Balochistan and US elections
There seems consensus among Pakistani and American experts that the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential elections in the United States would barely lead to any policy change in Washington towards Pakistan. The Baloch diaspora in the United States, nonetheless, views the US polls with a different set of expectations. They have their reasons to support both the candidates because none of them has indicated to be soft on Pakistan.
The Baloch say that whether it is a Democrat or a Republican who wins the battle for the White House, what serves their interests is the notion that Pakistan be destined to face a demanding American president. An administration in Washington that rebukes Pakistan for its human rights record provides the Baloch some hope of relief from Islamabad’s current harsh policies.
In 2012, Balochistan attracted significant attention in Washington. Expressions of concern by the US Congress and the State Department over the situation in Balochistan has worried Islamabad.
On their part, the Pakistani government and media have repeatedly objected to discussions in the US that addressed Balochistan, arguing that issues pertaining to the region were Pakistan’s “internal matter”.
Members of the Baloch diaspora have been actively interacting with US policymakers, human rights groups and the media to create awareness with respect to the situation in Balochistan.
Also, sections of the Pakistani military and right-wing politicians believe the United States supports the Baloch nationalist movement.
There is no official confirmation of such a policy from the US government. However, authorities at the Pakistani embassy in Washington have been endeavouring to cancel and disrupt events that discuss Balochistan in the US capital. The region, on the other hand, is getting more attention than ever before at American think-tanks and universities.
Islamabad was outraged in Feb 2012 when Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a member of the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired an exclusive session on Balochistan.
Joined by three Republicans and one Democratic member of the US Congress, the hearing supported the Baloch demand for an independent state.
Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman, termed the hearing an “ill-advised move” which could be “detrimental” to building trust between Pakistan and the United States.
The ambassador’s protest did not deter Rohrabacher. On Feb 18, only 10 days after the controversial hearing, he, along with two other members of the US Congress, moved a resolution in the House of Representatives demanding independence for the Baloch people.
Moreover, on March 27, Rohrabacher addressed a press conference at Washington’s National Press Club to reaffirm his support for a free Balochistan.
“Mr Rohrabacher is a hero for the Baloch nation,” says Akram Baloch, a leader of the Baloch diaspora and a US national who lives in Philadelphia.
Baloch, who personally attended the hearing and the press conference, says the developments in the United States have proved that Balochistan is an “international dispute” and Pakistan should be held accountable for its actions against the Baloch.
“We appreciate the American legislators who stood for the rights of the Baloch people and we request them to play their role in ending the gross human rights violations in Balochistan and in granting us the right to self-determination,” says Baloch who had formerly contested elections in his native Kharan district in Balochistan.
The impression that the Balochistan issue is only raised by some anti-Pakistan members of the US Congress is not correct. The US government has also frequently voiced concerns on the state of affairs in Balochistan.
For instance, on Oct 30, 2012, the United States expressed “deep concern” over the violence in the region in Geneva at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. Washington blamed Pakistani security forces for carrying out ““kill-and-dump” operations [in Balochistan] that target numerous civil society actors, including Baloch activists and their family members, as well as journalists, activists and student leaders.”
On Jan 13, 2012, Victoria Nuland, the spokeswoman for the State Department, said the United States was “deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Balochistan”. She stated that the US took the allegations of human rights violations very seriously and said America had “discussed these issues with the Pakistani officials”, urging them to “really lead and conduct a dialogue that takes this issue forward”.
Moreover, on Nov 15, 2011, Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesman at the State Department, had also stated that the US government had “broader concerns about the situation there [in Balochistan] and the freedom of the press…and when we do have those concerns, we raise them with the Government of Pakistan.”
Furthemore, the State Department had in its 2011 Human Rights Report referred to targeted killings and enforced disappearances in Balochistan where “ nationalist, political and intellectual leaders remained targets of attacks.”
All of the above statements reflect that the Obama administration is displeased with Islamabad’s policy in Balochistan.
“We have great respect for both political parties in the US,” says former Senator Sanaullah Baloch of the Balochistan National Party.
“Whichever candidate wins the elections, the impact will be profound for the region,” he says.
“We do hope that the new US administration will rethink its closed-door policy towards the marginalised Baloch people – and embrace democracy-defenders, political activists, journalists and students who are being ruthlessly eliminated over their political opinions,” says the former senator.
He says Balochistan has a conducive environment for the development of democracy due to what he calls a centuries-old progressive political process.
“Due to a collision of policies and interests with Islamabad, moderate Baloch political forces and society have been systemically persecuted and discriminated against. Despite high poverty, low literacy and appalling socio-economic conditions, religious fundamentalism has failed to take roots in Baloch society,” says the former legislator.
Some members of the Baloch diaspora believe that the United States should do more to address the Balochistan conflict. They also fear that more cooperation between Pakistan and the United States would undermine Baloch interests.
Miran Gichki, a young Baloch scholar who graduated from the University of Arkansas and now lives in California, says a Republican president is more likely to work closely with Pakistan.
“My concern is about Pakistan getting more military assistance from the United States which will be used against Baloch dissidents,” he says.
“I am also worried that more Baloch would be targeted if United States transfers drone technology to Pakistan.”
Regardless of who comes to power in Washington, it would not be easy for the next US president to ignore Balochistan while dealing with Pakistan. Balochistan remains critical in the debate pertaining to Taliban sanctuaries, growing religious radicalisation and issues of democracy and human rights. However, the challenge here is that one American approach to address the unrest in Balochistan is not going to be simultaneously acceptable to both Islamabad and Baloch nationalists. Nonetheless, the Baloch see brighter prospects for them from the United States irrespective of the outcome of the presidential elections.
Malik Siraj Akbar, based in Washington DC, is the editor-in-chief of the Baloch Hal, the first online English language newspaper of Balochistan. Twitter: MalikSirajAkbar
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