Foreign Affairs May 2009

Pakistan’s Fatal Shore

With its “Islamic” nuclear bomb, Taliban- and al-Qaeda-infested borderlands, dysfunctional cities, and feuding ethnic groups, Pakistan may well be the world’s most dangerous country, a nuclear Yugoslavia-in-the-making. One key to its fate is the future of Gwadar, a strategic port whose development will either unlock the riches of Central Asia, or plunge Pakistan into a savage, and potentially terminal, civil war.

Photo by Reza/Webistan

The word Pakistan summons up the Indian subcontinent, but the subcontinent actually begins with the Hub River, a few miles west of Karachi, near the Indus River Delta. Thus, Pakistan’s 400-mile-long Makran coast, which runs from the Iranian frontier eastward along the Arabian Sea, constitutes a vast transition zone that bears a heavy imprint of the Middle East and particularly of Arabia: directly across the Gulf of Oman is Muscat, the capital of Oman. This transition zone, which also includes the interior land adjacent to the coast, is known as Baluchistan. Through this alkaline wasteland, the 80,000-man army of Alexander the Great marched westward in its disastrous retreat from India in 325 B.C.

To travel the Makran coast is to experience the windy, liberating flatness of Yemen and Oman and their soaring, sawtooth ramparts the color of sandpaper, rising sheer off a desert floor pockmarked with thornbushes. Here, along a coast so empty that you can almost hear the echoing camel hooves of Alexander’s army, you lose yourself in geology. An exploding sea bangs against a knife-carved apricot moonscape of high sand dunes, which, in turn, gives way to crumbly badlands. Farther inland, every sandstone and limestone escarpment is the color of bone. Winds and seismic and tectonic disruptions have left their mark in tortuous folds and uplifts, deep gashes, and conical incrustations that hark back far before the age of human folly.

Drive along this landscape for hours on end and the only sign of civilization you’ll encounter is the odd teahouse: a partly charred stone hut with jute charpoys, where you can buy musty, Iranian-packaged biscuits and strongly brewed tea. Baluch tribesmen screech into these road stops driving old autos and motorcycles, wearing Arab head scarves, speaking in harsh gutturals, and playing music whose rumbling rhythms, so unlike the introspective twanging ragas of the subcontinent, reverberate with the spirit of Arabia.

But don’t be deceived by the distance that separates the Makran coast from teeming Karachi and Islamabad to the east. Pakistan exists here, too. The highway from Karachi to the Iranian border area is a good one, with only a few broken patches still to be paved. The government operates checkpoints. It is developing major air and naval bases to counter India’s projection of power into the Indian Ocean. And it has high hopes of using new ports on the Makran coast to unlock trade routes to the markets and energy supplies of Central Asia. The Pakistani government might not control the desert and mountain fastnesses of Baluchistan, with their rebellious and smuggling tribes and dacoits, or bandits. But it can be wherever it wants, whenever it wants: to extract minerals, to grab land, to build highways and bases. Think of the Pakistani government’s relationship to its southwestern province of Baluchistan as similar to that of Washington to the American West in the mid-19th century, when the native American Indians still moved freely, though decreasingly so, and the cavalry had strategic outposts.

Indeed, as the government builds roads and military bases, Baluch and minority Hindus are being forcibly displaced. Both groups are thought to harbor sympathy for India, and they do: in Baluch and Hindu eyes, India acts as a counterweight to an oppressive Pakistani state. The hope of these minorities is that a fissiparous Pakistan, with its history of dysfunctional civilian and military governments, will give way in the fullness of time to a sprawling Greater India, thus liberating Baluchistan to pursue its destiny as a truly autonomous region.

So: Will Pakistan, beset by internal contradictions that never befell 19th-century America, gradually disintegrate before it subjugates the Baluch? The answer to that question, which will also shape the future of Pakistan’s neighbors, is bound up with the future of Gwadar, a port town of 70,000 close to the border with Iran, at the far end of the Makran coast.

If we can think of great place-names of the past—Carthage, Thebes, Troy, Samarkand, Angkor Wat—and of the present—Dubai, Singapore, Tehran, Beijing, Washington—then Gwadar should qualify as a great place-name of the future.

During the military rule of Ayub Khan in the 1960s, shortly after Oman ceded the territory to Pakistan in 1958, Gwadar fired the imagination of Pakistani planners. They saw it as an alternative air-and-naval hub to Karachi that, along with the port of Pasni to the east, would make Pakistan a great Indian Ocean power athwart the whole Near East. But the Pakistani state was young, poor, and insecure, with weak infrastructure and institutions. Gwadar remained a dream.

The next people to set their sights on Gwadar were the Russians. Gwadar was the ultimate prize denied them during their decade-long occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s—the fabled warm-water outlet to the sea that formed the strategic raison d’être for their Afghan adventure in the first place. From Gwadar, the Soviet Union could have exported the hydrocarbon wealth of Central Asia. But Afghanistan proved to be the graveyard of Soviet imperial visions. Gwadar, still just a point on the map, a huddle of fishermen’s stone houses on a spit of sand, was like a poisoned chalice.

