It’s easy to get confused about central Asian geography, with its proliferation of “stans” — Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and several more. So when another one, Baluchistan (sometimes spelled Balochistan), popped up in the news on Sunday, readers could be forgiven for mentally switching off.

But Baluchistan is interesting, because it evokes memories of the very different international climate of the Cold War, and contrasts it with the untidy realities of today.

The several million Baluchi people inhabit a region mostly in southwest Pakistan and southeast Iran, with a distinctive language, culture and history. Although mostly desert, it is of some strategic significance. In the days when the Soviet Union occupied most of central Asia, Baluchistan would have given it an outlet to the Indian Ocean, with a warm-water port at Gwadar. Accordingly, a lot of western effort went into pacifying Baluchi separatists and keeping Gwadar and its surrounds part of Pakistan.

Particularly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, American money flowed to the Pakistani dictator, General Zia. In January 1980, The Washington Post quoted a local Baluchi leader saying “Suppose the Russians come in and drive to the coast … What do we have to lose?”

The Russian military presence is long gone, but separatist agitation never really went away, and when Pakistani security forces at the weekend killed a senior Baluchi rebel, Nawab Akbar Bugti, it set off a wave of rioting. According to the BBC: “At least two people have died in the violence, dozens have been hurt and hundreds arrested.”

When the geopolitical focus moves elsewhere, the world forgets about places like Baluchistan. But if their underlying problems are not addressed, they remain ready to break out at an opportune moment. And with the “war on terror” disfiguring much of the region, Baluchistan could again become a pawn in someone else’s game.

Peter Fray

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