Life on the Geopolitical Fault Lines: Does Contemporary History of Balochistan Reflect Poland’s Past? – Part I
. . . the course of politics is the product of two sets of forces, impelling and guiding. The impetus is from the past, in the history embedded in a people’s character and tradition. The present guides the movement by economic wants and geographical opportunities. Statesmen and diplomatists succeed and fail pretty much as they recognize the irresistible power of these forces.” – Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) [Gray & Sloan, 1999:02]
No country in contemporary Europe has absorbed so many jolts of history than Poland. Up until the last quarter of the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a thriving entity with a vast landmass, stretching from the Baltic to the Black sea and a relatively strong army protecting monarchy and its border. By the end of the century, the kingdom had been plunged into a deep political crisis, subsequently expiring as its internal weaknesses were subjected to massive external pressures. Inevitably, neighbouring giants – Russia, Austria and Prussia – were on hand to pick up the pieces. In doing so, they made certain that in future, there would be no such thing as Poland in this region.
Despite this tripartite division of their homeland, the Poles continued to struggle for its reestablishment; they undoubtedly pinned their hopes on future and kept the dream of a free Poland alive, even as the heat of the Napoleonic wars crushed weak and powerful states alike. Polish claim to statehood was again denied in the negotiation of a post-war settlement the Vienna Congress, where Metternich and Castlereigh prevented small nations from attaining independence in the name of “maintenance of order and peace” in Europe.
But, an era of struggles between Great Powers also meant great instability. This instability, and the fact that war was the dominant instrument of statecraft, meant that geopolitical miracles could happen. Thus, with the end of the First World War, Poland reemerged from the rubble of the very empires that had wrought its destruction a century earlier.
However, it is one thing to acquire independence, and quite another to protect it.
Barely enjoyed two decades of freedom under the post-WW I order, Poland found itself caught once again between two giants, Russia and Germany. Although, these giants were both hostile towards one another, they had one thing common: the desire to divide the Polish state in two. Indeed, this is precisely what Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia pledged, on the eve of the Second World War, in signing the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Ultimately, this agreement not only paved the way for a re-partition of the Polish state but also became one of the main precipitating causes of the Second World War.
Thus, during and after the war, Poland remained in Soviet captivity. In spite of being a Soviet vassal state for more than four decades of the Cold War, the hope for freedom among the Poles never faded away; on the contrary, Poland became the first Warsaw-Pact to reassert its sovereignty, thereby, defying Soviet hegemony in eastern and central Europe.
In short, Poland’s problems stem from its geography, as do those of Balochistan.
Much of Balochistan’s tragic history has followed similar lines. Britain, in its colonial-era pursuit of its geopolitical interests, became the first European power to dominate the region. Initially, it appeared that British forces had entered Balochistan in order to gain control of a narrow access route to Afghanistan. This move, however, turned out to be an indirect occupation that would last over a century.
This was a gradual process: first, Balochistan was forced to concede to colonial demands in 1839, its territorial structure being broken into three parts (western part to Iran, the northwest to Afghanistan and the rump state of Kalat remaining under British control). This division facilitated the complete liquidation of Balochistan as an entity in 1948, just seven months after independence.
This process was played out on the chessboard of what contemporary geo-strategists call the southern rim of Eurasia. In this game of cunning and deception, Afghanistan was merely the frontline state, straddling south and central Asia. The real prize, however, was Balochistan. Because of its sensitive geopolitical location – close to Persia, and India, while not too far from the Great Steppe – London was determined to deny its colonial rivals, and particularly tsarist Russia, any access of the region.
Watching from a distance as Russia conquered Central Asia and advanced towards the north of Afghanistan, London’s paranoia over the security of South Asian colonies increased tremendously. To create an effective barrier against Russians, London waged a preventive strike in what would later be called the first Afghan war. The immediate aim of this war was to replace Amir Dost Muhammad’s legitimate rule in Kabul with Shah Shujah, a discredited Afghan leader sustained in India by British larges. With regime change in Kabul achieved, Balochistan was placed under partial Afghan control, thereby extending British imperial westward to the Persian Gulf and northward to the River Amu.
Such plans and strategies look good on paper often to fail to meet expectations when put into practice. Here, British strategists were simplistic in their incursion into Afghan affairs. Soon after the toppling of Amir Doust Muhammad, endemic violence ensued, rendering the British position first dangerous, then critical, and finally desperate. Politicians in London ignored the warning of their own commanders; General Sir John Keane rightly pointed out the imminent danger, saying:
Mark my words; it will not be long before there is here some signal catastrophe [Adye, 1897:11].”
In time, the whole enterprise was turned on its head, becoming a disaster in both economic and military terms.
Having incurred terrible losses in Afghanistan, British commanders turned their guns on Balochistan, a peaceful but brittle entity that represented an easy target for their heavily armed expeditionary forces. A vigorous attack on Kalat in 1839 signaled the beginning of painful process that gradually eroded Balochistan’s sovereignty.
However, the blame does not rest with colonial Britain alone, as the Baloch rulers’ inherent weaknesses also played a role. With colonial powers sweeping across the whole region, the elite in Kalat failed to foresee the coming danger and was thus unprepared to meet Balochistan’s new security challenges.
In this, they differed from their predecessors. Balochistan remained a stable confederacy until the early years of nineteenth century; its borders constantly expanded both through conquests and alliance in line with the policies adopted by its dynamic leader, Mir Naseer Khan I.
Mir Naseer Khan I and his predecessors were wise in the domestic sphere and remained active abroad. With an instinctive grasp on medieval statecraft, they were aware not only of the geographic significance of Balochistan – a trade and security corridor between east and west – but also of the need to maintain the Khanate’s integrity within an increasingly volatile neighbourhood.
Alas, Mir Naseer Khan’s successors failed to follow his footsteps, squandering the vital gains made over a century and a half.
Colonialism often justified by nineteenth-century historians the notion of the mission civilitarice, according to which colonialism would spread the ‘benefits of western Civilisation,’ so as to enlighten the backward peoples of the world. In recent times scholars have put this argument on a more realistic basis: expanding the order and rule of law over ungovernable territories ultimately produced what we know today as the society of states [Bull & Watson, 1984:120].
Yet, Balochistan was neither an empty space awaiting colonizers justified their intrusion, nor was it a home to a mess of unruly tribes. Despite its internal political malaise, it was an evolving state, much like eighteenth century feudal societies of Europe which later transformed into modern nation states. The state structure was clearly defined by its constitution of two legislative councils, a wazir (prime minister), a wakil (chancellor of exchequer) and a centralised bureaucratic apparatus which helped to administer the far-flung areas of the Khanate [Harrison, 1981:16]. Prior to intervention, one British general described thus the stability and constitutional order of the pre-colonial Balochistan:
. . . whilst in Afghanistan the tribes all along the frontier were for the most part independent of the Ameer of Cabul, and were ruled by their own ‘jirghas’ or councils, in Beloochistan the mode of government was so far different that the chiefs, whilst acknowledging the Khan as their hereditary ruler, were entitled, not only to govern their own tribes, but to take part in the general administration of the country as the constitutional advisers of the paramount chief [Adye, 1897:23] [Italic added].”