Yet the story goes on. In the 1990s, successive democratic Pakistani governments struggled to cope with intensifying social and economic turmoil. Violence was endemic to Karachi and other cities. But even as the Pakistani political elite turned inward, it remained obsessed with the related problems of Afghanistan and energy routes. Anarchy in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal was preventing Pakistan from establishing roads and pipelines to the new oil states of Central Asia—routes that would have helped Islamabad consolidate a vast Muslim rear base for the containment of India. So obsessed was Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government with curbing the chaos in Afghanistan that she and her interior minister, the retired general Naseerullah Babar, conceived of the newly formed Taliban as a solution. But, as Unocal and other oil firms, intrigued by the idea of building energy pipelines from the Caspian Sea across Afghanistan to Indian Ocean energy hubs like Gwadar, eventually found out, the Taliban were hardly an agent of stability.

Then, in October 1999, after years of civilian misrule, General Pervez Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup. In 2000, he asked the Chinese to fund a deepwater port at Gwadar. A few weeks before 9/11, the Chinese agreed, and their commitment to the project intensified after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. Thus, with little fanfare, Gwadar became an example of how the world changed in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks in ways that many Americans and the Bush administration did not anticipate. The Chinese spent $200 million on the first phase of the port project, which was completed on schedule in 2005. In 2007, Pakistan gave PSA International of Singapore a 40-year contract to run Gwadar port.

So now imagine a bustling deepwater port at the extreme southwestern tip of Pakistan, much more a part of the Middle East than of the Indian subcontinent, equipped with a highway, and oil and natural-gas pipelines, extending north all the way through some of the highest mountains in the world, the Karakorams, into China itself, where more roads and pipelines connect the flow of consumer goods and hydrocarbons to China’s burgeoning middle-class markets farther east. Another branch of this road-and-pipeline network would go north from Gwadar through a stabilized Afghanistan, and on into Iran and Central Asia. Gwadar, in this way, becomes the hub of a new Silk Road, both land and maritime; a gateway to landlocked, hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia; an exotic 21st-century place-name.

But history is as much a series of accidents and ruined schemes as it is of great plans. And when I got to Gwadar, the pitfalls impressed me as much as the dreams. What was so fantastic about Gwadar was its present-day reality. It was every bit the majestic frontier town that I had imagined, occupying a sweeping, bone-dry peninsula set between long lines of ashen cliffs and a sea the color of rusty tap water. The cliffs, with their buttes and mesas and steeple-like ridges, were a study in complexity. The town at their base could have been mistaken for the sprawling, rectilinear remains of an ancient Near Eastern city: low, scabby white stone walls separating sand drifts and mounds of rubble. People sat here and there in broken-backed kitchen chairs, sipping tea under the shade of bamboo and burlap. Everyone wore traditional clothes; there were no Western polyesters. The scene evoked a 19th-century lithograph of Jaffa, in Palestine, or Tyre, in Lebanon, by David Roberts: dhows emerging out of the white, watery miasma, laden with silvery fish and manned by fishermen dressed in filthy turbans and shalwar kameezes, prayer beads dripping out of their pockets.

I watched as piles of trout, snapper, tiger prawns, perch, bass, sardines, and skates were dropped into straw baskets and put ashore via an ingenious pulley system. A big shark, followed by an equally large swordfish, was dragged by ropes into a vast, stinking market shed where still-living fish slapped on a bloody cement floor beside piles of manta rays. Until the next phase of the port-and-pipeline project is in full swing, traditional fishing is everything here.

At a nearby beach, I watched as dhows were built and repaired. Some men used their fingers to smear epoxy on the wooden seams of the hulls while others, sprawled next to scrawny dogs and cats, took long smokes in the shade. There were no generators, no electric drills—just craftsmen making holes with manual drills turned by bows, as though they were playing stringed instruments. A few men working for three months can build a 40-foot fishing boat in Gwadar. The teak comes from Burma and Indonesia. Cod-liver oil, painted on the hulls, provides waterproofing. The life of a boat is 20 years. To take advantage of the high tides, new boats are launched on the first and 15th days of the lunar cycle. This was Arabia before the modern era.

As-Salem Musa, a turbaned Baluch graybeard, told me that his father and grandfather before him built boats. He fondly remembered the days of Omani control, which were “freer” because “we were able to sail all around the gulf without restrictions.” He harbored both hope for and fear of the future: change could mean even less freedom for the Baluch, as Punjabis and other urban Pakistanis sweep down to take over the city.

“They don’t have a chance,” a Pakistani official in Islamabad told me, referring to the fishermen in Gwadar. “Modernity will wipe out their traditional life.”

In the covered bazaar, amid the most derelict of tea, spice, and dry-goods shops, their dusty jars filled with stale candy, I met more old men with beards and turbans, who spoke with nostalgia about the sultan of Oman, and how Gwadar had prospered under his rule. Many of these old men had dual Omani-Pakistani nationality. They led me through somnolent, burlap-covered streets and along crumbling mud-brick facades, past half-starved cows and goats hugging the shade of collapsed walls, to a small, round, stuccoed former palace with overhanging wooden balconies. Like everything else in Gwadar, it was in an advanced stage of disintegration. The sea peeked through at every turn, now bottle-green in the midafternoon sun.

At another beach I came upon the stunning, bizarre sight of donkeys—the smallest donkeys I had ever seen—charging out of the water and onto the sand, pulling creaky carts loaded down with fish just transferred from boats bobbing in the waves and flying a black-white-yellow-and-green local flag of Baluchistan. Miniature donkeys emerging from the sea! Gwadar was a place of wonders, slipping through an hourglass.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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