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Afghan Report: September 4, 2006

September 4, 2006, Volume 5, Number 23
By Amin Tarzi

As Pakistan faces a backlash after the killing of Baluch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti on August 26, Islamabad has rejected criticism from New Delhi and Kabul, calling the incident an internal affair.

Violent protests have raged in Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan, since Baluch tribal leader Bugti was killed in unclear circumstances during an attack by Pakistani security forces on his cave hideout on August 26.

Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz survived a confidence vote on August 29 -- only the second time a no-confidence motion has been made in parliament against a prime minister since Pakistan's establishment in 1947.

Bugti's relationship with the central government in Pakistan was marked by highs and lows, but in general the tribal leader had advocated more economic and political autonomy for Baluchistan through insurgencies and by using the Jamhuri Watan Party, which he founded and has led since 1990.

There are reports that Bugti -- who actually served briefly as governor of Baluchistan in the 1970s -- was a backer of the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), a group that advocates violence in seeking an independent Baluch state.

While Pakistan deals with the fallout from Bugti's death, Islamabad has made it explicitly clear that the entire affair is an internal matter, specifically telling Afghanistan and India to refrain from meddling.

Reaction From Kabul, New Delhi

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman and the country's National Assembly have condemned Bugti's killing. During a debate in the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), members of parliament on August 28 debated the issue. While some Afghan lawmakers pointed out that Bugti's killing was Pakistan's internal affair, many called the action by Pakistan "an inhumane act." Pakistan says it did not intend to harm Bugti and that he was killed by explosives that went off after a Pakistani bomb attack.

Bugti's case is "indeed the internal affair of Pakistan, but it also has a connection with the people of Afghanistan, because we have always defended the rights of the Baluch and Afghans [Pashtuns living in the Northwest Frontier Province]," Kabul-based Tolu Television quoted an unidentified Afghan parliamentarian as saying. Another unnamed Wolesi Jirga member condemned Bugti's killing on "behalf of the people of Afghanistan," and expressed sympathy to the "Baluch tribe and all freedom fighters of the world."

The Indian Foreign Ministry called the killing of Bugti "unfortunate" and a "tragic loss to the people of Baluchistan and Pakistan." Indian media has generally been much more critical of Pakistan's handling of the affairs in Baluchistan.

Islamabad's Concerns

Substantiated or not, since 2003 Islamabad has accused its arch-nemesis India of setting up camps in Afghanistan to train Afghans and Pakistanis as terrorists to destabilize Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan.

Pakistan charges that with the presence of Indian troops in Afghanistan, New Delhi is encircling Pakistan with consulates and commandos and is financing militant organizations, namely the BLA.

While Karzai has repeatedly said that Afghanistan's relations with India "in no way" have an impact on ties between Kabul and Islamabad, the similar reaction from New Delhi and Kabul regarding Bugti's killing certainly does not help to quiet Islamabad's anxieties (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 26, 2006).

Responding to a question about Afghan and Indian concerns about Bugti's killing, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said on August 29 that his country's Foreign Office has issued a clear statement on the comments made by Kabul and New Delhi, deeming them a "violation of all diplomatic norms."

Sultan added that these comments "point to the fact that if something happens in Baluchistan, [we know] who is involved in it." He did not elaborate but left no doubt that Pakistan sees an Indian hand with Afghan collaboration in Baluchistan unrest.

The Bugti affair once again brings attention to the need for Kabul not to exacerbate its already troubled relationship with Islamabad. While Pakistan needs to accept Afghanistan as an independent country -- one not subservient to its demands -- Kabul has to be careful not to play the Pashtun and Baluch card or get involved in the Indian-Pakistani games so much that Islamabad goes on high alert.

By Ron Synovitz

Angry demonstrators in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan Province clashed with security forces for a third consecutive day today following the death of a prominent ethnic Baluch tribal leader.

Pakistani security forces had to use tear gas to disperse rioters on the streets of Quetta the last few days. Like other towns and cities across Baluchistan, the provincial capital Quetta has been mired in violence since the August 26 death of Baluch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. The volatile province shares long, porous borders with Afghanistan and Iran.

