This is a guest essay by Kiren Aziz Chaudhry, University of California, Berkeley, one of our country’s foremost academic specialists in comparative politics.:
“…for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something
familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by
the process of repression.”– Sigmund Freud.
On assuming office, President Obama shifted US military action from Iraq to Afghanistan and then, more squarely, to Pakistan, where he claimed the terrorists responsible for 911 were hiding. In doing so, he tacitly acknowledged the nefarious character of the rationales of the Bush administration in invading Iraq, rationales that are now widely accepted as being cynical fabrications to wage a war that was planned well before the Trade Towers were destroyed.
Then, on November 24th, 2009, in the drum-beat that preceded the announcement of additional troops to be sent to the Afghan “theater,” the President decisively announced his intent to “finish the job.” With all the untruths that the American public heard about Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom (earlier concluded in 2003) and the Afghan war, (earlier won in 2001), one might ask what this “job” is. Why has the administration decided to induct “moderate” Taliban into the “democratic process” underway in Afghanistan and relocate the core of its military campaign in Pakistan’s province of Balochistan?
To make Americans believe that this is still a war against Al-Qaida is disturbingly easy. There is a romance to this war that has an particular exonerating charge for the collective American psyche: A black president forcefully pursuing “lawless” “tribes” across inhospitable, dangerous terrain. The silent, sneaky enemy that blends with the terrain: The heady rush of the frontier myth without the off-putting eventuality of chattel slavery.
A similar collective need is at work in Great Britain, where a palpable nostalgia for Empire mingles with the fear of being over-run by post-colonial migrants. No surprise, then, that the long, traumatic decline of the British Empire (in which three full scale wars were lost to the Afghan) resonates with American efforts to heal the wound inflicted by the Vietnam debacle. The “job” Obama wants to “finish” has many facets. One of them has to do with re-writing national history and then believing it.
By the time “conspiracy theories” are proven true they are typically irrelevant. More importantly, they are normalized. In the United States, where the art of “spin” has become central to governance, policy drift is retroactively streamlined and rationalizations sprout up like so many mushrooms in the rain. Invoking “Conspiracy theory” allows us to dismiss unpleasant realities. Yet we all know that conspiracies occur. At the time conspiracies are afoot we retreat from naming them because we resist challenging the veracity of those we have endowed with authority.
The word “conspiracy” conjures a one-track, goal oriented operation pursued to achieve a specific, limited objective in a planned fashion. By this measure, the war being waged by the United States in Afghanistan and, now, in Pakistan, is neither a “conspiracy” or a “coincidence”: It is a serial effort to achieve two, much broader goals. First, it is a belated and doomed push to gain access to Central Asian oil and LNG resources. This endeavor began with the easy-to-market but unachievable goal of stabilizing Afghanistan by eliminating the Taliban, demolishing “Al-Qaida Central,” and finding a friend in Kabul.
But after the first invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban re-consolidated, Al-Qaida Central moved on (and will continue to do so), and the Afghans were not pacified. The next serial effort, currently underway, is much more insidious. It involves securing “other routes” to Central Asia, routes that must go through either Iran or through Pakistan and Afghanistan. On January 11, 2010 we heard General Petraeus say that bombing the nuclear facilities in Iran was not “ruled out” and that no new elite force of the US army “guards” Pakistan’s nuclear cite at Kahuta. Now we hear Gates protest that the US has no designs on Pakistan’s territory. The larger cause to which all of these efforts is dedicated is to stem China’s massive economic and political influence in South and Central Asia. Wait and watch: very shortly we will hear minority groups in the CARs and in Xinjiang Province cry out for democracy and human rights.
Securing passage to Central Asia would involve reshaping the geo-political landscape of the zone stretching from the Straight of Hormuz to the India-Pakistan border. Under the friendly gaze of the illegitimate and corrupt leadership in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with substantial support from India, the audacious project of dismembering Pakistan is well underway. Therefore, “Af-Pak”: a border first dissolved by an acronym and now brazenly violated by foreign troops. The on-going “surge” taking place on the Af-Pak border is the new chapter in a book about global hegemony. If the lawless tribes slither across the border and hide in caves on both sides, why should the United States army respect national sovereignty?
Seriality and Synchronicity
The dichotomy between “coincidence” and “conspiracy” theory is wrong-headed. US policy is both and neither: it is a serial effort to achieve a moment of synchonicity in which it would claim the hegemony that the collapse of the USSR promised, but failed to deliver. Seriality refers to groupings of apparently random events that seek to achieve goals that are actually quite stable. Seriality identifies the underlying thrust of policies that are redeployed repetitively, the surface manifestations of which are neither causal nor coincidental. Synchronicity, in contrast, describes temporal confluences when vivid and meaningful in patterns of seriality coalesce in same-time. In both serial patterns and synchronic moments, there are winners and losers. The former produces lingering conflicts; the latter fundamentally reshapes the terrain of global power. Traced together, seriality and synchronicity allow us to recognize the relationship between past and future events in present- time in contexts where we have incomplete information.
