Pakistan sees future in troubled province

Violence rises in Balochistan, which is home to untapped energy reserves.

Given all that glitters in Balochistan, it's no wonder Pakistan places the province at the center of its economic and strategic ambitions: It boasts rich deposits of gas, coal, and copper; a coastline granting access to Persian Gulf trade; and a transit zone for two proposed multibillion-dollar, natural-gas pipelines, one from Iran and one from Turkmenistan.

In geopolitical terms, Balochistan is a prize - one that Islamabad plans to bolster with $2 billion-plus in investment.

But to the province's powerful tribal leaders, the prospect of such investment is troubling - bringing increased military presence and foreign development without assurances that the rewards will benefit the Baloch people. And tribal militants are making their feelings known in harsh terms.

In recent weeks, militants have fired hundreds of rockets at military installations, derailed trains, and murdered three Chinese engineers at work at a cement factory in the town of Hub. They've also cut off gas supplies for days by attacking existing pipelines.

Both Pakistan's current and future economic growth hinges on developing Balochistan, particularly its energy resources. But, analysts say, that very development could destabilize the country by intensifying pressure on the province - and encourage meddling from other countries with interests in the region.

"Balochistan is potentially very rich. It's where most of the development will be, and the establishment knows it. Suddenly it realizes it needs better control over the province," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst in Islamabad.

Senator Sana ullah Baloch, a leading Baloch politician, does not openly condone violence, but says it's a last resort. Like most Balochs, he's not interested in secession. But he feels his local government is a pawn of Islamabad, and wants increased autonomy. His province provides more than 40 percent of Pakistan's energy, but reaps only 12.4 percent in royalties and has historically seen little development aid.

Balochs have come to blows with Islamabad at least four times since 1947, when Pakistan was created. But most analysts agree the province is being squeezed harder now under President Pervez Musharraf.

That pressure has its source in the country's immediate energy needs. The natural-gas reserves currently being exploited in the region are expected to dry up by 2012. With demand growing, Pakistan needs more gas - and most untapped reserves lie in the troubled province. Some 19 trillion cubic feet, the largest known reserves in the country, are still buried in its ground.

That reality sends shivers down the spines of Baloch nationalists. "The entire economic future is completely reliant on Balochistan," points out Senator Baloch. "But it's not for the people of Balochistan. It's all controlled by the federal government and will benefit the federal government."

According to a government energy security document, demand over the next five years is expected to grow at a rate of 7.4 percent annually. Its prescription is to increase domestic exploration as well as diversify supplies by importing gas and liquified natural gas.

The document notes that Pakistan's energy needs will more than double in the next decade. Meeting those requirements, it says, will mean investing $6 billion a year for the next 25 years, for a total of $150 billion by 2030.

"We are approaching an era where energy will become a critical commodity," points out Javed Jabbar, a former minister of petroleum. "We have to develop our energy potential, and Balochistan is an important part of that."

Mr. Jabbar says such development is critical. "Our population is projected to more than double in the next 30 years. We're scheduled to become the fourth-largest country, behind India, China, and the US," he says.

With tensions flaring, many wonder if Islamabad's bid for a brighter future is threatening the integrity of the country. The "Balkanization" of Pakistan is common fodder in conversations and editorial pages. Many are comparing the situation with that in 1971, when East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh.

"It's just like Bosnia - initially it was a domestic issue, but it is becoming an international issue," says Moonis Ahmer, a professor at the University of Karachi.

Others argue that Musharraf risks compromising the war on terror by spreading the Army too thin to put down what appears to be a rising insurgency. "The more the Army is deployed, the more it will be sucked into a quagmire," says Professor Ahmer. "The military is being stretched far and wide."

Many analysts dismiss these assessments as premature, but caution that Islamabad needs to reverse years of neglect and exploitation.

"At the moment there is no framework for talking," says retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. "They should seek a political solution. You have to take several measures, political and social, over several years."

Pakistan also has to keep an eye on its neighbors' view of the conflict. Balochistan shares thousands of miles of border with Afghanistan and Iran, which have Baloch populations.

Iran helped Islamabad defeat Baloch nationalists in 1973. But India has indicated tacit support for the province, pointing to human-rights concerns. China, meanwhile, has sought assurances from Musharraf that its investments and workers will be protected.

For Washington, the central issue is the proposed $ 7 billion pipeline from Iran, which is still under negotiation, but to which Musharraf has recently pledged his support. Some 475 miles of the 1,700-mile long pipeline would traverse Balochistan on its way to India. The US says the pipeline would provide a bridge between Tehran, whose nuclear ambitions worry the US, and nuclear rivals Pakistan and India. President Bush is likely to raise these concerns when he visits here this week.

Spokesmen for the government and the Army insist there is no military buildup in Balochistan, and that security will be ensured. "There is no military operation," says Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, Pakistan's interior minister. "I think the government will succeed in curbing this, if we can call it, insurgency."

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