Bugti had pressed demands by Baluch nationalists for greater autonomy for Pakistan's most sparsely populated and poorest province. For years, he also led demands for Baluchistan to receive a bigger share of revenues from the sale of its natural gas.

Musharraf has vowed to stamp out armed opposition in Baluchistan. He reportedly told his cabinet on August 27 that every step must be taken to impose government authority in the province. But he also said the door remains open for talks.

Accidental Killing Claimed

Faced with the backlash to Bugti's death, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has denied that the killing was deliberate. State Minister for Information and Broadcasting Tariq Azim Khan says Bugti died when explosives in his cave hideout went off during heavy fighting nearby.

"It was never our intention to harm [Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti] physically," he said. "What happened was something that was not the government's own doing. Land mines which exploded caused this explosion to bring down the cave. But certainly it was not our intention to kill him."

But that claim has been met with cynicism -- particularly given the large scale of Pakistan's military operations against Baluch insurgents and reports that President Pervez Musharraf described Bugti's death as a victory.

Regardless of the intentions of Pakistan's military, analysts say the killing of Bugti has become another item on a long list of grievances by Baluch nationalists against the central government in Islamabad.

Christine Fair, a research associate at the U.S. Institute for Peace, says Bugti's death is probably going to mobilize and unify different Baluch groups that previously opposed Bugti.

Strengthening The Resistance?

Retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul -- the former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency -- agrees. Gul says that rather than weakening the insurgency by Baluch nationalists, Bugti's death is likely to bolster the movement.

"The problem here that I foresee is that Bugti has become a symbol of Baluch resistance," he said. "And it is the youth -- the Baluch youth -- who will rally around this symbol."

Gul says the killing of Bugti has damaged Musharraf's credibility and is likely to add to the political troubles of a presidency that began when Musharraf used his support from within Pakistan's military forces to seize power in a bloodless coup.

"On many counts, [Musharraf] was isolated -- previously isolated," Gul said. "But with this event, I think now his troubles are going to increase. This is an increment to the problems that he was facing politically."

Already, opposition leaders from across Pakistan's political spectrum joined together on August 28 to map out a new joint strategy.

Opposition leader Kachkul Ali Baluch has called Bugti's death a "major event in Baluch history." And Amin Fahim, a member of the opposition Pakistan People's Party Parliamentarians, says the killing has unified those who are seeking greater autonomy for Baluchistan.

What Baluch Nationalists Want

"We will rise -- we have already risen -- to release Pakistan from the clutches of the military rulers," Fahim said. "The military has no right to rule Pakistan, nor is there any legal justification or constitutional provision for it to do so. The military should restrict itself to the task that the constitution has allotted to it."

But Gul says strong factional divisions between different Baluch nationalist leaders remain.

"I don't think we've come to a breaking point," he said. "I was listening to the statements of the Baluch leaders who may have had in the past lot of differences with Akbar Bugti. But they are now, of course, standing by him posthumously. But not a single leader has said that we want it at the cost of Pakistan, whatever the rights they are demanding. So they are still wanting that somehow a settlement should be reached within the constitutional framework of Pakistan."

Baluch nationalists have waged their low-key insurgency for decades. In the past year, they have increased the number of attacks on infrastructure within Baluchistan -- including security posts and natural gas pipelines.

Musharraf has vowed to stamp out armed opposition in Baluchistan. He reportedly told his cabinet on August 27 that every step must be taken to impose government authority in the province. But he also said the door remains open for talks.

By Ron Synovitz

U.S. military officials in Kabul say a breakthrough agreement has been reached with Afghan and Pakistani military leaders that will improve security along the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border.

Under their new accord, the military forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan will conduct coordinated and simultaneous patrols along their respective sides of the border to prevent Islamic militants from moving between the two countries.

U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan also will participate in patrols aimed at improving security along the nearly 2,500-kilometer border.

The agreement was reached at talks in Kabul on August 23 by members of the so-called Tripartite Commission. That's a grouping that includes senior military officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and NATO.

U.S. Army Colonel Tom Collins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan tells RFE/RL the agreement is a breakthrough.

