India needs to craft an aggressive covert policy against Pakistan and Balochistan should be at the centre of this policy
While much has been written about how the Narendra Modi regime has handled foreign policy, a lot of insight is still missing about its Pakistan policy. The fact that the Indian government has stuck to generic statements about zero tolerance for terrorism has not helped the public gain an understanding into whether Modi has a firm long-term plan for the Pakistan problem.
One hopes that unlike previous governments, at least this one doesn’t believe that true peace is just around the corner and the Prime Minister just needs to try a little bit harder. With a pragmatist like Ajit Doval as the National Security Advisor, it is hoped that the Indian establishment has finally concluded that it is impossible to negotiate in good faith with a nation whose raison d’etre is to be antagonistic towards India.
The word hope is being used repeatedly here because even if the Indian Government has come to these realizations, it cannot reveal the same publicly and needs to keep up pretenses in front of the international community.
Assuming that the current ruling dispensation harbors no false hope about Pakistan’s intentions, the next step would be to craft an aggressive covert policy against Pakistan. Such a policy should aim at providing India very strong levers which it can use to work towards a permanent long-term solution. Scarcely anyone will disagree that such a plan must revolve around the future of Balochistan.
But can India display the same initiative, sensitivity, agility and ambition in its covert thinking which the Prime Minister has demonstrated publicly in crafting a bolder course in foreign relations? If India hopes that Balochistan can be used as a lever just by dangling the unspoken threat of arming and training the Baloch rebels in the near future, it would be a mistake. That is a very twentieth century tactic which has run its course and will meet with limited success.
However if India can infuse some audacity in its plans and consider a more expansive scope of any future intervention, it could lead to more desirable solutions. In the psychological sense, Pakistan may already have lost Balochistan. The sense of alienation and anger is deep and pervades most levels of the Baloch society. The question is how long can Pakistan hold on to this colony with their military firepower. It depends on how eager is India to create the next Bangladesh and how comfortable is Iran with an independent Balochistan.
The Importance of Qasem Soleimani
In the permanent quagmire that is the Middle-East, Qasem Soleimani is the current master-puppeteer. As the head of the shadowy Quds Force, Soleimani has led Iran to a series of unprecedented strategic successes. Today, Iran is informally allying with the United States to fight ISIS in Iraq while at the same time backing the Houthis in Yemen, Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Soleimani is one of main architects of the series of contradictory yet major accomplishments which Iran has garnered since the American invasion of Iraq. To put it very simply, very little of importance is happening today in the Middle-East which doesn’t in a way involve some intrigue on Qasem Soleimani’s part. This makes him perhaps the third most powerful person in Iran after Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani and someone with considerable influence over Iran’s long-term strategic decision making.
But can Doval persuade Soleimani to work with India for an independent Balochistan? There is one negotiating tool which India can consider using. Iran has a sizeable Baloch population in its eastern provinces and unsurprisingly the Sunni Baloch has often come in conflict with the Shiite Tehran. An independent Balochistan seceding from Pakistan can come as a shot in the arm for the hopes of the Iranian Baloch rebels.
Ambitious Baloch leaders could even float the idea of a ‘Greater Balochistan’. Some of them already speak of the Baloch struggles in Pakistan and Iran in the same breath. Hence any plan India may have for Balochistan’s independence needs to take into account Tehran’s concerns about possible threats to its own territorial integrity. If India can extract a firm guarantee from the Baloch rebels that a future Baloch nation will relinquish any claims on Iranian Balochistan, it is possible that Iran may at least commit to not actively oppose efforts for a free Balochistan. This will involve the Baloch people making a very emotive sacrifice but more importantly bring them closer to their dream of a free homeland.
Soleimani knows that Iran’s complete attention during the next decade needs to be on consolidating its successes in the Middle-East. The last thing Iran needs is a threat developing on its eastern borders from a Sunni-majority Pakistan where ISIS is slowly gaining traction and whose government is heavily indebted to the largesse of the regimes of Iran’s sworn enemies.
India needs to successfully convince Soleimani that a nuclear-armed, unpredictable, Sunni Pakistan poses a more realistic threat to Iran than a fragile newly independent Balochistan. It can be emphasized that with the secession of resource rich Balochistan, Pakistan can be neutralized for a significant number of years. No nation can easily recover from such a heavy psychological, economic and military blow to emerge as a threat yet again.
More than thinking of only funding rebels, India needs to deploy its most persuasive representatives to covertly engage Iranian decision makers like Qasem Soleimani and convince them that an independent Balochistan is in the interest of both the nations.
A United Khanate
The engagement with Iran needs India to successfully persuade the Baloch to make painful compromise. This presents its own challenges as the Baloch freedom movement is riven by debilitating infighting between rival factions and competing power centers pulling in different directions. Getting all of them to agree to such a big sacrifice could present itself as an unsurmountable challenge.
The struggle for Baloch independence starts from the time when a newly independent Pakistan annexed the sovereign Khanate of Kalat and subsumed it into Pakistan as the new province of Balochistan. The current Khan of Kalat is Suleman Dawood Khan who lives a life of exile in Britain but maintains strong ties with his people.
He can still lay claim to being the symbolic leader of the Baloch people and carries a certain amount of moral authority which could help in bringing disparate Baloch groups together. This authority stems from the fact that he is the only one who is allowed to convene the Grand Baloch Jirga – a formal platform for discussions between Baloch tribal leaders and elders. Any difficult decision like giving up on Iranian Balochistan in order to expedite a free Balochistan can be feasible only if it has been debated and endorsed by the Baloch Jirga.
While it could prove to be a risky gambit, India should consider covertly promoting the current Khan as a future head of state of an independent Balochistan. It would be similar to the strategy the Americans deployed in Afghanistan when they parachuted the 88 years old exiled Afghan king Zahir Shah into Kabul to provide a credible perception of continuity between the past legitimate Afghan regimes and the fledgling new Karzai government.
The current Khan of Kalat can play that role for the Baloch people and be the glue holding together the different Baloch tribes. In return India should persuade the Khan to bring the council of tribal leaders together and debate these compromises for Iran. If India can demonstrate that it is serious about ensuring a free Balochistan and not just using it as a ruse to pressurize Pakistan, it is possible for the Baloch leaders to consider these proposals seriously.
The long-term solution to the Pakistan problem can only be realized if it is made to pay a disproportionate price for the proxy war it has been engaging in for the past few decades. If India does not make concrete moves on Balochistan it will be emboldening Pakistan further. That is something India can’t risk as it will translate into further massacres of innocent Indian citizens.