Nearby, the Chinese-built deepwater port, with its neat angles, spanking-new gantry cranes, and other cargo-handling equipment, appeared charged with expectation, even as the complex stood silent and empty against the horizon, waiting for decisions from Islamabad. Just a few miles away, in the desert, a new industrial zone and other development sites had been fenced off, with migrant-labor camps spread alongside, waiting for construction to begin. “Just wait for the new airport,” another businessman from Karachi told me. “During the next building phase of the port complex, you will see the Dubai miracle taking shape.”
But everyone who spoke to me about the port as a business hub to rival Dubai (notwithstanding its current economic troubles) neglected a key fact: the Gulf sheikhdoms, and Dubai in particular, have wise, effective, and wholly legitimate governments.
Whether Gwadar becomes a new silk-route nexus or not is tied to Pakistan’s own struggle against becoming a failed state. Pakistan, with its “Islamic” nuclear bomb, Taliban- and al-Qaeda-infested northwestern borderlands, dysfunctional cities, and territorially based ethnic groups for whom Islam could never provide adequate glue, is commonly referred to as the most dangerous country in the world, a nuclear Yugoslavia-in-the-making. And so Gwadar is a litmus test, not just for roads and energy routes but for the stability of the entire Arabian Sea region. If Gwadar languishes, and remains what to a Western visitor was just a charming fishing port, it will be yet more evidence of Pakistan’s failure as a nation.
After spending a few days in Gwadar, I attracted the attention of the local police, who thereafter insisted on accompanying me everywhere with a truckload of black-clad commandos armed with AK‑47s. The police said they wanted to protect me. But Gwadar had no terrorism; it was one of the safest places that I had been to in nine visits to Pakistan.
Talking to people became nearly impossible; the locals clearly feared the police. “We Baluch only want to be free,” I was told whenever out of earshot of my security detail. You might think that economic development would give the Baluch the freedom they craved. But that’s not how they saw it. More development, I was told, meant more Chinese, Singaporeans, Punjabis, and other outsiders. Indeed, evidence indicated that the Baluch would not only fail to benefit from rising real-estate prices, but in many cases would lose their land altogether—and they knew it.
In June 2008, The Herald, a respected Karachi-based investigative magazine, published a cover story, “The Great Land Robbery,” alleging that the Gwadar project had “led to one of the biggest land scams in Pakistan’s history.” The magazine detailed a system in which revenue clerks had been bribed by elites to register land in their names; the land was then resold at rock-bottom prices to developers from Karachi, Lahore, and other major cities for residential and industrial schemes. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land were said to have been illegally allotted to civilian and military bureaucrats living elsewhere. In this way, the poor and uneducated Baluch population had been shut out of Gwadar’s future prosperity. And so, Gwadar became a lightning rod for Baluch hatred of Punjabi-ruled Pakistan. Indeed, Gwadar’s very promise as an Indian Ocean–Central Asian hub threatened to sunder the country.
Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast has long been rife with separatist rebellion: both Baluchistan and Sind have rich, venerable histories as self-contained entities. In recent decades, the Baluch, who number 6 million, have mounted four insurgencies against the Pakistani military to protest economic and political discrimination. The fiercest of these wars, from 1973 to 1977, embroiled some 80,000 Pakistani troops and 55,000 Baluch warriors. Baluch memories of the time are bitter. In 1974, writes the South Asia expert Selig S. Harrison, “Pakistani forces, frustrated by their inability to find Baluch guerrilla units hiding in the mountains, bombed, strafed and burned the encampments of some 15,000 Baluch families … forcing the guerrillas to come out from their hideouts to defend their women and children.”
What Harrison calls a “slow-motion genocide” has continued. In 2006, thousands of Baluch fled villages attacked by Pakistani F‑16 fighter jets and Cobra helicopter gunships. Large-scale, government-organized kidnappings and disappearances followed. That year, the Pakistani army killed the Baluch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. But as government tactics have grown more brutal, a new and better-armed generation of Baluch warriors has hardened into an authentic national movement. Emerging from a literate middle class in the capital of Quetta and elsewhere, and financed by compatriots in the Persian Gulf, these Baluch have surmounted the age-old weakness of feuding tribes, which outsiders like the Punjabis in the Pakistani military once played against each other. According to the International Crisis Group, “The insurgency now crosses regional, ethnic, tribal and class lines.” Helping the Baluch, the Pakistanis say, have been the Indian intelligence services, which clearly benefit from the Pakistani armed forces’ being tied down by separatist rebellions. The Pakistani military has countered by pitting radical Islamic parties against the secular Baluch. As one activist mournfully told the International Crisis Group, “Baluchistan is the only secular region between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan and has no previous record of religious extremism.”