"I don't know what [these coordinated patrols are] going to look like yet because they still have to do a lot of staff work to figure out how to best make this happen," Collins says. "You will have, primarily, the U.S. forces under the coalition working with the Afghan National Army in the eastern sector [of Afghanistan]. And then in the south, you primarily have Canadian, British, and Romanian forces working with the Afghan National Army and patrolling along the border."

Military leaders present at this week's talks in Kabul included Pakistani Army Vice Chief of Staff General Ahsan Salim Hayat, Afghan National Army Chief of Staff General Bismullah Khan, and the head of the U.S.-led coalition, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry. Present for the first time at a Tripartite Commission meeting was the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, British Lieutenant General David Richards.

Spokesman Collins, who also attended the talks, says the mood between the Afghan and Pakistani military leaders was friendly -- with officers from both sides referring to each other, for the first time, as "brothers."

"There are senior military officers who are interested very much in getting things done," Collins says. "Both sides recognize that cross-border infiltration remains a significant problem -- especially those who are coming into Afghanistan to do evil things and also, from Afghanistan, moving back into sanctuaries in Pakistan. So this group is very much interested in fixing that situation. If you look where the Pakistanis and the Afghans were when we first started [the] Tripartite [Commission] some three years ago, we are light years ahead of where we were."

Talking More

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he thinks the talks were "extraordinary."

"We have agreed that from now on, [Pakistan and Afghanistan] will maintain closer communications," Azimi says. "And we will have simultaneous and coordinated border patrols -- sharing intelligence information that we gather. We will cooperate more than before. We also will try to clear land mines from the border area."

Collins says Afghan and Pakistani border posts have been equipped with radios that allow communication and coordination. He says it is a level of cooperation between the two countries that did not exist 18 months ago.

"The United States gave a bunch of high-frequency radios to be used on the border so that the Pakistanis and the Afghans can talk to each other through these high mountains," Collins says. "That is a concrete example of the coordination that is going on from an Afghan soldier to a Pakistani soldier on the ground right now. At the higher levels, we are certainly talking to each other about future operations -- making sure the other side is aware of what we are doing and how they can possibly facilitate our operations on this side of the border. That is occurring at the senior levels."

Much Remains To Be Done

Collins admits there is still much work to be done by both Pakistani and Afghan officials to ensure that Taliban fighters and their supporters are not able to carry out cross-border terrorist attacks.

Those challenges make some experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan skeptical about claims of "breakthroughs" in relations between the two countries.

Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, tells RFE/RL she thinks the agreement is probably more of a smoothing over of problems than any fundamental change.

"A breakthrough is hard to in this relationship," Coleman says. "These moves are good tactical steps. But the much deeper, larger problem is that there are people within the Afghan military who are deeply suspicious of the motives of the Pakistanis. And within the Pakistani military [there are people] who do not support politically the goals of what the military is trying to do in policing that border. They just have some fundamental diverging interests there."

General Azimi says he thinks Pakistan has agreed to coordinate efforts against militants in the border region because of pressure from the international community.

"We talked about the major problem in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- that is, the movement of terrorists from Pakistan into Afghanistan and back again," Azimi says. "And now, we are in a situation where the international community agrees that the root causes of terrorism and violence -- the support for terrorists coming from outside of Afghanistan. Terrorists are being trained and equipped abroad, and then coming into Afghanistan."

International Pressure?

Coleman says the timing of the accord probably is the result of enormous foreign pressure on Islamabad to deal firmly with Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants who shelter in Pakistan's mountainous tribal along the border with Afghanistan.

"I think it's probably more U.S. pressure than anything else," Coleman says. "But the British pressure should not be discounted. I think it's a fact that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. And you see an [increase] in U.S. casualties and in British casualties. And the fact that NATO is taking over a lot of these military operations lends an international flavor to the pressure that is being brought down on Pakistan. But that NATO role is truly driven, still, by the United States and Britain."

Coleman says alleged links between Pakistani militants and the thwarting of a recent plan to destroy civilian passenger planes flying out of the United Kingdom does not explain all of the pressure on Pakistan. She notes that the real pressure on Pakistan's military forces began earlier this year when U.S. President George W. Bush met in Islamabad with Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf.