• Sunday 18th August 2019

Balochistan: Us Congressional Hearing May Spell Trouble For Pakistan By Malik Siraj Akbar

State department officials and members of the US Congress, have now begun to publicly assert support for an independent Balochistan. -Photo by Reuters

While some officials from the government and non-governmental organisations have only expressed concern over the situation, other individuals, including former army soldiers, State department officials and members of the US Congress, have now begun to publicly assert support for an independent Balochistan. -Photo by Reuters

The United States (US) Committee on Foreign Affairs is set to convene a congressional hearing [1] on Wednesday (February 8), for an exclusive discussion on Balochistan.

The extraordinary event has generated great interest among followers of Pakistan-US relations, as the allies’ mutual relationship seems to be deteriorating. The powerful House of Representatives committee oversees America’s foreign assistance programs and experts believe it can recommend halting US assistance to Pakistan over human rights violation in Balochistan.

Calls for ‘independence’
While Islamabad has strictly treated Balochistan as an internal matter, the debate on such a divisive topic by the powerful committee has highlighted the level of American interest in Balochistan and its support, if any, for the nationalist movement. On its part, Pakistan has kept Washington at arm’s length on the Balochistan issue, by refusing to grant it permission to open a consulate in Quetta.

A Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher [2], who recently co-authored an article [3] with Congressman Louie Gohmert [4] expressing support for an independent Balochistan, will chair the hearing.

“Perhaps we should even consider support for a Balochistan carved out of Pakistan to diminish radical power there (in Pakistan),” Rohrabacher wrote in his piece.

According to Asia-Pacific Reporting Blog [5], “it is expected that the hearing will tackle issues related to whether or not the US Congress should tie human rights issues in Balochistan to Pakistani aid.”

Witness box
Another area of interest is of the controversial witnesses who will testify before the committee. The three-member panel comprises of defence analyst Ralph Peters, Georgetown assistant professor, C. Christine Fair and Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Director of the Human Rights Watch.

Ironically, the panel on Balochistan does not include a Baloch representative, an issue which has disappointed the Baloch diaspora in the United States, who fear the misinterpretation of their stance by people they view as unfamiliar with the Baloch conflict.

One of the witnesses, Ralph Peters, attracted scathing criticism by right-wing Pakistani strategists in June 2006, when his article Blood Borders [6] was published in the Armed Forces Journal [7] with a map of Free Balochistan. Peters, 59, a former US army officer, is expected to support in his testimony the idea of an independent Balochistan comprising of the Balochistan provinces in Pakistan and Iran and parts of Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Dr Christine Fair is known as a passionate supporter of Pakistan with an anti-India stance. The Pakistani media quoted Dr Fair in March 2009, for allegedly linking India with the Baloch insurgency. She was reportedly questioned the role of the Indian consulates in Afghanistan and Iran.

“Having visited the Indian mission in Zahedan,” she told a roundtable [8] organised by the Foreign Affairs magazine, “I can assure you they (Indians) are not issuing visas as their main activity.” Later on, however, she told Outlook, an Indian newsmagazine, in an interview [9] that the Pakistanis had blown her comments out of proportion.

On Twitter, a week ahead of the hearing, Dr Fair called Ralph Peters, the fellow witness, a “nut” and asked “WHAT does he know?” On Saturday, she also irked the Balochs by questioning their majority status in Balochistan while in another Tweet she warned the separatists not to “expect me to support an independent Balochistan”.

Public debate
Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed [10], Pakistan’s former high commissioner to the United Kingdom, told Dawn.com that the congressional hearing was a “significant step” in highlighting Balochistan’s problems. “The information provided in the event,” he said, “will not only be used by members of the US Congress but will also be picked up by the world media.”

“The shocking stories of torture and murder in Balochistan will become part of the public debate. It is in the interest of Pakistan to quickly and effectively resolve the situation in Balochistan bringing back the Baluch with honour, respect and dignity,” said Dr Ahmed, who is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington DC.

Dr Ahmed, who served in 1980s [11] as the Commissioner of three districts in Balochistan, says the hearing can potentially create a great deal of negative publicity for Pakistan.

Close watchers
In the United States, the conflict in Balochistan has been gaining remarkable attention of late. While some officials from the government and non-governmental organisations have only expressed concern over the situation, other individuals, including former army soldiers, State department officials and members of the US Congress, have now begun to publicly assert support for an independent Balochistan.

For instance, on January 15, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, expressed America’s “deep concern” [12] over the ongoing violence in Balochistan, especially targeted killings, disappearances and human rights violations.

“This (Balochistan) is a complex issue. We strongly believe that the best way forward is for all the parties to resolve their differences through peaceful dialogue,” she said.

Last year on November 16, the State Department deputy spokesman, Mark Toner, had also observed during a press briefing [13], “You know, more broadly, we do have concerns about the situation in Balochistan. We’ve addressed those concerns with the government of Pakistan.”

Nationalist view
Baloch nationalists are cautiously monitoring Wednesday’s hearing.


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