THE attack on a radar station in Pasni may be a small incident in the larger, darker scheme of things in Balochistan, but it is yet another reminder that the low-level insurgency in the province could explode once more with devastating consequences for the province and the federation. Unhappily, Balochistan appears to have once again become the forgotten province. Vast swathes of the Baloch populated areas are all but cut off to the outside world and to the media. Quetta is heavily barricaded and while still relatively accessible, is hardly the preferred destination of anyone outside Balochistan. Bodies of activists linked to separatist politics continue to turn up. The missing persons issue continues to inflame. Meanwhile, the provincial government, of which there were such high expectations last summer, has descended into internecine coalition warfare. Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch seems a man overwhelmed and unable to give much, or any, attention to his principal task: returning normality in a security sense to the province.
Just as egregious, given the role that the centre has to play in brokering a peace between the army-led security establishment and the separatists, is the approach of the federal government. Having ceded its claim to the top job in the province, the PML-N leadership in Islamabad, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in particular, appears uninterested in investing any further political capital in the provincial government, meaning little headway can be made. The juxtaposition between the pre-election promises and the post-election actions of Mr Sharif are startling: where he once talked bluntly and repeatedly about the need for dialogue in Balochistan, it seems the only dialogue the prime minister is interested in today is with the outlawed TTP. Is it the case that once again the perceived relative importance of some regions over others is making itself felt? Is Balochistan destined to remain on the back burner forever, or at least until events cause a fresh conflagration?
If even the interest and will to bring peace to Pakistan’s geographically largest and strategically vital province are in question, there is little point in reiterating the well-known first steps that have to be taken. Who to talk to and how to go about it becomes a secondary issue when it’s not even clear that the governments, federal and provincial, even see talks as a priority issue. In fact, perhaps the most important preliminary step the federal government could take now is to stop the infighting in the provincial coalition government by issuing clear instructions to the provincial PML-N leadership. Surely, Prime Minister Sharif could not have believed that once he had overruled his party leadership in Balochistan and installed the National Party’s Abdul Malik as chief minister, it would be smooth sailing. But the prime minister seems far too distracted by the dialogue with the TTP to pay much attention to Balochistan at the moment.