Is Baluchistan more strategically significant than Afghanistan?
Baluchistan, Pakistan's biggest province, rarely gets much attention from the international media, and what little it does is dwarfed by that showered on Afghanistan. So it is with a certain amount of deliberate provocation that I ask the question posed in the headline: Is Baluchistan more strategically significant than Afghanistan?
Before everyone answers with a resounding "no", do pause to consider that China – renowned for its long-term planning – has invested heavily in Baluchistan, including building a deep water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea to give it access to Gulf oil supplies. The region is rich in gas and minerals; attracting strong international interest in spite of a low-level insurgency by Baluch separatists.
Bordering both Iran and Afghanistan, it lies along the sectarian and geopolitical faultlines that have fissured the region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that year. Its capital, Quetta, is often cited by Washington as a haven for the Afghan Taliban in the so-called Quetta shura, who operate independently of the more secular Baluch separatists.
The province is also a source of friction with India, with Pakistan accusing it of using its presence in Afghanistan to fund the Baluch separatists, a charge Delhi denies. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that argument, you can be fairly sure that anywhere lying on the intersection of Indian, Chinese and Pakistani interests will be strategically far more important than it might appear on the surface.
In that context, Forbes Magazine has a must-read take-out on China's drive to develop its presence in Baluchistan.
"In the Pakistani province of Balochistan, South Asia and central Asia bleed into the Middle East. Bordered by Afghanistan, Iran and the Persian Gulf, and well endowed with oil, gas, copper, gold and coal reserves, Balochistan is a rich prize that should have foreign investors battering at the gates," it says. "But for a half-century it has been the exclusive playground of the Pakistani government and its state-owned Chinese partners. China would prefer it to stay that way."
For an entirely different view, Informed Comment has a guest contribution up by Berkeley academic Kiren Aziz Chaudhry. The arguments can be a bit distracting if you don't buy into conspiracy theories about the reasons for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. But do persevere until you get to the point where the writer identifies Baluchistan as the main centre of interest for the many rivalries across Afghanistan and Pakistan: "The fulcrum is the province of Balochistan. And within Balochistan, the pivot is the dusty, obscure coastal town of Gwadar. Gwadar has a spanking new deep water port. Wheels within wheels. Devices within devices." It's worth reading through to the end, if nothing else but because this little known part of the world deserves as many different voices as possible.
At the very least, both articles should leave you with a doubt in your mind about the original question as to whether Baluchistan is strategically more important than Afghanistan.
And then revisit another question I asked a year ago. Who will win the peace in Afghanistan?