The would-be synchronic moment in global politics today is geographically situated in the West and South Asia. Within the region it is focused on “Af-Pak”. The fulcrum is the province of Balochistan. And within Balochistan, the pivot is the dusty, obscure coastal town of Gwadar. Gwadar has a spanking new deep water port. Wheels within wheels. Devices within devices.
Since 1979 seriality has been the idiom of US foreign and military politics in West Asia. The current serial effort is dedicated to fomenting secessionism and civil strife in Iran and Pakistan, while co-opting “moderate” Afghan Taliban and supplying the Baloch guerillas on both sides of the Pakistan-Iran border. Citing instability and the obvious dangers of weapons of mass destruction Washington has issued a clarion call to mobilize international sentiment against the Islamic Republic of Iran and put in place a military contingency plan to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Solutions to the various “humanitarian crises” that would logically follow in the wake of state failure in both countries opens up the contingency of engineering regime change in Iran or redrawing borders such that the long awaited pipeline to Central Asia can be constructed. At the heart of this trajectory is a bigger geo-strategic ambition, namely, to contain China and prevent the Russians from using their energy resources to expand their influence in Europe. By now it is clear that China can out-produce anyone in consumer goods. The wars of the future are about energy. On account of being in the ground, energy resources are geographically stable. The will to hegemony, therefore, is now centered in territorial control of the colonial variety. Quite contrary to the claim that “globalization” is a deterritorializing process, the wars of the future will be about land. They already are.
There is a primitive and well worn logic at work in the Af-Pak war. In polyglot Af-Pak, where dozens of opposition groups and “insurgents” exist, or can be made to exist, destabilization is easy to arrange. But, for two important reasons, US seriality in Af-Pak is not going to coalesce into the synchronic moment when the shattered and war-torn region finally submits to hosting the pipeline that would deliver energy to the West via the Indian Ocean and overtake the Chinese in Central Asia.
First, public sentiment in the global south has permanently turned a corner. This is not because American rhetoric about democracy and freedom has rung hollow for some time now, or that the neo-liberal economic agenda has been discredited on a global scale. It is because China provides a new pedagogy of capitalist development that is vastly more attractive than the American promise of (largely undelivered) freedoms. The inconvenient truth about freedom delivery was announced to a shocked but thankfully small American reading public in 2006, when the erstwhile Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board wrote a book with that one memorable sentence: “The Iraq War,” said Greenspan, “is largely about oil.” It is 2010, and the war(s) are still about oil. This fact has not escaped the notice of the Af-Pak(istani)s. But it took the authority of Greenspan to exhume this “conspiracy theory” and resurrect it as an unassailable truth. By the time it happened, no one was interested anymore. We had moved on to Af-Pak.
American activities in Iraq, Iran and Af-Pak are ineffective, costly and brutal serial responses to China’s ascent and Russia’s economic recovery. Meanwhile, China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) have quietly patched together a powerful alliance based on pure self interest that gives China access to Central Asian oil, Russia the assurance that Europe will remain dependent on Russian oil and the CARs the promise of genuine economic development funded by China. The Turkmenistan-China oil pipeline opened on December 14th 2009, the same day a deal for constructing a 1,833 kilometer pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan fields was signed. The density of the international reconfiguration that undergirds these developments has gone largely unnoticed by the experts. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization comprised of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (with Pakistan, India, Iran and Mongolia as observers) has conducted joint military exercises, regularly meets to discuss economic initiatives and recently considered forming a gas cartel. The world is finding new ways of articulating and deploying power that, by virtue of being plainly and brazenly self interested, are actually attractive. The Chinese do not invest in Africa to promote democracy; everyone knows it; and Africans are thankful for it.
Second, like the grab-and-go model of US international economic transactions, the American geo-strategic strategy of “managed chaos” is broken beyond repair. This is the strategy by which chaos is first created and then set on a preferred course. The problem for the US is that the American will to manage is not matched by capacity. This mismatch is the unstable fault-line where myriad and mysterious branches of US intelligence, counter-intelligence, local collaborators, mercenary forces and so on are at work. The rubbing point is that the nefarious arms of the US military machine are pursuing radically different strategies that are more often than not at odds with each other. In its effort to rise to the challenge of adjusting to a “new kind of war,” the ever more fragmented covert, private and informal combatants in the pay of US tax payers have no idea what they are doing. Chaos, in other words, has become the internal (dis)organizational idiom of the American military machine. Starting with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the very core of US military command and intelligence agencies incrementally lost control over the activities of the ever more mysterious agencies they are supposed to coordinate and oversee. Add to this the radical intervention of heretofore untested technologies of war—the dissonance between the drone operator living with his family in a Nevada suburb and the soldier on the ground in Helmand.
An important aspect of the failure of the logic of managed chaos is that the ever growing number of small radical combatant groups involved in the Af-Pak conflict are actually more organized, more informed and more disciplined than the “new” US army. Cooperation between “insurgent” groups in Af-Pak is governed by a fluid set of animosities and alliances that, in turn, are floating on aid and arms provided by a host of global and regional parties. Whatever they may do at any given moment, the lawless tribes are actually not lawless, nor are they confused about what they want. The problem for the United States on the ground in Af-Pak is severe: If US command is innocent of the activities of its own armed forces, how could it possibly be reading those of the mercurial enemy? This is not simply a matter of getting rid of the private contractors who are not governed by military law; it literally involves the recreation of the American military machine and the re-disciplining of the American military mind around some new totemic idea of purpose and authority. Many around the world are relieved by the enormity of this task.
