Of the five witnesses who provided testimony at the February congressional hearing on Balochistan, Ralph Peters was the most controversial -- condemned by those who favor America's partnership with Pakistan but applauded by those who support Balochistan's independence.
Based upon the reaction of the Baloch diaspora, one might expect that their "hero" would share their nonpareil optimism for an independent Balochistan. But, that is simply not the case.
While Peters remains "warmly committed to the cause of independence, freedom and human rights for all Baloch," he readily acknowledges they will probably not soon win their independence from Iran or Pakistan. And, to some degree, he thinks they have themselves to blame.
From Peters perspective, the Baloch must overcome the intra-Baloch feuding which is severely undermining their cause. They also need to combat human rights violations by Baloch nationalists and mature their diplomatic engagement with the West.
In the long-term, Peters remains optimistic the Balcoh will achieve independence in all or part of their lands. This could result from either the Baloch winning their independence through a sustained diplomatic campaign or having it thrust upon them by what he sees as the inevitable collapse (or dismemberment) of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.
Either way, he cautions the Baloch will still need to unite their various factions if they hope to effectively govern. If they cannot, their freedom could simply produce another cycle of conflict, which is not something Western policymakers will support.
According to Peters, one of the most serious issues with the Baloch independence movement is "deeply troubling" infighting. In fact, he is emphatic in his condemnation of such bickering; going so far as to assert: "they are quickly becoming their own worst enemies."
In his view, individual Baloch simply don't understand that their personal feuding undermines the larger movement: "Certain Baloch fail to understand that their only hope in gaining independence is if they put their own egos and vanity aside and work together. This is the cold hard fact. They are already outgunned and outmanned. Pakistan will continue to to exploit their differences until they realize this."
So long as the Baloch continue to engage in "petty infighting," including "savaging each other in emails," Peters is pessimistic they can garner widespread support in the West. In fact, he warns that such infighting could eventually put off even their staunchest supporters.
As a result, he recommends that the Baloch leadership and activists set the example and halt their public bickering: "The Baloch leaders need to stop their severe personal attacks on each other and others. In the military, we say that you don't let an entire attack get bogged down by a single sniper. But, there are individuals out there who are causing divisions and attacking people. They tend to look at the debate as if you don't agree with me completely then you're my enemy. This undermines their cause."
Until these leaders and activists "support the big picture," Peters offers little hope that the broader Baloch nation will be able to "work together, put aside their deep divide, and unify." This troubles Peters as he confides: "At this point, do I believe they have a good chance of achieving independence? No. But, it would be much higher in the future if they just start working together. It's frustrating that the leaders can't unite."
Peters is also bothered by the Baloch tendancy to blame such infighting on covert operations by Pakistan's military and security services: "The region as a whole tends to blame conspiracy theories. But, I have come to believe that you never accept conspiracies when something can be explained by incompetence. There are probably a mix of things going on here. The Pakistani military and intelligence services probably have provocateurs working in Balochistan just like they do in Afghanistan. They live by the old rule of divide and conquer and they are good at that. But, the bigger issue is the Baloch's own egos. That's what needs addressed."
Victims not perpetrators
Separately, Peters calls the Baloch to clean their house of human rights violators because Baloch extremists represent a very serious threat to their cause: "I am very concerned with Baloch extremists. Killing teachers and doctors is just dumb. It might feel good as revenge but it is not going to win you friends in Washington. Assassinating these folks is just hurting their movement."
In his view, such extremists represent more than just the inability of the Baloch leadership to control all factions under the umbrella of Baloch nationalism. They also illustrate one of the major problems undermining the insurgency at the operational level: "The Baloch need tactical purpose. You don't just kill Punjabi teachers because you don't want them teaching in your schools. You kill those committing the atrocities -- the Pakistani agents and enforcers."
When asked whether he thinks the Baloch leadership can easily rein in these groups, Peters says he is not sure. But, he is of the view that they don't have an option. If they don't, he believes they are headed for a very uncertain future, "Could they become the next Tamil Tigers, that's a possibility. At present, anything is possible because the Baloch have not even laid out how a government would work. Instead of fighting, they need to look at developing more sophisticated systems, like a constitution, governmental structure, and press relations. Until that happens, it is difficult to say which way they go."
Acknowledging that the "Baloch are very inexperienced," Peters is pragmatic in rounding out his list of recommendations. He argues that they must develop a more sophisticated approach to their diplomatic engagement with the West if they have any hope of courting the favor of the United States and other NATO members.
Peters says this starts at the political level, where the Baloch must understand the "relative importance" of various stakeholders and influencers which will decide their fate in the West: "The Baloch can't see that people like me are not the important people. The key people are Congressman Rohrabacher and the other Congressmen. They are too inexperienced to understand that."
While he understands that such complexities are beyond the average Baloch living in Kundi, he thinks they should be better grasped by the leadership. Unfortunately, he does not see this happening. And, he sees this as part of the larger issue with the competence of the Baloch leadership: "The Baloch need leadership. It is not the United State's place to pick their winners. Look at Ahmed Chalabi and Hamid Karzai. They need to work this out and they need to develop leaders who we can trust."
If the Baloch had more effective leaders, Peters is confident the diaspora would not be so "naïve" in thinking the support of a half-dozen Congressmen is sufficient: "The Baloch had too high of expectations for the hearing. They have a hard time understanding that things like independence don't happen quickly. The hearing was a historic event -- it got their cause on-the-record. But, the Baloch thought it would get the ball rolling much faster than it did. They simply don't understand that there are still hundreds of Congressmen who don't know where Balochistan is on a map. Their independence will take decades not years."
Peters also believes that the Baloch should better understand what the international community can offer their cause. Right now, he sees a major disconnect between what the Baloch want from their diplomatic outreach and what they are likely to receive: "Look, the U.S. military is not going to put troops on the ground to liberate Balochistan. And, in the short-term, you are not going to see the U.S. overtly providing arms to the Baloch no matter how frustrated we are with Pakistan. They will have to win independence for themselves. They need to figure out how."
Finally, Peters argues that the Baloch leadership needs to better educate Baloch activists on media decorum. If they fail to do so, he fears that they will fail to garner the awareness necessary to influence Western governments to take action: "At the hearing, they gave a platform to someone who does not have their best interests at heart by attacking her and the media. They need to understand how the Western press works. It would have been better for them to appear magnanimous than attack others. Their hearts might have been in the right place but they just don't understand how international media and governments work. Their actions were detrimental to their cause."
As one of the most vocal American supporters of Baloch independence, Peters hopes that the Baloch leadership will take these points under advisement without prejudice, noting that his criticism is only meant to "help not wound."
Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Follow him on Twitter: @ASEANReporting
The views expressed by the interviewee do not necessarily reflect those of the interviewer.
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