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EDITORIAL: Implications of the Gwadar incident

Someone blew up three Chinese engineers in Gwadar Monday morning. It was a remote-controlled car bomb that hit a passing van headed for the port facility. Apart from the three Chinese killed, 11 others, including five Chinese and two Pakistanis, were injured in the blast. No one claimed the act of terrorism, but the police have arrested 13 Baloch citizens.

The Balochistan assembly has quickly condemned the incident. Those who condemned it included the nationalists although they had reservations about the Gwadar project. President Pervez Musharraf and prime minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali have strongly condemned the attack and sent messages of regret and condolence to the Chinese government. Once again, the guessing game about who could have acted to thwart Pakistan’s premier infrastructure undertaking is on.

Unfortunately, like all other national projects, there is a lack of consensus over the need for and scope of Gwadar in Balochistan. Leaving aside fringe opinion which sees it as a part of unwanted globalisation, all Baloch parties are united over the fact that the federal government was wrong to exclude Balochistan from the project. Lumping it with the disputed gas royalties, the Baloch see in a Baloch-controlled Gwadar a road to autonomy, out of the economic squeeze they think has been imposed unfairly on them by the centre. On April 3, Baloch leader Akbar Bugti was quoted in the national press as saying that his partymen would not allow the building of Gwadar Port in Balochistan. He said they would hunt down the rulers who had made the master plan for Gwadar. Already Pakistan had looted the wealth of Balochistan, he said, now his party would not allow any more cantonments to be built in the province. He warned that ‘we will drown all those who were building the Gwadar port’. Earlier, the chief of Balochistan National Party, Sardar Ataullah Mengal, was quoted as saying that if investment in Gwadar was against the wishes of the Baloch, the investors would not go back alive. He said Gwadar was being made for the Americans. The Americans would run away but the Punjabis would be unable to flee. He said the Punjabis were determined to convert the Baloch into a minority in their own province. The Baloch would not allow their identity to be destroyed in the name of investment, he said.

One can see in these statements a general grievance obscuring the facts on the ground. Sardar Mengal must know that the people building the port are not Americans but Chinese. In fact last year, the Indian navy chief Admiral Madhavendra Singh, had said in Jane’s Defence Weekly that India was ‘closely monitoring’ Chinese activity on the Mekran coast, expressing concern about the Chinese navy’s ‘close interaction’ with ‘a few neighbouring countries’ which could ‘seriously endanger vital Indian shipping routes in the Gulf’.

The Gwadar port project was started in 1992 but was held up due to political instability in Pakistan, following the change of the Nawaz Sharif government. The spooks opposed to the next government had filled the national press with reports about how the US ambassador was measuring out land in Gwadar for a military base. Initially, Holland was approached for financing the project but to no avail. Later, Oman was approached, which has a large Balochi population. Although Sultan Qaboos expressed interest in the development of the region, the Opposition parties in Pakistan assailed the government for ‘handing’ the port over to the US government after the end of Iran-Iraq war and the increased US interests in the Gulf. Finally, the Chinese were given the project and they started work in 2002 with a soft loan of $198 million, Pakistan contributing $50 million for the first phase of this mega-project. When the first phase is completed in 2005, the Deep Sea Port will move towards its final destiny: a trading entrepot for 20 countries in the region.

The benefits will be enormous. Allied to Gwadar, the coastal region of Balochistan is also expected to get an economic boost with the construction of a 700-km coastal highway, linking Karachi on the east with Jiwani to the west, close to the Iranian border. Pakistani’s National Highway Authority and the Frontier Works Organisation are building this road that will ultimately link Gwadar with the rest of the world. This will be completed by the time the port is built in 2005. Establishment of a railway link with Gwadar to Taftan in Iran via Saindak is in the works. A road from Gwadar to Saindak, running parallel to the Iran-Pakistan border, will make it the shortest route to reach Central Asia from the warm waters of Arabian Sea. Another 515-km long highway connecting Gwadar via Chaghi and Rabat up to Herat in eastern Afghanistan is on the drawing boards.

Whoever has killed the Chinese engineers in Gwadar wants to create disorder in Pakistan. Unfortunately there is much evidence of that already. First of all, suspicion will fall on the elements within the grand Pakistani ‘non-consensus’ that extends from Kalabagh Dam to Gwadar Port. Second, some centres of power in the establishment will find the usual ‘foreign hand’ (read India) in it, while those who hate America will say the Americans have done it because they are on a crusade against Islam. But no one can ignore the on-going standoff between General Pervez Musharraf and Al Qaeda, which actually boils down to a personal duel between Pervez Musharraf and the Al Qaeda mastermind, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The former has just lost a round to al-Zawahiri at Wana, but a much severer blow may come from Gwadar which is a part of the president’s future vision for Pakistan.

The conclusions are obvious enough. The federal government must bring the Baloch fully into the loop so that they can see the need of the project and be assured that they will directly stand to benefit from it. Second, General Musharraf should understand that his anti-terrorism project is still far from successful and that half-measures will not work. One small act of terrorism still has the capacity to derail his strategic vision for Pakistan. *

Source: Daily Times

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