The Baluch amount to less than 4 percent of Pakistan’s 173 million people, but Pakistan’s natural resources, including copper, uranium, potentially rich oil reserves, and natural gas, are mostly found in Baluchistan. The province produces more than a third of the country’s natural gas, yet it consumes only a tiny amount. Moreover, as Harrison explains, the central government has paid meager royalties for the gas and denied the province development aid.
Thus, the real-estate scandal in Gwadar, combined with fears of a Punjabi takeover there, taps into a bitter history of subjugation. To taste the emotions behind all of this, I met with Baluch nationalist leaders in Karachi.
The setting for the first meeting was a KFC in the Karachi neighborhood of Clifton. Inside were young people wearing Western clothes or pressed white shalwar kameezes, the men with freshly shaven chins or long beards. Yet despite the clash of styles, they all had a slick, suburban demeanor. Over trays of chicken and Pepsi, they were texting and talking on their cell phones. Drum music blasted from loudspeakers: Punjabi bhangra. Into this upscale tableaux strode five Baluch men in soiled and unpressed shalwar kameezes, wearing turbans and topees, with stacks of papers under their arms, including the issue of The Herald with the cover story on Gwadar.
Nisar Baluch, the general secretary of a Baluch nationalist organization, was the group’s leader. He had unruly black hair and a thick moustache. His fingertips tapped on the table as he lectured me, staring into the middle distance. “The Pakistani army is the biggest land grabber,” he began. “It is giving away the coast of Baluchistan for peanuts to the Punjabis.
“The Punjabi army wears uniforms, but the soldiers are actually terrorists,” he continued. “In Gwadar, the army is operating as a mafia, falsifying land records. They say we don’t have papers to prove our ownership of the land, though we’ve been there for centuries.” Baluch told me he was not against development, and supported dialogue with the Pakistani authorities. “But when we talk about our rights, they accuse us of being Taliban.
“We’re an oppressed nation,” he said, never raising his voice, even as his finger-tapping grew in intensity. “There is no other choice but to fight. The whole world is now talking about Gwadar. The entire political establishment in this country is involved in the crime being perpetrated there.”
Then came this warning:
“No matter how hard they try to turn Gwadar into Dubai, it won’t work. There will be resistance. The pipelines going to China will not be safe. They will have to cross through Baluch territory, and if our rights are violated, nothing will be secure.” In 2004, in fact, a car bomb killed three Chinese engineers on their way to Gwadar. Other nationalists have said that Baluch insurgents would eventually kill more Chinese workers, bringing further uncertainty to Gwadar.
Nisar Baluch was the warm-up to Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, the chief of the Marri tribe of Baluch, a man who had been engaged in combat with government forces off and on for 50 years, and whose son had recently been killed by Pakistani troops. Marri greeted me in his Karachi villa, with massive exterior walls, giant plants, and ornate furniture. He was old and wizened, and walked with a cane. Marri spoke a precise, hesitant, whispering English that, combined with his robe and beige topee and the setting, gave him a certain charisma.
“If we keep fighting,” he told me gently, “we will ignite an intifada like the Palestinians’. It is the cause of my optimism that the young generation of Baluch will sustain a guerrilla war. Pakistan is not eternal. It is not likely to last. The British Empire, Pakistan, Burma—these have all been temporary creations.
“After Bangladesh left Pakistan,” Marri continued, in his mild and lecturing tone, “the only dynamic left within this country was the imperialist power of the Punjabi army. East Bengal was the most important element in Pakistan. The Bengalis were numerous enough to take on the Punjabis, but they seceded. Now the only option left for the Baluch is to fight.” He liked and trusted no one in Pakistan who was not Baluch, he told me.
And what about Punjabi overtures to make amends with the Baluch?, I asked.
“We say to these Punjabis”—still in his sweet, regal voice—“‘Leave us alone. Get lost. We don’t need your direction, your brotherliness.’ If Punjab continues to occupy us with the help of the American imperialists, then eventually our name will be nowhere in the soil.”
Marri explained that Baluchistan overlaps three countries—Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan—and would eventually triumph, as the central governments of all those lands weakened. Gwadar, in his view, was just the latest Punjabi plot that would prove temporary. The Baluch would bomb the roads and pipelines leading out of the town.
Leaving his villa, I realized the development of Gwadar depended on how the government in Islamabad behaved. If it did not make a grand bargain with the Baluch, of a scope that would isolate embittered men like Marri and Nisar Baluch, then indeed the giant project near the Iranian border would become another lost city in the sand, beset by local rebellion. If the government did make such a bargain, allowing Baluchistan to emerge as a region-state under the larger rubric of a democratic and decentralized Pakistan, then the traditional fishing village that I saw could well give way to a Rotterdam of the Arabian Sea, its highways and pipelines stretching northward to Samarkand.
But nothing was destiny.