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


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.

September 6, 2013 at 08:21

The ownership of land belongs to governments in all Mideastern states. It is the historical occupancy that is referred to here. In the case of Saudi Arabia, in particular, the eastern province where oil fields are located, is a shia-majority area.

faiz kakar
January 26, 2013 at 12:52


 Balochistan is land of two major tribals Baloch and Pashtoons, Baloch covers the northern part to Gowadar and pashtoon covers the southern part to afghan border, FATA and Khybar pashtoon khwa province. Pashtoons have 50% population though the baloch nationalists and as well the establishment does not admit pashtoons majority and equality.

 Balochistan is under the thumb of international forces due to its strategic, geopolitical and mineral richness attractive to world powers. A secret war is continuing since Musharaf regime in the province in baloch area as well in Quetta.

Hazara has very less population of 0.5 million as claimed by Hazara Jirga leader they are inhabitants of 2 union councils of Quetta city.  the Target killing of hazara community started during  Musharaf regime. Time to time they were targeted but no culprits were arrested neither the security agencies got success to bring culprits before the court of law.  Time to time the Government says there are foreign hands in Balochistan to destabilize the country. There is a nexus of RAW, CIA, Israeli intelligence agencies who want to create law and order situation to get their objective

The main issues that an elected government was suspended and governor rule was imposed had two reasons behind it. 1. Transitional government .2. Reko  Deq Copper and Gold mines.

Unfortunately Military establishment always influence political set up of Pakistan particularly in Balochistan. The Raisani government was near to complete its tenure just remaining two months for the transitional Government. Such incidents were happening for last 8 years and happening in the other provinces even on military assets. The reason was to bring a puppet set-up  for which the blood and deads of hazaras were utilized and sat aside the main political set up.

2. Reko Deq is a largest copper and Gold field which was leased to international companies they Sublette it to a company Tithyan Copper China Government of Balochistan cancelled the lease and also won case in international arbitration court London but Islamabad and multinational were keeping pressure on provincial Government to lease the Mine but the coalition government was not agree to sign such agreement that is why Chief Minister Lost his Government…    

January 25, 2013 at 13:26

Some people in the U.S would like to tear off Balochistan from Pakistan as some sort of anti-China strategy in order to block chinese access to the Gwadar port. I'm not so sure about how sound that plan is, as a strong Pakistan is still useful to the U.S as a tool to counter Iran, Russia, India and chinese influence in that region.

Amin Hussain
January 24, 2013 at 04:49

The basic facts on this article are surprisingly shaky. For one, the province is called Sindh, not Singh! Secondly, the Hazara did not demand the removal of the governor, rather the removal of the Chief Minister and his provincial assembly, and the imposition of 'governor rule' – a type of emergency situation where the appointed governor takes over from the elected representatives.

Also, the PM and the government were not "swift" by any account. The Hazaras original protest of people sitting in sub-zero temperatures with their dead lasted three days, and had also given rise to similar protests all over the country. Protestors had besieged the Governor House in Lahore and the President's personal residence in Karachi. Only after several days of protest did the government start to act. 

The protest in Islamabad, that everyone in the foriegn media is keen on playing up, was a bit of a scam. A relatively small crowd turned up and no practical gains were made by their leader.

The story on energy sources seems accurate enough, but the issue of sectarianism is slightly different to it. The Punjab, too, has a large Shia population which is also somewhat under threat.  The motive behind targetting the Hazara is also still unclear as to whether it is sectarian or ethnically driven. And of course, the case of support for sectarian groups from within and from foreign agencies is completely ignored!

Christine B.Osborne
January 24, 2013 at 04:24

typo —-correction energy —  (the site does not allow editing).

Christine B.Osborne
January 24, 2013 at 04:22

I wonder if your first paragraph that Shi'a occupy the land that holds the region's {Persian Gulf} most strategic asset-its energey fields is correct? Certainly the Gulf region's biggest gas-field is itself off-shore (Qatar) and even in Bahrain, where Shi'a have been protesting against the Sunni regime, they cannot be said to own the oil-fields. Ditto in Abu Dhabi and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The southern province of Pakistan which you refer to as "Singh" is in fact Sindh.  


January 24, 2013 at 04:19

Excellenet analysis.


A Balochistan comprising parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran will be a game changer. Iran plans to bypass Israel, Saudi and Somalia by extending Shiite continuation from Western Syria, thinly through greater Syria to Iraq flowing to Iran. From there through Pakistan to Gwadar. China's dislike to get entangled in this is understandable.

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