Pakistan's security forces accused of sabotaging 'hearts and minds' campaign

An initiative by the Pakistani government to bring an end to a nationalist insurgency is undermined by a shadowy "zero tolerance" campaign by security forces, it is claimed.

ISLAMABAD // A "hearts and minds" initiative by the Pakistani government to bring an end to a nationalist insurgency in the western province of Balochistan has been undermined by a shadowy "zero tolerance" campaign by security forces, it was claimed yesterday . A public spat between Nawab Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of Balochistan, and the Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary force commanded by army officers, erupted on January 15 when two Baloch students of the Government Degree College in Khuzdar were killed and four wounded in firing on a protest rally.

News reports and human rights activists said the shooting was carried out by the constabulary, but it denied even having deployed forces in Khuzdar at the time. Khuzdar is an isolated district town some 350km south-west of Quetta, the provincial capital. The shootings sparked a furore within the provincial assembly, as two cabinet ministers walked out in protest and strikes and angry demonstrations broke out across the province.

Mr Raisani, who heads the elected provincial government, was infuriated and accused the army commanders of the constabulary of "running a parallel government", and by inference, of undermining federal government efforts to negotiate an end to a sporadic but vicious guerrilla war. The insurgency has raged since the killing in April 2006 of Akbar Khan Bugti, a dominant tribal chief and former chief minister of the province, in a military operation ordered by the then president Pervez Musharraf.

Bugti and other tribal elders had clashed with the Musharraf administration over political autonomy and financial compensation for the exploitation of the province's natural resources. Mr Raisani has also ordered a judge of the Balochistan High Court to conduct an independent inquiry into the Khuzdar incident. The chief minister's comments were widely endorsed by other Baloch politicians. "Such actions indicate that the provincial government is completely powerless," Jahanzeb Jamaldini, president of the Balochistan National Party, told The Baloch Hal, an online English newspaper. "The province is in the control of the security forces, which are now hard for the provincial government to control."

The Khuzdar shooting evoked a tit-for-tat response from nationalist guerrillas, who killed two soldiers and wounded two others in an attack on a constabulary vehicle in Khuzdar on January 23. The Baloch Liberation Army, a notoriously violent guerrilla faction led by Barambagh Bugti, a grandson of the late Akbar Khan Bugti, later claimed responsibility for the attack. The Khuzdar shootings and their political aftermath have come at an inopportune time - just weeks after landmark political and economic reforms aimed at assuaging wounded Baloch nationalist sentiment were unveiled.

Since general elections that restored parliamentary democracy to Pakistan in February 2008, the country's major political parties have gone to extraordinary lengths to appease Balochi nationalists. Asif Ali Zardari, the president and an ethnic Baloch from Sindh province, publicly apologised on behalf of the federal government, shortly after assuming office in September 2008. The positive sentiment the apology generated in Balochistan evaporated the following April, when three prominent nationalist leaders were reported detained by the constabulary and handed over to the intelligence agencies. Their corpses were found a week later.

A breakthrough was next achieved in September, when the Balochistan High Court ordered a police investigation into the circumstances of Bugti's death, and the registration of a murder case against Mr Musharraf, who now lives in exile in London. Further hopes of a negotiated political settlement were raised in November when the government unveiled a package of political and economic reforms. Its reconciliatory tone was underlined by the withdrawal of cases against exiled insurgent tribal chiefs, who were also invited for talks; the issuing of a verified official list of nearly 1,000 missing political activists, most thought to have been detained by the military's Inter Services Intelligence directorate and 20 of whom were released in December as a goodwill gesture; backdated compensation for federal exploitation of natural resources, including oil and natural gas, and increased provincial ownership of ventures involving the mining of copper and gold deposits, and the recruitment of 25,000 Balochs into various branches of the civil service.

The reforms, dubbed the Aghaz-i-Haqooq-Balochistan, or Beginning of Rights for Balochistan, package won the unanimous backing of the federal parliament on December 11. In an unprecedented display of generosity on December 31, the governments of Pakistan's three other provinces, including the opposition-led administration in Punjab, agreed to reduce their share of federal revenues to facilitate greater development spending in Balochistan.

Independent analysts said the federal government now had to act fast to prevent the political process from failing. "It is not the first time that hawks in the establishment [meaning the army high command] are discouraging a political solution to the Balochistan conflict," wrote Malik Siraj Akbar in an opinion article in the Daily Times, a liberal English-language newspaper published in Lahore. "The government has to minimise the use of force by the security forces against the people of Balochistan in order to save the reconciliation process from being hijacked, and elements response for the Khuzdar firing incident must be brought to justice."