February 22, 2012


[The furor stems from a nonbinding resolution introduced Friday by Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, which stated that the people of Baluchistan, a sprawling western province racked by a seven-year-old separatist insurgency, should “have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country.”]
By Declan Walsh
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An inflammatory call by an American congressman for the secession of Pakistan’s largest province has sparked uproar in the country, injecting fresh complications into stalled efforts to restart diplomatic relations between Washington and Islamabad.
The furor stems from a nonbinding resolution introduced Friday by Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, which stated that the people of Baluchistan, a sprawling western province racked by a seven-year-old separatist insurgency, should “have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country.”
Although the bill has little chance of success in Congress, it drew a furious reaction from Pakistani politicians and media, with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani calling it an attack on Pakistani sovereignty, while the new ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman, warned it would “seriously impact Pakistan-U.S. relations.”
Media reports here accused Mr. Rohrabacher of seeking to “balkanize” Pakistan, or of acting at the behest of American intelligence agents who, the reports said, are seeking to pressure Pakistan into establishing covert listening posts on the border with Iran. Mr. Rohrabacher and Obama administration officials rejected those accusations.
The furor stems partly from Pakistani sensitivities about the simmering Baluchistan conflict, which human rights groups have said has been marked by widespread rights violations, perpetrated largely by the military, yet has received sparse international attention. But it is also a measure of the tinderbox of anti-Americanism inside Pakistan, where relations with the Obama administration have been virtually frozen since American warplanes accidentally killed 24 Pakistan soldiers in a disputed border clash last November, and where Pakistani delays in “resetting” that relationship have left it vulnerable to an array of antagonistic forces from both countries.
“There is a dangerous sense of drift on every front,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. “A policy vacuum has been created. And if you leave a vacuum, someone will fill it.”
The Obama administration has distanced itself from Mr. Rohrabacher, whose views also often put him at odds with members of his own party. In a statement issued Sunday, the American Embassy in Islamabad said that the United States “respects the territorial integrity of Pakistan,” and that “it is not the policy of the administration to support independence” for Baluchistan.
Mr. Rohrabacher, who leads the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, has a recent history of aggressive Congressional action against Pakistan. “They’ve constantly been a two-faced enemy of the United States,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Previously, Mr. Rohrabacher has tried to limit American aid to Pakistan. Last week, he proposed that Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani who helped lead the Central Intelligence Agency to Osama bin Laden last May, should be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal and an American passport.
In recent weeks, Mr. Rohrabacher has seized on the Baluchistan issue to criticize Pakistan. He held a Congressional hearing on Baluchistan on Feb. 8 that included testimony from human rights groups and Pakistan experts. It also heard from Ralph Peters, a former United States military officer, who in 2005 wrote a strategy paper that included a hypothetical map of an independent Baluch nation, drawn from parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That map has since become a leitmotif of Pakistani conspiracy theorists who view it as a harbinger of covert American plans for the dismemberment of their country.
American and Pakistani officials have been working quietly toward resuming normal relations. The foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is due to meet Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the sidelines of a conference in London on Thursday — the most senior meeting between the two countries since the disputed border clash in November. Military officers on both sides are putting in place new procedures to avert any new clashes.
But Pakistan asserts that its new policy on how to work with the United States must be vetted by Parliament, and a special parliamentary session to discuss the new direction, originally slated for late January, is now unlikely to occur until mid-March, after Senate elections, senior government officials said.
Senior American officials voiced frustration on Tuesday at the latest postponement of a new policy to help resolve several issues, including the closing of NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s role in peace talks with the Taliban.
“We’re not happy about this delay,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming tensions further. “We’re anxious to move on with business.”
Critics of what is seen as Pakistani government foot-dragging say it has fanned the flames of anti-Americanism, allowing minor controversies like the Rohrabacher resolution to acquire an outsize importance. It has also given impetus to conservative forces in Pakistan.
In recent weeks, a new right-wing campaign group calling itself the Defense of Pakistan Council has toured the major cities, calling for a permanent end to American drone strikes and campaigning against the reopening of the NATO supply lines.
The alliance comprises right-wing religious parties, a former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and several militant organizations, some of which have been accused of atrocities against civilians and are officially banned. Yet it has toured the country unopposed, holding rallies in Karachi and Islamabad over the past 10 days, fostering suspicions that it enjoys tacit support from the powerful military establishment.
Mr. Rohrabacher’s resolution has won broad support, however, from Baluch nationalists who, until now, have struggled to gain attention in the United States. “This is a very big achievement,” said the Khan of Kalat, Suleman Daud, an exiled Baluch tribal leader who helped Mr. Rohrabacher draft his resolution, speaking from his home in Cardiff, Wales.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

@ The New York Times