair game, and military forces have disappeared thousands of Baloch with no warning or trial — to jail cells or, in some instances, mass graves. Those who return from detention speak of vicious beatings and verbal abuse. When I traveled around Gwadar, I saw armed officials everywhere, and my guides told me to stop ambling off ― and in one instance to avoid even looking in a certain direction ― lest I trigger government or rebel surveillance.
Today, the basic contours of the conflict ― a guerrilla war between an increasingly alienated coalition of armed Baloch and a world-class military convinced toughness is the only way to get the job done ― are static.
Pakistan’s army sees the Baloch as uniquely troublesome, different from the politicians and religious fundamentalists it is happy to cut deals with and occasionally stab in the back. It perceives their complaints about systematic underrepresentation and collective punishment as attacks on Pakistan itself. It’s still too painful for them, and for most Pakistanis, to talk about what happened the last time a suppressed ethnic group became totally disenchanted with that concept, because it ended in an embarrassing defeat and the birth of the independent nation of Bangladesh. For many of the most powerful people in Pakistan, giving anything on Balochistan is giving too much.
The policy of pressure on the Baloch now extends far beyond the province. Evidence trickles out sparingly. Sometimes there are protests. When I was home in Karachi, the country’s largest city, in January, I spotted a small newspaper item about two Baloch university students being abducted by a mix of plainclothes and uniformed officials. Their crime: attending a rally against the earlier arrest of a fellow Baloch student.
In another era, Baloch elites might have been able to keep the peace and provide an answer to the government’s problem and China’s worries. For decades, it was those men — heirs with access to resources, contacts and eloquent philosophical arguments for their community’s rights — who defined Baloch discontent for Pakistanis and the broader world. But many of the latest chiefs-to-be aren’t ready to push collaboration. I met four of them soon after my trip to Gwadar, courtesy of my onetime classmate Zarain Magsi, the charismatic 26-year-old scion of a Baloch political family with such broad political power that one Pakistani newspaper says its leader “is in a position to form his own small Parliament.”
I arrived at the time and place I’d been given, a Karachi villa a three-minute drive from my own, and settled in at the far corner of the drawing room, facing four macho young men with traditional outfits and facial hair. My slim-cut trousers felt too slim. But the banter, the scotch and the drawled English made sense. Magsi and his friends were eager to talk. They described the community’s history and “Balochiat” system of values, loudly murmuring to endorse each other’s points and, when needing to disagree, doing so with care and deep respect. They told me ― and really told each other, for what didn’t seem like the first time ― stories and arguments they had grown up with, sharing a legacy of feeling betrayed and being accused of treachery.
“I gave the benefit of the doubt to the Pakistan army,” Magsi said of the early life he spent in Karachi in houses like this as his family became the latest favored Baloch partner for Pakistan’s military and political elites. His faith in his country shattered when the state killed Bugti in 2006. “I came to the conclusion that there’s no other way. OK, maybe picking up arms is not the right thing to do, but then at the end of the day if your back is against the wall, if robbers come to your house, what are you going to do? Take all this Baloch thing out. A Punjabi would do it too,” he continued, referring to the ethnic group that dominates the army.
Bugti’s nephew, Washane Bugti, was in the room. The others deferred to him; I got the sense his coming over was an event. He told us how a Pakistani military officer he’d happened to meet at a favorite shop had turned a trivial introduction into something more by demanding he “come prove his loyalty to the state.” He believes he is being monitored at all times.
The group wasn’t happy with the status quo. They felt fundamentally separate from Pakistan and even its most powerful narratives ― Bugti might stop being a Muslim, he said, but he could never stop being a Baloch. But they also weren’t among the insurgents hiding out in Balochistan’s caves. Part of Bugti’s response to the military officer was to prove his loyalty by pointing out he lived in Defense, the posh army-owned Karachi neighborhood we met in.
Of the blue-blooded Baloch who historically dominated the community’s struggle, the most revolutionary ― figures like Bugti’s cousin Brahamdagh, who fought alongside Akbar Bugti ― are now in exile. They criticize Pakistan and court its enemies, from India to Israel, while exerting little influence over everyday events in the province. Their relatives in the country keep their status secure and grumble behind closed doors, fearing a damaging public battle for equality ― the way people of so many ethnic, religious, sexual and other minority communities do in Pakistan. Some, including in the Bugti tribe, are effectively puppets of the military, putting a Baloch face on a policy designed to suppress Balochistan.
That’s not too different from the first six decades of Balochistan’s existence as a Pakistani province. What’s new is the way Akbar Bugti’s killing and the Pakistani army’s collective punishment over the last decade have radicalized millions of middle-class Baloch, people who aren’t rich enough for Defense but aren’t living in the arid north, where tribal hierarchy dominates, either.
