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Belt and Road

Pakistan bets on talks with rebels to quell Belt and Road worries

US withdrawal from Afghanistan prompts PM Khan to reopen Baloch dialogue

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan hopes to woe Baloch insurgents to negotiations as tensions mount on the heels of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. (Nikkei montage/Reuters/AP)

KARACHI -- The Pakistan government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has launched a rare dialogue with separatists opposing China's Belt and Road initiative as it braces for possibly more instability in the region after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Khan said last week that he is considering negotiations with Baloch insurgents in the southwestern part of the nation. The prime minister said that rebels might still be upset with the government due to unresolved grievances, or that India may be using them to spread terror in Pakistan. Later, the cabinet approved negotiations with the insurgents but warned that the government would not deal with any groups directly linked to India.

In order to advance the talks, Khan appointed Shahzain Bugti, a special assistant on reconciliation and harmony in Balochistan, the main base of the insurgents. He is the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a former governor turned insurgent leader whose alleged assassination in a military operation in 2006 triggered Balochistan's current insurgency.

Despite not hearing any details of how and when the negotiations will take place, analysts believe the government will try to sit down with insurgent leaders who it deems are more conducive to talks.

"[The federal] government will start negotiations with leaders like Baramdagh Bugti, who has shown a willingness to negotiate, and will deal with hard-liners later," said Shahzada Zulfiqar, a political commentator who has covered Balochistan for four decades. Butgti is another grandson of the former governor and is based in Geneva.

Pakistan feels pressured to negotiate due to the rising numbers of attacks on security forces and state installations in recent months. "Twenty terrorist attacks were reported in the first six months of 2020 and the figure has skyrocketed to 80 in the first half of 2021," Zulfiqar told Nikkei Asia.

Workers load a helicopter into a transport plane during the withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan on June 16.   © Reuters

According to analysts, these attacks will likely increase after the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

"Imran Khan is making this move to stabilize Balochistan in order to minimize the possible fallout of instability from Afghanistan," said James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Dorsey told Nikkei that it is a smart move because mending fences with the Baloch insurgents will benefit Islamabad.

Moreover, some experts link Khan's decision to keeping alive the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC -- the $50 billion Pakistan component of China's Belt and Road initiative.

"Islamabad knows that Chinese investments in Pakistan will be affected by new possible cooperation between Baloch and Sindhi insurgents, and even the Pakistani Taliban," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at Wilson Center. He added that the U.S. withdrawal is likely to increase instability in Afghanistan, giving Baloch insurgents an opportunity to regroup and establish footholds.

Kugelman thinks that since Baloch insurgents are seen as the main perpetrators of violence against CPEC and other Chinese interests, any agreement that stops or even reduces Baloch attacks would greatly ease the security risks to the projects.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in October 2019 in Beijing.   © Reuters

Zulfiqar says that China also wants Pakistan to negotiate with Baloch insurgents. "Beijing knows that for Gwadar port to kick off and CPEC projects to bear fruit, the conflict with Baloch insurgents has to be dealt with politically," he said.

In the past, Beijing has reportedly tried to talk directly to Baloch insurgents, a claim denied by the rebels.

Because India is frequently mentioned during talks, some experts believe Pakistan can use the negotiations to settle scores with India. "If Pakistan successfully brings all Baloch insurgent leaders to the table -- including forces who have allegedly received material support from India in the past -- then it will be a big success for Islamabad over New Delhi," Zulfiqar said.

While the success of the negotiations is a real possibility, some experts warn that Islamabad will likely have to pay a steep price, as the Baloch insurgents may have expended too much time and blood to settle for anything less than succession.

"The core of Baloch insurgency is economic and social deprivation," said Dorsey. He added that if Pakistan provides the insurgents with a deal ensuring improved economic and social empowerment, then the rebels can accept a face-saving deal and possibly drop the demand of succession," said Dorsey.

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