FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 27

Balochistan: Dealing with the terrorist threat

Recent months have seen a new wave of Baloch militancy sweeping through Pakistan. The latest incident involved a female suicide bomber who targeted a van carrying Chinese academics at Karachi University. A burqa-clad Baloch woman killed four people, including three Chinese nationals (tutors), in an attack on a minibus carrying staff from China-built Confucius Institute at Karachi University. The bomber was identified as 30-year-old Shaari Baloch, a married mother of an eight-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy.

The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack, the first major one this year against the nationals of Pakistan’s all-weather ally China working in Pakistan. The BLA, which is banned in Pakistan as a terrorist outfit, said it was their first suicide attack by a woman assailant.

The Karachi attack has been strongly condemned by all sections of public opinion in Pakistan. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has expressed his anguish and sorrow over the death of “Chinese friends”, saying that “he strongly condemns the heinous and cowardly act of terrorism” and promised action against “the perpetrators.” Immediately after the attack, Shehbaz Sharif met with Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of China Pang Chunxue to offer condolences for the victims in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry called the suicide blast “a direct attack on Pakistan-China friendship”. On its part China has said the blood of the Chinese cannot be shed in vain, and demanded severe punishment for the attackers. The Pakistan government has officially stated that it will do everything possible to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens, institutions and projects in Pakistan. It is all the more necessary as the BLA has threatened bigger attacks on Chinese nationals and China’s interests in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan. It has warned that “hundreds of highly trained BLA members are ready to carry out deadly attacks.”

The latest BLA attack is a serious challenge for the government of PM Shehbaz Sharif whose rise to power is seen as a welcome development in Pak-China relations. Soon after assuming office, Shehbaz Sharif made positive comments toward China, while his Finance Minister Miftah Ismail made meeting officials from the Chinese Embassy his first formal encounter. At the same time, the appointment of Ahsan Iqbal as minister responsible for managing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor gave a clear signal that the new government wants a warmer and more cooperative relationship with Beijing.

The Karachi suicide bombing is the latest in a series of attacks by Baloch militants backed by India and other hostile forces who want the province to remain mired in poverty as part of their plan to exploit the situation for pushing their larger strategic designs to dominate the region. The foreign-backed insurgents are specially targeting Chinese nationals because of Beijing’s heavy investment in Balochistan, including the Gwadar Port, which promises to usher in a new era of progress and prosperity for Baloch people by speeding up infrastructure and industrial development in the province.

The insurgent groups in Balochistan have a history of targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan, launching a number of attacks over the years that include targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi, the Chinese-built Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar and the Pakistan Stock Exchange. In 2018, militants blew up a busload of Chinese engineers going to work in Balochistan.

The latest attack on the Confucius Institute, a soft target, is significant in many ways. For the first time, the BLA made use of a female suicide bomber who appears to have been a well-educated, middle-class woman, suggesting that  the Balochi militants’ narrative is reaching a wider audience in the province. Secondly, it shows that Baloch militants have developed the capability to strike targets in big cities like Karachi and Lahore. In January, a bomb was detonated in a crowded market in Lahore, killing three, and in February, a group of militants attacked two bases belonging to the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force charged with maintaining law and order in Balochistan. It seems the disparate Baloch militant groups are coming together in a bid to beef up their strength.

By targeting the Confucius Institute, Balochi militants have sent a clear signal to thousands of Chinese who live and work in Pakistan. Not all Chinese living and working in the region are linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Many of them live outside the security cordon that has been put around official CPEC projects and they are vulnerable to militant attacks.

Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are in possession of hard evidence that India, backed by the CIA and Mossad, is manipulating the Baloch cause for its own ends. Funds and arms are provided to misguided elements in order to keep the pot boiling in Balochistan and thus impede its progress. The situation calls for new security measures by Pakistani authorities for the protection of Chinese citizens working on CPEC projects and elsewhere.

In the given circumstances, there is an urgent need to put in place a special security-cum-intelligence apparatus with a countrywide reach for the protection of Chinese citizens in Pakistan. To increase its effectiveness, the new security set-up should be jointly manned and managed by Pakistani and Chinese experts.

At the same time, steps are called for to counter the disinformation campaign on the CPEC and its impact on Balochistan’s economy. Under the CPEC, not only new industrial and energy projects are being implemented but an infrastructure network is also being created linking Balochistan’s Gwadar port to China’s western Xinjiang region.

A part of China’s global development strategy, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the CPEC includes plans to build road, rail and oil pipeline links which will launch Balochistan into a new development phase, creating thousands of jobs for young men in the province. As against these realities on the ground, the insurgents are voicing the false narrative that Islamabad is exploiting local resources with the help of Beijing.

Behind the heightened militant activities, India’s footprints are clearly visible. India has repeatedly objected to the CPEC passing through Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan province and asked both Pakistan and China not to alter the status quo in the area because, according to it, Jammu & Kashmir including Ladakh is an integral part of India. It is a political stunt by India designed to thwart China’s regional development plan which envisages inclusive growth and prosperity for all neighbouring states. As a member of QUAD, New Delhi is openly supporting the US policy to encircle and contain China.

On the publicity front, Pakistani authorities have not yet done enough to expose India’s game in Balochistan. This gap should be filled. The message must go home to the people of Balochistan that militants are not their well-wishers but are harming the long-term interests of their children. At the same time, the conventional and social media should be used to create mass awareness about the revolutionary change CPEC development projects are bringing in the lives of the people of Balochistan. A powerful narrative on this theme should be built to counter the hostile forces’ negative and fake propaganda on the CPEC.