Today Pakistan is fighting three wars of international providence and confronting four secessionist movements in the provinces of Sindh, Balochistan the North West Frontier Province and in Karachi. Managed chaos is always tragic for the unfortunate targets of management; it is even more tragic when the manager disintegrates. While the geo-strategic and economic goals of the United States in the region have not changed since 1979, what is going on in Af-Pak is just plain chaos—seriality run amok. One would think that it would be easy enough to arrange a civil war in Af-Pak. This would suit President Obama well, in the same way as declaring the end of Guantanamo racked up his ratings with liberals and constitutional lawyers while permitting him to keep the “facility” open as a half-way house for alleged terrorists before they were shipped off to countries where torture is routine. America does not torture (in America), it out-sources the gruesome job. But chaos in Af-Pak? Easy to create, difficult to control.
Setting the Stage: Neo-Liberal Reforms (1979-) and the Secessionist Provinces
Pakistan is a federal country where the central government has all but failed and the only stable institution – the military—might be on the verge of fragmenting under precisely the kinds of conflicting loyalties I described above. Like other cash-strapped developing countries, neo-liberal reforms in Pakistan have meant the whole-sale privatization of land, water, minerals and energy. Each of the four provinces in Pakistan are endowed with unique resources that create very different economic incentive structures as they integrate into international markets and each has a distinctive linguistic and cultural history that provides the terrain for historically “verifiable” claims for secession. All four provinces have dominant political parties that are at odds with each other. If international integration built on these legacies, the Af-Pak war has pushed them to the brink.
The basic infrastructural and labor requirements that are wired into the different economies created through international investment has broadened regional fissures in the most basic way possible. The privatization of land and water in the Punjab and Sindh, leasing of mineral and gas rich regions in Balochistan and the consolidation of poppy growing regions in NWFP and Afghanistan, is creating ties with international corporate counter-parts that are world players locked into cut-throat competition. The advent of new internationalized property regimes has meant that mineral rich Balochistan, land and water rich Punjab (and to some extent Sindh) are integrating into international markets in very different ways.
To be sure, these property regimes put local farmers at risk, (thereby creating new waves of urban migration), deplete aquifers with ultra-modern drilling techniques, (thereby contributing to an already alarming water shortage), use capital intensive agricultural machinery (thereby creating unemployment), but importantly, they also stir up centrifugal political forces in the provinces. Particularly in the megalopolis of Karachi, the financial and industrial center of Pakistan, muhajirs (migrants to Pakistan at partition in 1947) and their powerful political party, the Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz (MQM) has deployed a robust imagined history of being “separate” from Pakistan. They possesses the resources and the human capital to conceive of an independent future. This imagined future involves the pursuit of the “city-state” strategy of international integration. The unreasonable but vibrant dream here is to compete with the likes of Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. The MQM has taken a particularly hard line against allowing refugees into Karachi, followed by Sindh and Balochistan. Much of the recent violence in Karachi is related to a massive influx of refugees from the war zone.
Added to the on-going hot war in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the NWFP, these structural fissures, based in different forms of production and extraction create the dangerous potential of a further rift between the provinces. This is a nightmare scenario because the vast majority of the formal military are Punjabi and Punjab has 60% of the country’s population. Much as in the central part of Iraq—the so called “Suni triangle”—Islamic inheritance law fragmented land holdings in the agriculturally rich Punjab, driving farmers into the military. These fissures, widened by the Af-Pak war have already created violence that the cash-strapped Federal government has tried, but failed to paper over with money. There is little doubt that a certain level of secessionist agitation could tip things over, leading the (Punjabi) army to step in. This is what happened in Bangladesh, but that would be a bad analogy: Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was separated from (West) Pakistan by the land mass of India. It was still a very bloody conflict. One could predict, then, that a war against contiguous provinces would be Pakistan’s tragic synchronatic moment. All this, so that the US can compete in a game that has already won by someone else.
Contemporary History: Iran and U/sa(udi) in Af-Pak\i-ˈstän\
The real synchronic moment in Af-Pak\i-ˈstän\, and, for that matter, in the entire Muslim (\ˈmu̇s -ləm\) world, was 1979. The Iranian Revolution marked the onset of violent sectarian politics in which Iran and Saudi Arabia pitted Shia against Suni and turned sectarian killing into a divinely sanctioned mission. Starting with the eight year Iran-Iraq war, on to Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and now Yemen, there is a way to read the whole post-1979 history of the Middle East and South Asia as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pushing religion center-stage was an explicit US policy, born of the fantasy that Islam would defeat Socialism. The Mujahedeen were injected with a particularly virulent virus of divine inspiration in madrasas funded by the US and staffed by Saudi Arabia, first to create the subject-soldier who would fight to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan and then to pit the (Shia) Northern Alliance against the (Suni) Pashtun. Having infused the “freedom fighters” with a frenzied desire for Wahabbi-style martyrdom through madrasas, the virus was exported to Pakistan and beyond.
