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.