“Before it was a lower-class issue and then the elite, now it’s in the middle,” Magsi said. That reality is dangerous for Pakistan and, ironically, a product of its own policies, from kidnappings and barring Baloch advancement, to decades of government and military propaganda discrediting the tribal chiefs as irredeemably corrupt. Leaders who had run Baloch communities for generations warned the combination would make the community even more alienated unless it was paired with proper government outreach and accountability. The generals figured they were just trying to cling to power.
Today, the strongest figure in the insurgency is Allah Nazar Baloch, a middle-aged, middle-class former medical student who leads the Baloch Liberation Front group, or BLF, and has survived repeated jail time and assassination attempts. Nazar attracts younger Baloch who have degrees and want good jobs but feel Pakistan will always treat them as second-class citizens even in their own region. Pakistani security forces detained him for over a year after fighting broke out in 2005, beating and threatening him frequently. His BLF has killed and kidnapped scores of Pakistani officials. But he has developed a cult following, if a secret one.
“Speaking to Baloch around the country, I discovered something of the breadth of his appeal,” Mahvish Ahmad, one of the few Pakistani reporters ever to interview Nazar, wrote in 2012. “I once met a young boy who blushed, speaking of the first time he touched Nazar’s feet. Girls wrote him long and frustrated letters asking him when they could join him in the mountains. I discovered poets who composed Balochi songs in his name.”
While Nazar’s group and militias like it don’t include more than a few thousand fighters, they count tacit support among a community of millions. And they work to ensure that they seem like more sincere and legitimate representatives of the Baloch than others currently negotiating with the army and the government. It’s hard to fault the Baloch for wanting an alternative to Pakistan’s policies, considering their results so far: intrusive and omnipresent checkpoints, plans to forcefully evict locals in Gwadar, a huge recent terror attack by an ISIS branch rooted in extremist groups fostered by the military. What’s on offer doesn’t bode well for the stability of Pakistan or the region.
Nearly every party contesting the July elections said it would deliver a better deal for Balochistan. The previous ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, boasted about having already appointed the first Baloch chief minister from the middle class rather than tribal royalty; top officials in the rival Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and Pakistan Peoples Party, widely believed to have the support of the army this time around, told HuffPost they would rebalance the Chinese plans to deliver real gains for the country’s ethnic minorities. But the true stewards of the project that will determine Balochistan’s future remained the same before and after Election Day: the Pakistani military, whose view of the province is already clear, and the Chinese government.
China is far more involved in the internal politics of Pakistan than it has been in other countries to which its gigantic Belt and Road development plan extends, according to Zahid Shahab Ahmed, a researcher at Deakin University in Australia who previously taught in Pakistan. Chinese officials are now ubiquitous in major cities. In February, the Financial Times revealed secret talks between Beijing and Baloch militants, and in March, a delegation of American journalists invited to Gwadar by the Pakistani government met with Zhang Baozhong, the head of China Overseas Ports Holding Company Ltd. Dressed in a Pakistani outfit, Zhang told them he sees the country as a “good boy” who does “good things,” according to defense reporter Kristina Wong.
There’s some evidence that Chinese decision-makers recognize the Baloch as people to be reckoned with rather than just insurgents to be crushed, Andrew Small, a German Marshall Fund analyst who’s spoken extensively with officials in both governments, told me. Ahmed noted Chinese plans for a hospital and school in Gwadar. The Pakistan army has stepped up efforts to recruit Baloch, he added; on election eve, Magsi said new military outreach to Baloch communities over the past year has him convinced the military wants to move on from “outdated policies.”
But neither government much trusts soft power to deal with its problems, and China’s approach to its own Balochistan equivalent ― the majority-Muslim province of Xinjiang ― is to clamp down with massive surveillance, intimidation of dissidents and their families and harsh restrictions on locals’ ability to even express their culture. A draft master plan for the economic corridor published last year by DAWN, Pakistan’s top English-language newspaper, included similar proposals, suggesting the two governments had discussed huge surveillance systems in every major Pakistani city that would monitor roads and markets 24 hours a day. “Signals gathered from the surveillance system will be transmitted to a command centre, but the plan says nothing about who will staff the command centre, what sort of signs they will look for, and who will provide the response,” the DAWN analysis of the plan reads. Pakistani officials claimed the plan was a “live” document not yet finalized.
Pakistan’s unflinching network of human rights activists and some political figures are already protesting the prospect of more repression in the name of prosperity ― all amid unprecedented hacking and spyware attacks and harsher government restrictions on the press. Other forces are aligning with the Baloch for less idealistic goals: Fellow smaller regions worry they will be bypassed if the Chinese focus their trade routes to Gwadar not in the western half of the country, including Balochistan, but in the already wealthy eastern province of Punjab, the heartland of the army. “The distribution … has to be done transparently, it has to be done equitably,” Osman Saifullah Khan, a recently retired senator with business interests in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told me. Khan sat on one of the three parliamentary committees supposedly overseeing the plan. He never saw the final route map or other key details.