The rest is history. If two hundred years of British colonialism left its indelible footprint on the civil administration, the political geography and the class structure of Af-Pak, the end-game of the Cold War in Afghanistan thrust Pakistan directly into the military ambit of the US-Soviet military engagement starting in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution in Iran ratcheted up American interest in a compliant Pakistan. But earlier still, when Khalk and Parcham, the two Marxist parties that overthrew the monarchy in Afghanistan, fell into feuding and the Soviet involvement in Afghan politics went from meddling to invasion, the CIA arranged for the removal of leftist (and wildly popular) Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 in a bloodless coup. His replacement, General Zia ul Haq, obliged the United States by putting Bhutto to death by hanging in the middle of the night. In 1979.
The depth of the training and arms the Mujahedeen received in US military camps in America was comprehensive. It was there that the secrets of turning (NH2)2CO, (a common fertilizer) into bombs were revealed. True to form, the US left Af-Pak even before the retreat of the defeated Soviet army, as the Mujahedeen slowly morphed into the Taliban. The Pakistan government and military continued their support of the Taliban as the latter fought their way from Kandahar to Kabul, with the support of all but a handful of westernized Afghans. And, conveniently forgotten as the rain-fed mushrooms quietly covered the ground, so did the United States.
As late as 1997, when the nature of the Taliban’s policy towards female education and women’s rights, not to mention their criminal justice “system” had already become a known fact, the US State Department twice entertained a delegation of Taliban to help UNOCAL nudge out their sometime partner in a sometime pipeline, the Argentinean oil firm Bridas. The UNOCAL-Taliban deal failed. Black and blue were no longer welcome at the White House. Afghanistan became a rogue state, the erstwhile “Freedom Fighters” became “terrorists” and then 911 delivered the carte blanche for the invasion of Afghanistan even though the perpetrators of the attack were mostly from the friendly country of Saudi Arabia.
There is a pattern here, the logic of which cannot be placed at the door of a reactive, incoherent foreign policy any more than it can be attributed to the muddled minds of a gullible American public that suffers from collective amnesia. That would be too generous. Thus, while it would be hard to come up with a place and a time since WWII when US aims have been fully realized, US seriality reveals a pattern in which a temporary compromise position leaves instability in its wake, preparing the field for the next round. But wait: how did the war move into Quetta?
Gwadar \ˈgwä-dər\, “Door to the Wind”
Balochistan (\bə-lü-chə-ˈstan\) is resource rich province of Pakistan, that spans 48% of its territory and has only 8% of the country’s population. It is, without a doubt, the most underdeveloped area in one of the poorest countries of the world. It has a long border with Afghanistan, a 280 mile coast on the Indian Ocean and the Baloch live on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border. Draw the shortest line from Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean and your (pipe)line will end at the little known coastal town of Gwadar. Gwadar also happens to have a state-of-the-art deep water port, funded and built by the Chinese. Conceived in 1998, the port was completed in 2007.
A stones’ throw away from the Strait of Hormuz and an hour from the Iran border by land, Gwadar’s strategic value is clear. During its construction, Baloch were not even allowed to enter the construction site where Chinese workers both lived and worked. Not surprisingly, the US developed an avid interest in the project. The Pakistan government, beholden to the US for aid, halted the project after the completion of its first phase. Subsequently, the management of the firm was contracted out to the Singapore Port Authority, Pvt. (SPA), one of the biggest port servicing companies in the world.
Even beyond the Chinese need for secure sources of LNG and oil, and its strategic interests in the region, namely, its historically fraught relationship with India and India’s recent induction as a US proxy in the region, Chinese interest in the development of the Pakistani port is also a continuation of a pattern of engagement that pre-dates the meteoric rise of its economy. China’s self-financed support of large infrastructure projects in Pakistan has been long-standing and steady. The Chinese were quietly nudged out of Gwadar, but they continue to fund and build mega-projects in Pakistan. Having first reconstructed the Karakoram highway along the Old Silk Route, they are currently laying railway lines southward from Xinjiang Province and connecting roads and rail to Afghanistan and Central Asia. All of these routes will eventually involve transit through Afghanistan and Balochistan, both of which the US seeks to control. But the Chinese know how to sit things out. Their idiom of imperialism is more subtle. In the long run, the infrastructure not only becomes a valuable asset for the Chinese themselves, it also creates good will.
The Chinese are not the only ones with an interest in Gwadar. Several schemes for oil and LNG pipelines, some dating back to the mid-nineties, have been shelved, largely because of stalemated competition between a host of countries, including the United States, Russia, Argentina, China, Iran, Venezuela, the Gulf states and India. More recently, continuing military conflict in Afghanistan and the recent revival of Baloch armed resistance have stalled a number of mega-projects. Proposed pipelines, too numerous to describe here, are currently on hold. Canadian, Australian and Chinese companies have on-going mining projects in Balochistan, but their security is regularly threatened by the Baloch Liberation Army and the Baloch Republican Army. US incursions into Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, and other northern areas have stepped up the activities of militant Islamic groups who have formed tacit alliances with the (secular) Baloch guerillas against a common enemy, the Pakistan army.
