ISLAMABAD (AP) — A U.S. congressman has sparked outrage in Pakistan by calling for the secession of the country's largest province, further complicating Washington's efforts to resuscitate its vital anti-terrorism alliance with Islamabad.
Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, proposed a nonbinding resolution last week stating that the Baluch people, who live in Pakistan's Baluchistan province and also in parts of Iran and Afghanistan, "have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country."
Nationalists in Baluchistan have waged a decades-long insurgency against the government. Some want greater autonomy within Pakistan and a larger share of the province's natural resources, but others demand an independent country.
The Obama administration has rejected Rohrabacher's call for an independent Baluchistan, which received little attention in the U.S., and explained it does not control the actions of congressmen.
But the response has not placated the Pakistani government, which summoned the deputy U.S. ambassador and claimed the resolution violated "the United Nations charter, international law and recognized norms of interstate conduct."
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said Pakistan's civilian leaders have reacted angrily to prevent the government's opponents from accusing it of tolerating U.S. meddling.
"Not doing anything would have given the opposition an opportunity to say the government is tolerant of American interference in Pakistan's internal affairs, and therefore it has overreacted to one man's move in the House of Representatives," said Rais.
A nonbinding resolution allows Congress to express its approval or disapproval of an issue, but the motion does not become law.
Conspiracy theorists in Pakistan have long alleged that the U.S. wants to break up the country or take away its nuclear weapons. The storm over the nonbinding resolution reflects this narrative, which is espoused by right-wing Islamist politicians and army generals.
The U.S. has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid over the past decade to enlist its support in fighting Islamist militants. But U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of being a fickle ally and even supporting Taliban insurgents fighting American troops in neighboring Afghanistan — an allegation denied by Islamabad.
The relationship deteriorated further in November when U.S. airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts, fueling already pervasive anti-American sentiment throughout the country.
Pakistani officials often pander to these emotions for political reasons, even though it can make it more difficult to sustain relations with the U.S. and keep American aid flowing, said Rais.
"They are experts in digging their own ditches and then falling in," said Rais.
The U.S. is keen on keeping the relationship alive, especially because it needs Pakistan's help to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban that will allow American troops to withdraw from Afghanistan without the country descending into further chaos.
Pakistan's parliament was expected to vote in January on a new set of guidelines for the bilateral relationship that could pave the way for repairing relations. But the vote is now unlikely until mid-March, after Senate elections, said parliament member Fauzi Wahab.
Rohrabacher, the congressman who introduced the Baluchistan resolution, has a history of taking tough stances against Pakistan. He called for the U.S. to cut of aid to the country last year after American commandos killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town.
Last week, Rohrabacher said Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination scheme for the CIA in Abbottabad to try to confirm bin Laden's presence, should be given a Congressional Gold Medal. Pakistan's army, outraged that the U.S. violated the country's sovereignty to kill bin Laden, has detained Afridi, who could be charged with treason.
Before introducing his resolution, Rohrabacher held a hearing on human rights abuses in Baluchistan that included testimony from Pakistan experts and activists. One of the people who appeared was Ralph Peters, a former U.S. military officer who has advocated an independent Baluchistan.
Hasil Bizenjo, a senator from Baluchistan, said views are mixed in the province about whether nationalists should seek an independent country. Even though he prefers to remain part of Pakistan, he said Rohrabacher's resolution was positive because it would highlight alleged human rights abuses by Pakistani forces in the province.
"This resolution will increase attention that the killing should stop in Baluchistan, and I think that will be a positive thing for the Baluch," said Bizenjo.
Baluchistan remains Pakistan's poorest province despite the presence of vast natural resources that residents complain are mainly exploited to fill the central government's coffers. They also chafe under what they view as military rule.
The provincial government has accused paramilitary forces and federal intelligence agencies of secretly snatching nearly a thousand people off the street and holding them for years without admitting it — allegations they have denied.
Insurgents have responded with a wave of assassinations against non-Baluch residents that have killed hundreds of people, many of them doctors and teachers from other parts of Pakistan.
The federal government has taken some steps to improve the situation in Baluchistan, including increasing the province's share of federal tax revenue and passing a constitutional amendment increasing autonomy.
But it has failed to follow through on a package of promised reforms aimed at addressing local grievances, including the status of missing people and the share of natural resource wealth, said Rais, the political science professor.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.