Should the US support an independent Balochistan?

A handful of US congressmen support creating an independent Balochistan, carved out of mostly Pakistani land.

Balochi rebels
Some US congressmen support Baloch nationalists in Pakistan and Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – Over the last few months, a small faction of congressmen, minority Afghan groups, Baloch nationalists, and their supporters have laid out the framework for an alternative US policy approach for Southwest Asia.

This alternative policy centres on backing remnants of the Northern Alliance and Baloch insurgents, who seek to carve out semi-autonomous territories or independent states from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

While supporters of this new approach are motivated by a variety of interests, they appear unified in their rejection of what they see as three cornerstones of the Obama administration’s current regional policy approach: 1) Normalising relations with Pakistan’s government and military; 2) Incorporating the Taliban into the current Afghan political system; 3) Overly accommodating an emerging Iran.

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In one broad stroke, this new approach would attempt to advance US national interests by redrawing the political borders of Southwest Asia – contrary to the the sovereignty and territorial integrity of three existing states.

While its advocates clearly do not yet have broad support for their initiative, the campaign for an alternative Southwest Asian policy approach is maturing and garnering increased attention in Congress and beyond, especially as a result of three recent high-profile events: a Balochistan National Front strategy session in Berlin, a US congressional hearing on Balochistan, and the introduction of a Baloch self-determination bill before the US Congress.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, it’s nevertheless critical to understand how this alternative policy approach framework has evolved over the past few months.

The ‘Berlin Mandate’ as a loose framework

In early January, a bipartisan congressional delegation, led by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California), held a “strategy session” in Berlin with Afghan opposition leaders, including the country’s former intelligence chief. The meeting addressed constitutional reforms that would make Afghanistan a federal system.

Meeting participants argued that vesting political and economic power in the provinces, instead of centralising power in Kabul, would protect the US’ Northern Alliance allies from retribution at the hands of Pashtuns once the Taliban is fully reincorporated into the Afghan political system.

“Let’s talk about creating a Balochistan in the southern part of Pakistan. They’ll stop the IEDs and all of the weaponry coming into Afghanistan, and we got a shot to win over there.”

– Texas congressman Louie Gohmert

By advancing these policies, the attendees portrayed the Taliban’s incorporation into Afghanistan’s political system as a greater risk than the threat posed to Afghanistan’s territorial integrity by their alternative – which would risk the partition of “Afghanistan between the minority-dominated north and the Pashtun south”. This clearly runs counter to the the interests of Hamid Karzai’s government.

A few weeks later, Representative Louie Gohmert (Republican-Texas), a Berlin meeting attendee, added fuel to the fire by arguing in a video interview that the US should not just push for a new political system in Afghanistan but go further by rearming the Northern Alliance.

In the same breath, Gohmert provided one of the first definitive links between support for the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and Baloch nationalists in Pakistan: “Let’s talk about creating a Balochistan in the southern part of Pakistan. They’ll stop the IEDs and all of the weaponry coming into Afghanistan, and we got a shot to win over there.”

With these remarks, the two pillars of an alternative Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) policy approach were now set: To advance its interests, the US should support the carving out of an independent Baloch state and semi-autonomous Afghan territories – even if it undermined existing US partnerships with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In early February, Rohrabacher convened a public congressional hearing on Balochistan. While human rights violations in Pakistan’s Balochistan province were discussed (per the agenda), the hearing also provided a forum to start a larger (and arguably off-topic) national dialogue on the viability of Southwest Asia’s state borders.

As a result of the hearing, witnesses – including Ralph Peters and M Hossein Bor – were able to argue that the dismemberment of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan would serve the United States’ long-term strategic interests. But, even more importantly, the hearing allowed the witnesses to inject their views into the larger debate on US foreign policy in Southwest Asia. This included Bor’s controversial assertion (which was later censored in Pakistan) that supporting an independent Balochistan stretching from “the Strait of Hormuz to Karachi” would be a better policy approach than ongoing US efforts to counter the Iranian and Pakistani regimes.

Rohrabacher, Gohmert, and Representative Steve King (Republican-Iowa) followed up the hearing by introducing a new bill in Congress stating that the Baloch nation has a historic right to self-determination. With this action, the congressmen went from “familiarising themselves” with Balochistan to calling for Congress to recognise the Baloch nation’s right to sovereign independence in roughly a week.

In many ways, this brought the “Berlin Mandate” full circle. In less than two months, a small group of congressmen, minority Afghan groups, Baloch nationalists, and their supporters had gone from voicing displeasure with the current Obama Administration’s Af-Pak policy approach to advancing a revolutionary alternative policy approach that called for supporting the minority interests of the Northern Alliance and Baloch against the sovereign interests of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Reflecting upon this effort a few days after the bill was introduced, Rohrabacher confided to me in an on-the-record interview:

“There is a natural extension from the Berlin meeting with the Northern Alliance to the Balochistan bill. I have always stood for self-determination, but there are certain things that activate me to start pushing more on that philosophy. Clearly, the whole issue of the Taliban being reintegrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, providing safe haven to terrorists like Bin Laden, are major factors.There is also my support for immediately withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. To do so, we need to have a major policy dialogue on what our policy is in Southwest Asia, how we properly transition out of Afghanistan, and what will be our ongoing relationship with Pakistan. Balochistan is clearly part of that debate.”