Quite apart from the fast evolving covert conflict between the US and China, Balochistan is the arena for the tussle between Iran and the United States. The Baloch straddle the Iran-Pakistan border. For decades, and regardless of relations between Islamabad and Iran, the economic links between western Balochistan and Iran have been robust. Thousands of Baloch from Gwadar and the Makran coast travel to Iran as day laborers. Fish caught in Gwadar are processed and canned in Iran, brought back to Gwadar and then exported from Karachi. Smuggled diesel from Iran fills the thousands of “illegal” fuel pumps across Western Balochistan, where the “licensed” gas pumps rarely have anything to sell. The tribes trade flour, fruit and vegetables across the border. “There are shorter distances between here and Iran than [between] here and Pakistan” I was told in Gwadar, “…the borders are like knives in our chest.” Recently, tense relations between the governments of Iran and Pakistan have melted into cooperation aimed at keeping Baloch nationalists separated. All this is made possible by the “terrorism”-speak of the Bush era, an idiom that permits any state to do anything to anyone—no questions asked.
Meanwhile, the Jundallah (secular) Baloch movement has been supplied with arms, money and intelligence by the US and instructed to “take the war” to Tehran. The Iranian Baloch are a Suni minority that has been at odds with the Islamic regime since its inception. Their violent opposition to Tehran has intensified in tandem to the anti-regime demonstrations in Iranian cities. Should not the Baloch be given their right to form their own nation, separate from the exploitive, corrupt, women-hating Islamic regime? Certainly, this is a human rights agenda that Saudi Arabia, which has bought substantial land in both Balochistan and Sindh, would support. Iran rightly suspects the involvement of the United States in fomenting Baloch secessionism. The Af-Pak war is just another front on which it has been confronting Saudi Arabia and the United States. Since 1979.
Less known, but deadly important, are the nefarious activities of the US counter-intelligence services in encouraging Baloch nationalism. Uninvited, four Baloch Liberation Army fighters came down from “the mountains” to meet me in Gwadar around midnight on May 24, 2009. Most of the conversation was about the atrocities of the Punjabi military and the unity of the Baloch in the struggle for independence from Pakistan. Where did they get their weapons? “The Americans,” said one “…don’t write that down.” I probed: “Are you saying that the Americans are giving you weapons to kill Pakistani soldiers?” They looked at me with something between disgust and pity. More research clarified things. As the second generation sardars of the Marri and Bughti confederation, Nawabzada Haribyar Marri and Barahmdad Bughti (chief of the Baloch Liberation Front) have said openly in televised interviews, they refuse help from no one, including India.
So, what does even a small snapshot of a multi-dimensional proxy war look like? The algebra is bewildering: The US funds the Pakistan army to eliminate the Taliban that they themselves created a little more than a decade ago; the same weapons are used against Baloch nationalists; the US also supplies weapons to the Baloch nationalists to kill the same Punjabi soldiers that are trying to annihilate the Taliban; the Baloch are funded by India against Iran; the US supplies Iranian Baloch with money and weapons to destabilize Tehran; the US humiliates the Pakistani Army and drives a rift between the military and the citizens; the Chinese and the Russians supply the Af-Pak Taliban against the US; Saudi Arabia funds the (Sunni) Af-Pak Taliban and the Baloch nationalists to weaken Shi’i Iran. Much to the chagrin of the Pakistani public and the Pakistani army, the United States’ security interests result in a deal whereby it gains control over Pakistan air bases at Pasni, Panjgur, and Dalbadin. The bases sit on a straight line from Gwadar going north into other US controlled bases in Afghanistan—it’s another straight line to Turkmenistan. The railway links proposed in the Gwadar Port Authority’s master-plan go through all three bases, right up to Helmand Province, where an additional 30,000 U.S soldiers will soon land to perform what one New York Times journalist called the “hammer and anvil” operation to exterminate the border-crossing tribesmen. [Scott Shane, “The War in Pashtunistan,” NYT, December 6, 2009.] Much like the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, no one really knows who is responsible for the urban “terrorist” attacks. Meanwhile, the Chinese quietly continue to fund and build their mega infrastructural projects in the north, mine copper in Afghanistan and extract minerals in Balochistan.
So, who uses the port? During my stay in Gwadar, the only ships to dock were American naval vessels and the officials from the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) confirmed that only US navy ships had docked since the port became operational. The ships were allegedly delivering fertilizer and alfalfa. Pakistan recently began to lease or sell a slated 7000,000 acres to Gulf agri-businesses from the Gulf, some involving livestock. The fertilizer could easily have legitimate uses—other than being the raw material for improvised explosives. But the nearest large-scale agricultural area is in Dera Ghazi Khan, which is on much closer to Karachi. More, there are no highways north from Gwadar while Karachi is the terminus for the Indus Highway, the major national artery. Why should fertilizer and alfalfa be coming to any farming areas through Gwadar? And why should these commodities be transported on US navy vessels? Answering the second question would require too much speculation, the report of my respondents notwithstanding. The first one, however, is not mysterious.
