Securing CPEC & Balochistan

Published May 1, 2022
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE suicide blast targeting a van with Chinese faculty near Karachi University’s Confucius Institute was an attack on China’s soft power. The terrorists seemed aware that the institute symbolised China’s cultural and civilisational expression, and that China, more than others, was keen to project a soft image.

Secondly, the terrorists used a woman suicide bomber to draw greater international attention and increase the impact. This has triggered a debate on the changing dynamics of the Baloch insurgent movement.

Read: Who are the perpetrators of the recent attack on Chinese citizens?

As expected, the reaction from China was strong: the Chinese foreign ministry said that those behind the incident would have to pay the price. The statement will increase the pressure on the Pakistani government. This time, Pakistan reacted to the attack in a more coherent manner than in the past. When terrorists belonging to the banned TTP attacked a bus carrying Chinese workers near the Dasu dam site in 2021, the then government had tried to cover up the facts, declaring the incident was due to a technical fault in the vehicle. It was only because of Chinese pressure that the government changed its stance and allowed Chinese investigators to help the Pakistani agencies investigate the attack. In contrast, following the Karachi University blast, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif rushed to the Chinese embassy to express his condolences and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mr Sharif’s gesture may be appreciated by China, but to address Chinese concerns about security, the state institutions here will have to take measures that can satisfy Beijing. This is also essential for the smooth implementation of the CPEC projects.

Pakistan has already invested a large amount of money in protecting Chinese nationals and securing CPEC projects. A Special Security Division was created in 2016. It comprises two light infantry divisions (reportedly, the first was created in September 2016 and the second in 2020), with 15,000 troops each. The SSD also has support from 32,000 security personnel forces of the Frontier Corps, police and Levies, apart from a dedicated intelligence network to prevent or neutralise terrorism-related threats.

State institutions here will have to take safety measures that satisfy Beijing.

The Chinese companies working on CPEC-related projects are satisfied with the security measures, as the Global Times, a state-owned Chinese newspaper, recently reported. However, the cost of security, to which China contributes, is very high.

Secondly, the entire approach to safeguarding CPEC is very conventional and mainly based on protecting the work sites and escorting convoys of engineers and workers. Chinese companies remain apprehensive about the security of their staff in major urban centres. Many Chinese working in Pakistan in small industries, such as restaurants and the manufacturing sector, do not get proper security cover.

The cost of security is also a major factor that makes CPEC projects more expensive. According to a media report, Pakistan has again postponed the approval of a Rs36 billion project meant to provide security to Chinese nationals engaged in the construction of the multibillion-dollar ML-I project. The latter is a mega project requiring a large security blanket. Besides, managing, training and screening of security personnel is also a critical aspect about which the Chinese are concerned.

Conventional security for CPEC projects is essential, but state institutions cannot ignore the strategic and political context. Cursing external elements alone cannot solve the problem. There is also a need for deep introspection and a review of approaches. A thorough review is required of Pakistan’s policy towards the Afghan Taliban, who have not fulfilled any expectations related to terrorism threats in Pakistan emanating from across the border. The proscribed TTP are enjoying the full patronage of the Taliban regime, who give them access to the weapons left behind by Nato forces. Similarly, Baloch insurgents are still using Afghan soil to hide and to hatch terrorist plots against Pakistan.

The causes of unrest in Balochistan are well known and have been repeatedly discussed on these pages and elsewhere. State institutions are experimenting with selective measures — ranging from reconciliation to amnesty — to address the problem of insurgency. However, nothing has gone well because all such initiatives are poorly designed, and the purpose has been to isolate the insurgent leadership rather than bring fighters back to normal life. The security establishment is engaged in a broader dialogue with the Baloch people, especially the youth. It is important to understand the perspectives on the ground. But first, it should lead to a change in approach, and second, political actors should also initiate such processes. Like the other provinces, Balochistan deserves a free and fair election, and this is crucial to creating a dialogue.

Fulfilling this demand won’t cost much, and would, in fact, be a great leap forward in addressing the grievances of Balochistan and reducing insecurity for Pakistanis and foreigners in the country. If the state is sincere in isolating and demoralising the insurgent movement in the province, it will have to address the issue of the Baloch missing persons. Every suspect involved in terrorism and anti-state activities will have to be brought within the orbit of the rule of law. The judiciary will have to be efficient and decide such cases on a priority basis to give the message that justice is being done.

After ensuring this, the state institutions will have to focus on enhancing their analysis skills. No doubt, Baloch militancy has become a more lethal movement and is indigenising itself because of the current leadership of its groups. The Balochistan Liberation Army’s Majeed Brigade has become notorious for using lethal tactics with an element of surprise. The quick changes in its operational strategies make the job of law-enforcement agencies difficult. After the Karachi attack, the probability of using female fighters and suicide bombers in more complex guerrilla operations has increased. The law-enforcement agencies need to be vigilant. There is a need to study the tactics and strategies of the terrorist organisations across the world; the BLA is not averse to adopting the tactics of the religious terrorist groups as long as these serve its purpose.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2022

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