It has been apparent for quite some time now that Balochistan might well end up as Pakistan's biggest challenge, not in terms of security but in terms of the challenge it poses to the idea of Pakistan, and to democracy. Most Pakistanis are too young to remember -- or too remote from -- the mass killings and rapes of Bengalis (by the Pakistani army, though also by other Bengalis, most notably the Jamaat-e-Islami) in 1970-71, and have hitherto approached these issues primarily through the prism of Kashmir, and the challenge that state's secessionist movement poses to Indian democracy and the claims of its national ideology. Balochistan underscores many of the same issues (although I personally find it to be more analogous to some of India's North-Eastern insurgencies, given the movement's animating concerns with resource exploitation by "outsiders", cultural alienation from the mainstream, etc.), but has not gotten the attention it deserves, domestically, because of the tendency of the urban Pakistani middle classes to lump together all the tribals "out there" as intrinsically violent sorts, as "tribals" who may only be engaged anthropologically as it were (whether extolled as natural warriors or dismissed as people incapable of being anything other than what the stereotype of the hot headed, "backward" subject of a traditional tribal code condemns them to be), as savages who only understand the language of force; and internationally, because of the tendency to ignore Balochistan in favor of its neighboring Pashtun-lands, of the inclination to see it, in short, as little more than the borderland between Afganistan, Iran, and Pakistan -- a view that acknowledges the province's strategic importance, but does not engage with the political aspirations of those for whom it is home.
Indeed (and although it is perhaps too early to tell), the U.S. government's new "AfPak" policy risks continuing this trend: Balochistan only seems to figure in that policy inasmuch as parts of it have become a staging ground for Taliban factions, and are the likely targets of U.S. drone attacks. That's a perfectly consistent position to take: after all, from the Obama Administration's perspective it makes little sense for American strategy to turn on Pakistan's internal administrative divisions. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view Balochistan only through the prism of the Taliban and Afganistan: the province is Pakistan's largest in terms of area, is the source of most of the country's natural gas, and has been progressively de-stabilized by the influx of Pashtuns over the last thirty years (since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), as the "native" Baloch have increasingly started getting concerned about the changing demographics of the province in favor of Pashtuns -- if the likes of Mullah Omar and the Taliban are indeed in Balochistan, their presence there must be seen in the context of a wider shift in the province's demographics. Even apart from any Baloch-Pashtun tension, the province is no stranger to secessionist tendencies: it was the scene of a protracted insurgency against the central government in the 1970s, a rebellion that was crushed with brutality (including the use of air strikes and (if rumor is to be believed) napalm bombs). Since the rebellion was associated with "the left" (Najam Sethi, now the editor of one of Pakistan's most prominent liberal English-language publications, The Friday Times, is known to have been a youthful sympathizer), the Pakistani government's Western backers were only too happy to see it dealt with. But the underlying causes of Balochistan's disaffection have not been addressed over the ensuing decades. This is entirely consistent with the wider problem of federalism -- or the lack thereof -- in the country; political parties in each of Pakistan's smaller provinces (that is to say, every province other than Punjab, which accounts for three-fifths of the population) have called for a more robust federalism over the years, to little effect. Indeed, while Pakistan's repeated military coups are all too often analyzed only in terms of a democracy deficit, they are also symptomatic of the centralizing drive of the South Asian nation-state (on this view, the secession of Bangladesh and its own bouts of military rule and Chakma tribal secessionist movement, Indira Gandhi's 1975"Emergency" in India and the rise and vitality of secessionist movements in that country, could be seen as symptomatic of the wider trend). Certainly the issue of democracy is important (arguably, nothing de-fanged the Dravidian potential secessionist movements in South India in the 1950s and 1960s more than electoral success for the relevant parties; and the many failings of Indian federalism have accidentally found some provisional relief over the last two decades, because the decline of national political parties has led to a de facto federalism premised on the ability of regional parties to serve as kingmakers as far as the formation of a ruling national coalition is concerned), but democracy cannot be equated with mere majoritarianism in the context of a multi-ethnic polity. The absence of meaningful federalism, whether de jure or de facto, has meant that the "problem" of Balochistan continued to fester over the 1980s and 1990s, albeit out of sight and out of mind.
No longer: during the Pakistani state's most recent bout of highly centralized rule -- the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf -- another armed insurgency broke out in Balochistan, and appears to be gathering steam. Earlier this week, the province saw riots after three Baloch nationalist figures were found dead (it is widely believed that they were killed by security forces), which certainly won't help matters. The Obama Administration would be well advised to pay attention to developments in Balochistan, which cannot be reduced to the "war against terror." In the long run, the solution is obvious: a looser federal structure than exists today is needed, and one that allows Balochistan greater control over its own natural resources (not to mention that "Balochistan" cannot become synonymous with the interests of the handful of tribal luminaries who serve at the forefront of Baloch nationalist sentiment), but the rub, of course, lies in getting there. The U.S.' influence over any such process is (and ought to be) limited, but to the extent "outsiders" can play any constructive role, it would be in encouraging an accommodating stance by the Pakistani state toward Baloch nationalists. This is not simply a question of fairness, but of realpolitik: cooptation has tended to work far better than brutal confrontation as far as the post-1947 history of the sub-continent is concerned, and as yet there is little reason to believe that Baloch nationalism is irredeemably rejectionist as far as the idea of Pakistan is concerned. Pakistan might not be so lucky if another three decades are wasted. Not to mention that a single-minded focus on the Taliban-in-Balochistan, and the attendant greater Pakistani military presence in Balochistan that approach is sure to entail, can only contribute to the anti-military resentment of the Baloch, and hence undermine stability in the province, serving to provide an even better haven for the likes of the Taliban. The "AfPak" strategy takes a regional approach to the problem of the Taliban and Al-Qaida, but it must also account for the sub-regional aspects, few of which are more significant than those concerning Baloch nationalism. The latter is not going to play second fiddle to the Taliban simply because the U.S. and Pakistani governments aren't inclined to accord it the same attention.
For a very useful post with background information on (and analysis of) Balochistan, check this out.