No American should need to be reminded that the best heists in history have been pulled off under the cloak of the law. Who really owns and profits from Gwadar? A relatively easy piece of the puzzle is found in the contract between the Gwadar Port Authority and the Singapore Port Authority. The Novatee Clause of the Concession Agreement Between Gwadar Port Authority and the PSA Gwadar, Pvt. Ltd (n.d.) gives sub-contracting rights to three companies that include the Terminal Operating Company, the Marine Services Company and the Free Zone Company. We can safely say that these “companies” do not actually exist. The phantom companies are under the administrative control of the National Logistics Cell, a military organization that was created in 1987 to transport supplies to the Mujahideen. Later privatized and “internationalized,” the National Logistics Cell is still under the control of the Pakistan army. Needless to say, the Saudis were involved in the Cell from the beginning; they continue as share-holders and partners. The National Logistics Cell is the recipient of virtually all (non Chinese) contracts for infrastructure and transportation in Pakistan. As such, it is the primary contractor for the numerous schemes to lay rail and asphalt roads through Balochistan and Afghanistan to the CARs, otherwise known as the “National Trade Corridor.” The National Logistics Cell works with a select group of companies, world-wide. In Saudi Arabia, its partners include the Bin-Laden family in the fields of construction and transportation—a legacy of Saudi involvement in driving the USSR out of Afghanistan. The business relationship between the Cell and the bin-Laden family is managed by Sheikh Omer Osama bin-Laden of Saudi Arabia, the elder brother of Osama Bin-Laden.
There is an important domestic link that makes the system work: corruption. To date, shipments to Gwadar have been goods imported by the Trade Corporation of Pakistan, Pvt., the largest company in Pakistan that straddles the divide between the public and private sectors to great profit. The TCP was originally created as a state-owned enterprise to import basic goods. Its aim was to stabilize domestic prices in wheat, cotton, fertilizer, edible oil, etc. After the successive waves of privatization undertaken by the Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif administrations, (to great profit for both families), the TCP became an odd entity. It is both a part of the Ministry of Commerce and a private corporation. In other words, the TCP has all the immunity of a government organization and all the freedom of a private company. The results are predictable: In 2008 the Auditor General declared the TCP to be the most corrupt company/government agency in Pakistan. Needless to say, the TCP’s goal of stabilizing prices is now a trace memory in the minds of the military, bureaucratic and private elite that control it. The TCP is the only company that has unloaded shipments at Gwadar. It then relies on the National Logistics cell for the transport of imported commodities. Together, they claim that the outrageously high price of basic goods in Pakistan is the result of Gwadar’s underdeveloped infrastructure. But this infrastructure was to be built by the Cell (which it didn’t) on land occupied by the Navy and the Army (which it refuses to give up). Between them, the Cell and the TCP essentially control the import and distribution of the bulk of Pakistan’s commodities.
The land that the military will not give up, and that the civilian government is afraid to ask for, was part of the contract between the Singapore Port Authority and the Government of Pakistan. The Singapore Port Authority did not make the investments in its contract; Pakistan did not provide the land it had promised. On December 30, 2009, as Prime Minister Gilani was holding a lavish cabinet meeting in Gwadar to announce the federal government’s plan for the uplift of Balochistan’s economy, a team of analysts from the Planning Commission recommended that the PSA contract be annulled for non-performance. The gist of the report was that the Port had no prospects of becoming functional in the next decade. So: the US has a strategic port-in-waiting and a potential outlet for CAR LNG; the Pakistan army and navy get prime real estate; the Cell and the TCP reap extraordinary profits; and Pakistanis pay almost twice the international price for sugar—when they can find it.
Everyday Exploitation: “Come and See the Real Gwadar.”
“There will be progress but not for those of Gwadar. Like the red Indians, we will be like a zoo. They will put a board up saying “Come and See the Real Gwadar.”
–Interview, fishermen, Gwadar, July 2009.
It is a common mistake to think of Afghanistan, Balochistan, the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as being inhospitable empty expanses populated by “lawless tribes.” Characterizations of “empty” lands awaiting “discovery” is the signature hallmark of colonial violence- in the Americas, in the Arabian Peninsula, in Palestine, and elsewhere. In fact, there are deep ethnic and social fissures in Balochistan. As both national and international forces struggle to control the port, the local costs of human dislocation come into sharp focus. Every war has an economic underbelly that often escapes the headlines. The violence delivered to the inhabitants of Gwadar is very local and easy to overlook, but it speaks volumes about what integration into the web of the international economy means, both for the powerful and for the disenfranchised.
As clear as the geo-strategic and economic goals of regional and global economic powers might be, several aspects of Gwadar port remain mysterious to its people. Key among them is why, after the massive investment in the port, the city of Gwadar and roads connecting it to transport hubs in Quetta, the Indus Highway and other thorough fares has not even been initiated. The single asphalt road that has been built runs along the Makran coast to Karachi, Pakistan’s main port and industrial center. “A port”, one level-headed respondent from the moderate National Party (Balochistan) explained, “is never built before the infrastructure.” The grandiose and unfulfilled plans of the Gwadar Port Authority and the Government of Pakistan included not only the port, but a comprehensive plan to develop the city and surrounding areas into a “new Dubai.” Today, central Gwadar remains a filthy ghetto without any roads or public services. The biggest problem, I was told, was the absence of potable water and a sewage system.
