On Pakistan's frontier, conflict a way of life

Arms, unrest the norm for independent people along the Afghan border

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

October 03, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - These are tense days for this frontier city near the Afghan border.

Two rocket-propelled grenades hit the center of town last week. About that time, police stopped a truck from Afghanistan packed with heavy weapons, including rocket launchers, mortars and rockets. The incidents raised fears that Taliban sympathizers might forcibly oppose Pakistan's cooperation with the United States in its hunt for suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

But the events also were business as usual.

Bomb and grenade explosions are routine. Weapons smuggling is considered a respectable occupation.

Such events are part of the way of life for people who consider themselves as rugged as the bleak desert landscape they inhabit. Disputes are often settled with blood. Men prefer to be photographed with their Kalashnikov assault rifles rather than with family members. And no outside power has ever been able to completely subdue this wildly independent population.

Long before the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington focused attention on the Afghan-Pakistani border, Pakistan's Baluchistan province had earned a reputation for unrest and danger, and for bucking government control.

"For the last 50 years we've been at odds with Islamabad and the people of Pakistan," said Sarwar Khan Kakar, a retired politician who represented the border town of Pishin in the Baluchistan provincial assembly.

Political violence?

"There are conflicts," he said with a shrug. "It's natural."

Baluchistan is the largest, least populated of Pakistan's provinces and an area of notable contrasts. During the day, temperatures can soar above 100 degrees. At night, they plummet to near freezing. The people are among the world's most gracious hosts, considering guests a gift from God and treating them like kings. But insult or somehow cross a family or tribe, and your family may suffer the consequences for generations.

The conflicts here have many dimensions. The Pashtun, who share the language and culture of most Afghans, are at odds with the province's Baluch and Brahui peoples. Within those broad groups are intertribal rivalries involving the Kakars, Achakzais and the Marris, among others.

Invaders from Alexander the Great to would-be colonizers from Great Britain found the region a difficult place to rule because of the many competing factions. Since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, Baluchistan has produced separatist movements from each ethnic group.

In 1973, the central government dismissed the Baluchistan government because of fears the province would secede. Uprisings by tribal leaders in the 1970s were subdued by military force. In 1976, the government attempted to wrest power from the feudal chiefs, sparking continued violence against the national authorities.

There is no better embodiment of Baluchistan's fiercely independent attitude than Mehmood Khan Achakzai, chairman of the Pashtun National People's Party. Elected twice to the National Assembly to represent Baluchistan, Achakzai was a vocal proponent of replacing Pakistan's military rule with democracy. But his main goal has been to create a semiautonomous state for the 35 million Pashtuns.

His fellow Pashtuns, Achakzai said, are "second-class citizens" compared with the Punjabs of central Pakistan who dominate the government, police and military. Achakzai has proposed that Pakistan recognize the historical homelands of the country's six major ethnic groups: Punjabis, Pashtuns, Bengalis, Sindhis, Seraikis and Baluch.

He wants Pakistan to redraw provincial boundaries to create a single province for the Pashtun people - a population culturally and ethnically the same as the majority of Pashtuns in Afghanistan.

"We are walking a tightrope," he said. "Afghanistan is our homeland. Pakistan is our country.

"In the 21st century, colonies are not supposed to be permitted," he said. "But we consider Pakistan to be a colonialist state that uses brute military power over the entire Pashtun land. We want to live in Pakistan as equal citizens."

His ambitions for a semiautonomous province will likely never be realized. Achakzai lost political support after being accused of corruption, but he has won attention for a region traditionally neglected by national governments. And with more than 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan with close ties to the Pashtun people, his political power could grow.

Sitting cross-legged in a long shirt and baggy cotton trousers and surrounded by two dozen of his advisers, the round-faced Achakzai appears almost Buddha-like. But his stormy political past includes allegations linking him to the smuggling of arms and drugs.

Achakzai rose to power in 1973 as successor to his father, who was killed in a grenade attack that Achakzai believes was orchestrated by the government. In 1983, Achakzai was involved in protests in Quetta that led to four deaths in a clash with police. Authorities blamed Achakzai, who then spent six years underground.

Police raided his party headquarters last year and seized a large cache of weapons. The raid was part of an attempt by Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to assert control over the province. Musharraf cracked down on smuggling of electronic goods, weapons, drugs and other goods - the livelihood of a large part of the population.

Residents grant that Musharraf has cleaned up the city. It is a safer place, save for the occasional rocket attack.

"You see less lawlessness," said Mansoor Akbar Kundi, an associate professor of political science at the University of Baluchistan. "Achakzai used to be escorted by three or four wagons with armed men inside."

Now, even Achakzai can walk down the street without guards.

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