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Cross-linking with other congressional causes

While the introduction of the Baloch self-determination bill marks an important milestone for their cause, it is important to point out that there has been an equally big change in how “Berlin Mandate” supporters have advocated their cause. Over the last month, these supporters – particularly Baloch nationalists in the US diaspora – have increasingly sought to extend their cause beyond US foreign policy in the Af-Pak region. They appear to recognise the need to latch onto larger foreign policy issues as part of their efforts to garner mainstream support for their cause. Four of the most important include:

I. Punishing Pakistan for supporting terrorism and nuclear proliferation

Rohrabacher, Gohmert, and other key supporters of the alternative policy approach for Southwest Asia have been unabashed in overtly linking the need for policy alternatives to Pakistan’s “betrayal of America’s trust”. It is even alleged that the Balochistan hearing was called specifically to “stick it to the Pakistanis” for their arrest of a reported key informant in the bin Laden operation. Even after widespread criticism for his past remarks against Pakistan, Rohrabacher does not shy away from his criticism: “Quite frankly, the Pakistani military and leaders that give safe haven to the mass murderer of Americans should not expect to be treated with respect.”

Such rhetoric almost certainly will find a receptive audience in Congress – even among the many members who have never heard of Balochistan or know little about the Northern Alliance’s struggles over the last year. For this reason, Peters pointed out to me recently as part of a yet unpublished post-hearing interview that the current high levels of anti-Pakistani sentiment in Congress probably provide the best opportunity that the Baloch may see to advance their cause.

II. Containing a rising China and an emerging Iran, and preventing Pakistan from achieving strategic depth

According to supporters, an independent Balochistan, “extending from Karachi to the Strait of Hormuz”, would help to contain a rising China and an emerging Iran, provide a long-term security guarantee against China, Iran, and Pakistan emerging as maritime powers, and undermine the strengthening of strategic relationships between these three potential adversaries.

In an interview after the congressional hearing, Bor made this case:

“There are many interrelated issues at play. When one discusses Balochistan, you are discussing a way to contain China. You are also discussing economic relationships between Iran and Pakistan … If (the Chinese) build their port in Gwadar, they will have a land route from Western China to the Indian Ocean.

This is of strategic interest to the United States because Chinese ships would have a direct route to China and no longer have to transit past the Indian and American navies. It therefore is logical that Balochistan should be concerned as part of the larger shift to the Pacific announced by the Obama Administration. … (Separately,) Iran is an empire and they are using Baloch lands to try to become the dominant regional player. The Iranians are using the Strait of Hormuz as a choke-point for a huge percentage of the world’s oil. They also are building a pipeline to Pakistan which violates UN sanctions. Such growing Iran-Pakistan cooperation is a major concern.”

Other supporters have advanced similar arguments with respect to Afghan minority groups against the Pashtun-dominated central government. They assert that support for the autonomy or independence of the Northern Alliance serves as an insurance policy against Pakistan’s military achieving strategic depth once the Taliban is fully integrated into Afghanistan’s political system.

III. Providing the West with an opportunity to profit off of Southwest Asia’s natural resources

Recognising “the tremendous deposits of oil, gas, and minerals” found within or made accessible through the Baloch and Northern Alliance territories, some supporters have argued that the West should advance the “Berlin Mandate” if for no other reason than self-serving economic interests.

They have asserted that an independent Balochistan and autonomous Northern Alliance territories would provide Western companies with valuable new economic opportunities, which could help offset the costs of two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and spur economic growth following the global economic downturn. They have also said that the West should do so to prevent potential strategic adversaries, including China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, from profiting off the natural resources of Central and Southwest Asia at their expense.

While Rohrabacher has called this “a bunch of leftist garbage from liberal professors”, it must be said that his committee purposely selected a witness whose expertise lies in forging such partnerships in the Middle East region and who remains a vocal advocate for their consideration in the context of an independent Balochistan. Baloch nationalists clearly have started to reach out more aggressively to Western commercial interests on these grounds in recent months as well.

IV. Preventing gross human rights violations and providing post-colonial nations their right to self-determination

While members of Congress have long condemned the Taliban and the Pakistani government for human rights violations, supporters – particularly Baloch nationalists – have used novel approaches in recent months to win over members of Congress. They have increasingly restrained themselves from leading with the genocide argument. Recognising that this argument has failed to win over Congress in the past, they have instead turned to a more complex argument: that the Baloch, like the South Sudanese and numerous minority groups in the former Yugoslavia, have won their right to self-determination because Pakistan and Iran have failed to provide basic human rights protections. Pakistan and Iran have, they argue, thereby forgone their sovereignty over Baloch territories – regardless of historical precedent.

While few in Congress will support their cause on these grounds alone, Baloch nationalists acknowledge the moral power of the argument for members of Congress who may be seeking to justify their support for an oppressed group on other grounds. This argument could become a powerful advocacy tool for Baloch and Afghan minority interest supporters, especially when reaching out to congressmen serving on other minority group interest caucuses with their own claims to self-determination.

Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.

Follow him on Twitter: @ASEANReporting