Ostensibly, Gwadar was built on the Dubai “model,” using the “modular” approach to development. Such development plans require a disciplined, skilled and cheap source of labor, namely, labor that Balochistan could not possibly provide. On paper, Gwadar is a tax free zone managed by the non-existent Free Zone Corporation. This non-entity allocated land titles in a wide radius surrounding the port. Similarly, land for housing and commercial areas was allocated through the (non-existent) Housing Corporation, a subsidiary of the Gwadar Port Authority.
This institutional and legal framework described above, once formalized in the contract between the Government of Pakistan and the Singapore Port Authority, set the scene for a massive wave of land speculation. The mechanism through which money was made was simple: The Pakistan army was allotted land on concessionary terms, which was then repeatedly sold along a chain of buyers in anticipation of a localized boom that the simpleminded anticipated. Investment in Gwadar real estate was an international affair, which bid land prices up and generated astronomical profits through speculation. Property changed hands at a giddy pace. Most of the land allotted to the Pakistan army was sold and resold several times by 2008, when plans for infrastructure were shelved and real estate prices collapsed. Today, these parcels of land, sold at great profit, are practically worthless—a sandy expanse of desert—home only to squatters and shanty-towns where thousands of migrant laborers and refugees live in abject poverty.
Many in Gwadar believe that land speculation was the actual motive behind the massive multi-stage development plan generated by the GPA and their international consultants. They believe that the GPA and the Government of Pakistan never had any intention of carrying through on the development of the region. There is truth in this. The port was conceived as a transit and trans-shipment center for goods to and from the Gulf, East Asia and China to Central Asia. However, both the director of the Singapore Port Authority and the Karachi Port Authority opined that trans-shipment from Gwadar was never financially feasible. Goods to Central Asia, I was told, are bulk goods, not the container goods that the port was built to handle. Infrastructure—such as the planned railway lines from Gwadar to Dalbadin airport (Quetta), the planned roads into Iran, and connecting to the Karakoram Highway, which passes through the Khunjrab Pass into China—were never constructed. Thus, while the 170,000 acres set aside for residential, commercial and recreational centers near the city were titled, and the 14,400 acres reserved for the “private schemes” of the National Oil Company were distributed, none of the projects for which the land was to be used ever got underway.
The law against labor organization in the whole area, the 20 year tax holiday and Gwadar’s free trade zone status were ostensibly designed to attract commerce via the incentive of sunk capital that did not materialize, but it did allow the police to shut down the fishermen’s union. In the plan, tourism, hotels, gas stations and electrical plants are reserved for the government of Pakistan, a fact that choked off any Baloch investment in these potentially profitable sectors. To the cynic, in short, Gwadar’s developmental trajectory was a hoax. Gwadar is useful for two purposes: as a terminal point for a pipeline and as a strategic asset, namely, a landing point for large vessels requiring a deep water port. For these two purposes, the Port is well suited and no local development is necessary.
In Gwadar itself, the port has reshaped the relationship between the coastal community and the inland tribes. Even in Pakistan, the myth that Balochistan is exclusively tribal persists to this day. Yet, the social structure of the Makran coast is very different from that of the inland tribal areas. The Makran coast does not have a sardari system [ The “sardari system” refers to a hierarchical version of tribal loyalty and tributary relationships geographically located mostly in Balochistan, but also common to certain parts of Sindh province. Sardar means “master.”]
that typifies the in-land areas of Balochistan. The Makran coast has a complex racial/ethnic segmentation dominated by a land-owning aristocracy that subsequently became a commercial elite. Gwadar has historically been a fishing city and even today, 90% of economic activity is in this sector. Like other port cities in the region—Aden, Dubai, Jeddah—Gwadar has an ethically heterogeneous population that includes a large number of Arabs from Oman, former slaves from Africa and even a Hindu population. Most of the fishermen belong to the Medh ethnicity, the original non-Baloch of the region. The rest are Darzada (literally “those who have the doors”–offspring of African salves and “pure” Baloch fathers), or Sheedi (descendants of slaves). Barriers against mobility within the tribal Baloch are somewhat porous at the borders, but Medh, Darzada and Sheedi cannot “become” Baloch. Unlike the highly egalitarian ethos of the Pashtun tribes, leadership in the Baloch tribal confederations is hereditary and strictly hierarchical.
The planning of the port, the subsequent real estate boom and the bust has meant the dispossession of land for the majority of the fishermen and the destruction of the ecology of their fishing grounds. Trawlers from Karachi and East Asia are able to access sea-ward areas where the hand made wooden ships of Gwadar cannot go, and deplete the sea of marine life. The fishermen complain about the busting of the Medh Itihaad (fisherman union) and the “diesel mafia” that pollutes the water. Inflation has driven many out into the shantytowns on the periphery of the development or into the inner city slum: “In real Gwadar, people are putting up road blocks just to get water. Fifteen or twenty people live in one room.” Other means of subsistence, such as labor remittances from Oman, dried up after 911 and the influx of cheap labor from the Punjab and the NWFP has flooded the job market. American incitement of the Baloch against Tehran and against Pakistan has blocked the flow of cross-border labor.