It’s the Western powers with long histories and deep influence within Pakistan, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, who have a better chance of winning restraint from the military and China. Though they’re not involved directly, the Gwadar project has large implications for these governments. U.S. officials see preventing instability in Pakistan as essential ― for Afghanistan but also because of Pakistan’s huge, growing nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, a Pentagon document last summer showed concern about an eventual Chinese military presence in Balochistan; there’s precedent for that outcome, as China took over a strategically located Sri Lankan port in December as repayment in a similar economic deal.
Regional power players close to the U.S. are wary too. The United Arab Emirates doesn’t want competitors for its profitable neighboring port at Jebel Ali. India is working on its own competing port, at Chabahar in Iran, just a few hundred miles from Gwadar, and recently secured naval access at a nearby port in U.S.-friendly Oman. In early 2016, Pakistani authorities captured a former Indian naval officer in the province and accused him of being a spy; though New Delhi denies the claim, the Indian press has linked him to Indian intelligence. Pakistan’s establishment has long suspected its historic rival is covertly helping the Baloch insurgency ― apparent proof of that makes life harder for figures seeking fair treatment for the Baloch, the tribal heir Magsi told me, and allows hardline officers to justify blow after blow to the community.
The U.K. and U.S. governments are well aware of Baloch concerns, multiple officials from both countries told HuffPost. But the Americans for years have hoped that Chinese intervention might rein in extremists who have blossomed amid the fighting in Balochistan and are widely believed to receive covert military support from the Pakistani military, former State Department official Shamila Chaudhary told me. Working under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, she assessed that Washington did not see involvement in Balochistan as a U.S. priority. That’s unlikely to change under President Donald Trump, a loud proponent of the idea that Muslim communities should be brutally “managed.”
Pakistanis have little desire to see American meddling anyway, given years of squabbles between the two countries and Trump’s direct criticisms and pressure. “With the U.S. policy, it seems that they want to push us into the arms of the Chinese,” Khan, the former senator, said. And for China, an American blind eye is ideal. One of its goals is to create demand within Pakistan for products manufactured by its own rebellious minority, the mostly Muslim Uighurs, U.S. Institute of Peace research shows; it doesn’t need lectures on the intricacies of Pakistani stability when it’s focusing on its own.
Realistically, Balochistan isn’t becoming any less combustible any time soon. Meanwhile, the stakes there are growing, as Pakistanis come to rely more on the Chinese economic plan becoming a reality and the regional ISIS branch becomes more daring. Pakistan’s military has to realize it can’t sustain its expanding province-wide clampdown forever, Ahmed, the academic, told me, or just keep changing its tactics and anointing fresh Baloch partners. The shift that would really matter would be intangible: coming to see the Baloch, millions of people connected to Pakistan since its birth, as equals. For many in the Islamic Republic, that might be too big of an ask.
Of all the people I discussed Balochistan with over the past two years, the one I most wanted to keep talking to was Malik Siraj Akbar.
A skinny, bespectacled Baloch journalist in his 30s, Akbar was casually name-checked by almost everyone I talked to, from current officials to international outside experts and tribal chiefs-in-waiting. He’s deeply familiar with the perspectives of both Pakistani decision-makers and armed nationalists. Anyone interested in Balochistan has followed his work in mainstream Pakistani media, international outlets like The New York Times and his pioneering blog, The Baloch Haal. And almost everyone I talked to told me my story would be incomplete if I didn’t interview him.
I learned when we met how Akbar’s experience of life in Pakistan had been a fun-house mirror image of mine as a privileged non-Baloch. He told me he could only dream of attending the kinds of schools that Akbar Bugti and Zarain Magsi and I did. He instead studied at a Pakistani university in Balochistan as the first in his family to obtain a college degree. Allah Nazar, the militant leader, attended a similar school at the same time. They both knew some of the same people in the Baloch Students Organization.
The Baloch “could easily be co-opted and made an integral part of the system,” Akbar argued. “The reason there was no involvement by the middle class in the past is the government did not antagonize them. With the help of the middle class, they neutralized the whole movement.”
“This time it is the other way round,” he continued, listing the names of Baloch professionals he knew personally ― professors, journalists ― who have been detained, “disappeared” and, in more than one instance, killed by Pakistani security services.
Akbar is the kind of person a smarter central government might see as an essential lieutenant. He’s passionate about the suffering of the Baloch and clear-eyed about what a fair shake for them within Pakistan would look like.
And as of Feb. 14, 2018, he is officially an American citizen, living, working and writing in Washington, because eight years ago Pakistani authorities blocked his news website, and a few months later his uncle, brother and elderly parents urged him to leave them behind to seek asylum in the U.S.
Nowadays, I see him around town every so often; we’ve become friendly, and we chat about our lives, careers, friendships in the South Asian community. He lets me know when he publishes a new story or speaks at the occasional event around town.
But I can fly back to the place I still call home. I can even go see Gwadar in all its eventual glory. My Baloch friend can’t.
This story has been updated to reflect the July 25 elections being held.