In an election year, anything is possible. But, when anything includes the U.S. policy approach to Pakistan, Congress must remain a responsible stakeholder. Members of Congress must clearly convey their intentions when taking on potentially contentious issues that risk undermining one of the Obama administration's most important strategic partnerships. Balochistan is clearly one of those issues. However, the Congressmen who have scheduled a hearing on Balochistan for this week have failed to properly set expectations as to what they are trying to accomplish. This could raise fears that some in Congress are recklessly engaged in a high stakes gamble to undermine the administration's policy approach on Pakistan under the guise of Baloch human rights concerns.
Regardless of whether or not this is true, the scheduling of the hearing has increased expectations among some in the Baloch diaspora that the U.S. will support their cause. It also has forced Pakistan to question how committed the U.S. is to Pakistan's territorial integrity. Such consequences pose great risks for the administration's ongoing efforts in South and Southwest Asia. Mr. Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan Director of Human Rights Watch and one of the hearing's scheduled witnesses, is well aware of the serious risks posed by the hearing. However, he also sees the hearing as an opportunity to educate members of Congress and the American public on the very real human rights violations being prosecuted against civilians on both sides in Balochistan. His objective therefore will be to remain on point on human rights issues and not be drawn into the crosshairs of whether or not to support the Balkanization of Pakistan.
On February 8, an open hearing on Balochistan will be held by the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Foreign Affairs. The hearing will be brought by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. While news of the hearing is now public, it remains unclear what has motivated Congressman Rohrabacher and his subcommittee to move to an open hearing on the issue at this time. When asked for comment, his office declined by saying that they would prefer to speak after the hearing due to "the sensitivity of the issue."
Given that news of the hearing has already garnered significant negative media and government attention in Pakistan, experts that I spoke with find it surprising that neither Congressman Rohrabacher nor his colleagues connected to the Baloch diaspora are willing to discuss the agenda behind the hearing. This leaves more than one Western expert on Pakistan uncomfortable with holding the hearing under such circumstances, especially following Congressman Rohrabacher's recent statements appearing to endorse U.S. support of Baloch independence.
As one Pakistan scholar recently confided, the Congressional faction pushing Baloch affairs is not taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Instead, they appear willing to let mere news of a hearing undermine the administration's bilateral efforts with Pakistan without justifying their actions to fellow Americans, foreign partners and allies, and others in the international community.
Walking into this potential firestorm will be Hasan. Of the three witnesses scheduled to testify, he almost certainly possesses the greatest command of the current on-the-ground human rights situation in Pakistan. He also is extremely knowledgeable on how the U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) foreign policy approach affects Pakistan's domestic peace and stability.
In discussing the upcoming hearing, Hasan acknowledges that he is well aware of the potential challenges facing him on the Hill: "A hearing on this issue should have taken place sooner. I therefore welcome the opportunity to present our case. That said, I hope that the hearing sends a clear message to human rights abusers on all sides in Balochistan that their actions will not be accepted. If instead the hearing descends into a witch hunt against any party, it will damage U.S. credibility further in the region and shrink the room that the U.S. has to facilitate resolution between conflict actors."
Hasan's biggest concern is that the hearing could reinforce Pakistani fears that the U.S. supports its Balkanization:
Any suggestion or idea that the U.S. is open to undermining Pakistan's territorial integrity would be a terrible idea. Anyone who thinks that the U.S. can affect such a shift in conjunction with its other imperatives is mistaken. These ideas are based on lurid fantasies rather than political reality. Such insinuations or statements will only increase the suffering of the Baloch and fuel ethnic violence. It will feed into Pakistan's worst fears and do both Pakistan and the United States a great disservice.
Hasan is not alone with this concern. Advocates on both sides of Baloch independence recognize that the hearing could generate increased Congressional support for policy initiatives in direct contradiction with the Obama administration.
In preparing his remarks, Hasan therefore is trying to limit any opportunity for Congressmen to take him off-point:
Human Rights Watch's motivation for participating in the hearing is to highlight grave human rights abuses by the Pakistani military, religious extremist groups and also by Baloch nationalists. This is an issue that deserves the attention of and constructive engagement by the international community, including the United States.
But, we are not there to take sides or take positions beyond our mandate on issues such as Baloch independence. It is our position that Pakistani law, as embodied in the constitution, requires the government to protect their citizens, and that U.S. law, as outlined in the Leahy Amendment, requires sanctioning any specific Pakistani military unit or individual that has committed verifiable human rights violations. And at all times, we expect and urge all parties including the U.S. to act within the ambit of relevant international law.
Staying on Track
Hasan is aware of the risk that the hearing could expand to Baloch issues beyond Pakistan's borders. On such issues, Hasan intends to remain silent: "I have been told that I would only be providing a historical context-based presentation on Balochistan issues in Pakistan. I will therefore limit my comments to my area of expertise -- Pakistan."
One issue that he does not want to remain silent on though is the hearing itself. Since the schedule was published, many in the Baloch community have expressed their concern over the absence of a Baloch witness on the schedule. Hasan shares their disquiet and hopes that one will be added before Wednesday: "It is a matter of great concern that there is no Baloch as a witness."
Hasan also acknowledges that the participation of Ralph Peters is something of a wild card: "It is of concern that Ralph Peters is one of the witnesses. What expertise does he have on this matter?" It therefore could benefit the hearing if the Congressmen supporting Peters' participation spoke out in defense of his relevance to the proceedings.
Hasan is careful to set expectations for his own remarks as well. Those who expect his comments to be in full support of what the Baloch diaspora sees at its core interests may be surprised:
Though it has committed the most egregious abuses, the Pakistani military is but one actor in this conflict. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by not just the Pakistani military but also religious militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and by Baloch nationalist groups. While Pakistani military, paramilitary and intelligence personnel are involved in widespread torture, disappearances and targeted killings, Baloch nationalists, by their own admission, are also targeting and killing non-Baloch.
If you are a non-Baloch living in Balochistan, you now fear for your life not because you are politically engaged but just because of who you are. The Pakistani military argues it is engaged in operations against people it deems "criminals", which all happen to be Baloch, and alleges Indian support for these actors. While these assertions and accusations are contested and do not excuse the heinous abuses committed by the Pakistani military, it is important to note that this is a complex conflict that should be approached with care and understanding. In no event, should the acute and ongoing suffering of the Baloch be used as a sledgehammer to settle unrelated bilateral scores with Pakistan or in ways that exacerbate an already volatile situation.
Eddie Walsh is a senior freelance foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and as vice chair of the International Correspondents Committee at the National Press Club. He is a regular contributor to a number of international media outlets, including Al Jazeera English and The Diplomat, and the founder of The Asia-Pacific Reporting Blog.