“Who drives American cars?” he says, mocking himself. “But when I saw this one, I knew it was my toy.” Khan Suleiman hides his eyes behind Gucci shades, and prefers a ball cap to a turban. Add in the traditional long baggy shirts and baggy pants of the region, what sounds like Pakistani hip-hop blasting, the carload of his men packing pistols and Kalashnikovs that rides behind us, and it feels like quite the posse. But considering Khan Suleiman once took four AK-47 slugs in the gut and chest in the tribal equivalent of a drive-by and lived, the armor-plated Hummer makes practical sense. Khan Suleiman’s survival of that shooting was considered so miraculous that there is a university doctor who teaches a class in the incident. And as for all the guns and ammunition, Baluchistan is one of the tribal provinces of Pakistan, wedged between Afghanistan and India, and in tribal regions, one needs protection. Especially the Khan of Kalat, which literally means King of the Fort, the chief of chiefs. But it’s not his own people he needs protection from.
Khan Suleiman’s province is rich in resources that Pakistan wants to continue to plunder and lease, without proper revenues to the Baluch people. “We sit on a mountain of gold,” he says, “and the devil sits on us.” His people, the Baluch Nation, are being indiscriminately bombed, arrested, kidnapped, and disappeared by the Pakistan military, and he’s powerless to stop it. Journalist Selig S. Harrison has called it a slow-motion genocide, and human rights groups refer to it as ethnic cleansing. “We have 700 miles of coast and oil and gas and gold,” says Khan Suleiman, referring to Baluchistan’s perch on the Arabian Sea. “We try to do something to have rights to it, we get spanked. We resist every 10 years and get spanked every 10 years.” For the past few years, he has been in the middle of an unseen war that few beyond the regional press have reported.
In August 2006 the chief of the Bugti tribe, 79-year-old Newab Akbar Bugti, was killed in an air strike by the Pakistan Army. Bugti, along with other tribal chiefs, had been fighting for an autonomous Baluchistan for decades. “Bugti was buried with three locks on the coffin,” says Khan Suleiman. “They thought his soul might come back and make trouble. So the army put locks on it. None of his tribe was around to see his body. They’ve still got a guard on his body.” People were outraged by the murder, and the incident radicalized many in Baluchistan.
Khan Suleiman had found his moment—the catalyst he needed. As the chief of all chiefs, he is the headman of all tribes. And so, he called a national jirga, a meeting of the tribes, the first in 130 years. He wanted to find out if his sardars, his chiefs, the heads of tribes that have been at war with each other for hundreds of years, on and off, could lay down personal disputes and unify for a common cause: an autonomous Baluchistan. Khan Suleiman’s allies would be his former enemies. In the way of tribes, his enemies are also his friends. He put out his call.
My first thought was: This man is a modern Sitting Bull. Which makes him a sitting duck. Which is why he travels in a Hummer and why his travel plans are never announced. What Khan Suleiman has done is akin to Sitting Bull asking the Apache, the Cherokee, the Mohawk, all the major Native American tribes to smoke the peace pipe and unify against the migrating settlers that were stealing their land out from under them.
Khan Suleiman’s historic jirga was attended by 1500, including 85 sardars and 300 tribal elders. The Baluch people have always protested the Punjabi-dominated military regime of Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf that has been made rich off the Baluch province but gives so little back in terms of resources and tax revenues that the entire region still lacks the basic services that most consider human rights. The province is rich in natural gas, yet only six percent of the Baluch have gas connections, less than half the children get an education, and only two percent of the population have clean water.