The Geopolitics of Pakistan's Shi'a Problem
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The Geopolitics of Pakistan's Shi'a Problem

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One of the many paradoxes of the Persian Gulf is that, while Sunnis hold much of the political power in the region, Shi’a occupy the land that holds the region’s most strategic asset: its energy fields.

And so it is with Pakistan where the Punjab-dominated government recently faced large scale Shi’a protests in Balochistan after tragic sectarian bombings killed around 100  primarily ethnic-Hazara Shi’a, and injured more than 150 others. Islamabad has characteristically done almost nothing to combat the growing sectarian and ethnic violence in Balochistan as well in neighboring Sindh province. Last year was particularly stark; according to some estimates there were 173 incidents of sectarian violence resulting in 507 deaths in 2012 compared to just 30 incidents and 203 deaths the year before.

It was against this backdrop that the Shi’a rose up in protest after the most recent attacks, including by refusing to bury the bodies of those killed in the bombing. Surprisingly, the government quickly sprang into action by first suspending and, at the behest of the local Shi’a, dismissing the local governor. Additionally, Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf flew to Balochistan’s capital city of Quetta to meet with local Shi’a leaders. After holding meetings with these leaders, the government and the Shi’a reached a deal where the Shi’a agreed to end their protest in return for greater action against the anti-Shi’a militant groups that have terrorized them.

The government’s swift action is in many ways surprising. After all, violence has been raging at ever greater levels in the country for at least a decade while the government has remained content with stationing itself on the border with India to get a first-hand view of Delhi surpassing Pakistan in nearly every conceivable indicator. In fact, as PM Ashraf was flying to Balochistan massive protests were being organized against the government in Islamabad. So why did it move so swiftly to address the grievances of the Shi’ites?

There are undoubtedly a number of factors that explain Islamabad’s uncharacteristic efficiency. For one thing, as the self-appointed “homeland” for South Asian Muslims, Pakistan wanted to avoid the embarrassment of its sectarian tensions being covered extensively internationally. Not addressing these grievances could also provide Iran and India— home to the first and second largest Shi’a populations in the world— opportunities to make inroads into southwestern Pakistan.

Additionally, Balochistan has been home to a vicious Baloch nationalist insurgency that flared up again during the last decade. The Hazara population has essentially been faithful to the state and has a sizeable constituency inside the Pakistani military, according to Anatol Lieven. Losing the support of the Hazaras could therefore prove problematic for Islamabad especially if, as is almost certain to happen at some point, hostilities with Baloch nationalists flare up again.

Nonetheless, I think the more compelling explanations are strategic and geopolitical in nature.  Balochistan is an incredibly large province stretching over 134,000 square miles (nearly 45% of Pakistan’s entire landmass) and holds much of the country’s strategic minerals and natural resources, including roughly one-third of Pakistan’s natural gas. This is made all the more valuable to the Pakistani state because Balochistan is sparsely populated— the population was just 7.8 million in 2005 or around 5 percent of Pakistan’s total at the time— and extremely underdeveloped. This means that much of the natural gas can be used in other parts of the country often at the expense of the small, politically marginalized local population that gains scant profits from the asymmetric arrangement.

Equally important is the geostrategic location of Balochistan. The province shares sizeable land borders with western Iran and southern Afghanistan, and has a long southern coastline along the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea. Its land borders with Iran and Afghanistan provide strategic value to Pakistan because of the various schemes to build overland routes to bring Iranian and Caspian oil to markets in India and China. Most of these would run through Balochistan and therefore require stability.  Pakistan also hopes to import more natural gas from Iran for itself, with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar reiterating earlier this week Islamabad’s desire to finish construction on an Iran-Pakistani pipeline despite immense financial burdens.

As Robert Kaplan and others have noted, Balochistan’s southern coastline, especially the city of Gwadar, has long been coveted by foreign influences owing to the fact that it was identified as suitable for hosting a deep water port back in the 1950’s. For instance, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was widely believed to be driven by Moscow’s desire to gain access to a warm water outlet in Gwadar. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse many of the schemes multi-national oil companies devised to export Caspian oil to Western markets envisioned the energy being transported by sea via Gwadar. In fact, PM Bhutto’s support for the Taliban’s rise in the 1990’s was partially driven by her desire to stabilize Afghanistan so Caspian oil could be transported through Afghanistan on its way to Balochistan.  

After General Pervez Musharraf took power in 1999 he asked China to develop a deep water seaport at Gwadar. Initially demurring, Beijing accepted Musharraf’s offer a few weeks after 9/11 undoubtedly under the belief that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan would stabilize that country enough to make pipeline projects running through it viable at last. China subsequently invested U.S. $200 million into the project and a deep water sea port at Gwadar was inaugurated in 2007.

The construction of the port was a major factor in the renewed violent protests by the Baloch people in the early 2000s. Additionally, from outset it was widely speculated that China saw the Gwadar Port as part of its "String of Pearls" strategy of having access to strategically located bases between the Chinese mainland and its energy and natural resource suppliers in the Middle East and Africa. Although the port was originally operated by a Singaporean company, Pakistan formally asked China to take over running it in 2011. Beijing initially declined the offer but reversed its position at the end of last year and is now slated to take control over the port.

Thus, the fact that the highest levels of violence in Pakistan outside the FATA are in Balochistan and the neighboring southern province of Singh should be a very large concern for Islamabad indeed.

Zachary Keck is assistant editor of The Diplomat. He is on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

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