Baloch nationalism was a project of the Bugti, Marri and Mengal tribal confederations. It still is. The erection of the port and attendant changes have reshaped relations between the Makrani population and the tribes in paradoxical ways. On the one hand, the advent of hopeful Punjabi and Pashtun workers, a largely Punjabi police force and the port itself has injected Makrani economic disenfranchisement with a measure of Baloch nationalism. To the child, Gwadar’s original inhabitants curse the Punjabi military and police and decry the social evils that “development” has bequeathed. They describe their past lives as being safe, insulated and predictable: doors could remain unlocked, women were not harassed and the lines of professional training and guild-like induction of young men into fishing and boat building was a source of stability and pride. Skills were valued.
On the other hand, Gwadar’s original inhabitants are deeply ambivalent about what the triumph of Baloch nationalism would mean for them as an ethnic minority within an ethnic minority. Coastal Baloch in both Iran and Pakistan are much more comfortable with each other than with their in-land compatriots. Describing what they called the “diesel mafia” and the “fishing mafia” the Makranis were careful to point out that these “thugs” were all Baloch. Not unlike the original Baloch nationalists who resisted integration into Pakistan during the partition of the Sub-Continent in 1947, the Makranis feared becoming a minority in a shrunken state where there would be no redress from the central government. If Balochistan became independent, they told me, things would only get worse.
These ambivalent sentiments capture the tenor and texture of the web of conflicts and intrigue that shoot through the conflicts in Af-Pak. The Baloch nationalists are uncertain whether they would be better off allied with Iran, or as a production platform for American mining interests. They have the typical fears of the rentier. Regardless, they are certain that they no longer want to be part of Pakistan. By supplying the Baloch nationalists weapons and resources some faction of the US military is inflaming an already difficult situation, quite apart from the pressures of refugees from the war.
The fear among the Makrani population is palpable. As one fisherman put it,
“I have seen the world. I wonder what my grandfather saw.
I wonder what my children will see. There is a government
in most places, but not here. I am in debt. I am 76, but I
must work to pay it back. I have sold my gold. And my children
are still hungry. My net got caught in the trawlers. This is a
jungle for us. I wish I could cut the hour short and die.
If Balochistan becomes independent it will just be much worse.
It will be just us and them. If they win their freedom, I would go
back to Muscat.”
Whatever is happening to the fishermen, Gwadar and the Af-Pak war has been anything but a disaster for Baloch separatists. It has meant that, for now, the Baloch armed resistance can find allies and common cause with the Taliban, even though their politics are anathema to secular Baloch nationalism. It has also meant that they have access to covertly supplied US armaments to attack the Pakistan army and assist their Iranian counterparts in destabilizing Tehran. If Gwadar is the key to Central Asian LNG for the US, for the Baloch it is a newly acquired piece of infrastructure that makes an independent Balochistan a practical possibility. From the American perspective, Baloch nationalism is a gift: A means to destabilize Iran and possibly stoke Kurdish and Suni resentment against the regime in Tehran, potentially permanent access to the Gwadar port and guarantees of safety through (an imagined) independent Balochistan, through which the LNG pipeline would pass.
* * *
No one knows how many have died since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, or since the war spread to Pakistan in 2007. And in a way it isn’t surprising. When do we start counting? “Af-Pak” has effectively been at some sort of war since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978. Governments quibble over the number of civilians killed by the drones, those unmanned mercenaries that endeared Bill Clinton’s administration to the US army and are now the weapon of choice for his democrat successor. There are disagreements about whether the US or the Taliban, or domestic groups are responsible for civilian deaths. It is impossible to separate killings that settle vendettas from sectarian violence. To the millions affected, it might not matter who is responsible. For all this, Secretary of State Clinton, has not yet learned how to say Pakistan. What’s in a word? Americans couldn’t say \i-ˈräk,-ˈrak\ either.
Pakistan was recently described by a journalist writing for the New York Times as a petulant teenager in search of an elusive identity that was scrambled in 1947 and could not be retrieved. [Sabrina Tavernise, “The Demons that Haunt the Pakistanis,” NYT, December 6, 2009.] In fact, commentary on the inner motives and psychological handicaps of Pakistanis and Afghans has become quite common in journalistic accounts—somewhat similar to the sloppy detective work routinely performed to identify which particular senior terrorist “inspired” a particular junior terrorist to perform a particular act. The attribution of this “inspiration” has become a science through which death sentences are pronounced. One could quibble with the notion that nations, once teenagers, “grow up” and cease to change on account of the fact that they find their identity. But why should psychological analysis be reserved for the young?
© Kiren Aziz Chaudhry, Professor of Political Science
University of California, Berkeley
January 18, 2010
chaudhry a_t_ berkeley d*o*t edu