Chinese advice

Published June 2, 2024
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

PAKISTAN’S law-enforcement agencies have completed the investigation of the Dasu terrorist attack carried out against Chinese nationals in March, in record time.

This is, indeed, a remarkable achievement, but it does not seem to have impressed the Chinese authorities very much, as there have been reports that Beijing wants a large-scale anti-terrorism operation, like Zarb-i-Azb, against the militants.

On March 26, a convoy of Chinese nationals travelling from Islamabad to the Dasu Hydropower Project site in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kohistan district was attacked by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists. The government announced compensation of $2.5 million for the families of the five Chinese nationals who lost their lives in the attack. A joint investigation team comprising police and intelligence agencies’ personnel was immediately formed to address Chinese concerns regarding the capability of Pakistani law enforcers to probe a high-profile terrorist attack.

The reports of China’s demand for a massive counterterrorism operation are reflective of Beijing’s concerns over the escalating threats to Chinese nationals working on CPEC-related and other projects in this country. Pakistan has a history of launching such counterterrorism operations at the request of China. The Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad in 2007 was launched after Chinese President Hu Jintao called Gen Musharraf. Prior to the operation, women students of the Jamia Hafsa madressah had kidnapped Chinese health workers who they believed were commercial sex workers.

One can take precautionary steps against terrorist groups, but what about intolerance?

International pressure, including from the Chinese, also worked in 2014 when the Pakistan military launched Operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan. China fully supported the Financial Action Task Force’s recommendation that Pakistan comply with its counterterrorism financing and anti-money laundering commitments. The maximum favour the Chinese officials extended to Pakistan in this case was to support the country’s need for more time to fulfil the financial watchdog’s requirements.

However, China’s latest demand regarding a large-scale operation does not seem feasible, as the TTP and its affiliates are hiding in Afghanistan, and cross-border operations would trigger a major conflict in the region. Moreover, there is also the Baloch insurgency, which is a complex issue that needs to be handled delicately. There is already an ongoing encounter between the insurgents and security forces in Balochistan. Any misadventure is likely to incur heavy political and security costs.

Pakistan’s economy is in the throes of a deep crisis, and a massive military operation would entail its own costs. At the same time, it seems that the Pakistani leadership is underestimating the demands of its friends for a fully secure environment for their investment. This is not only about China, a major investor in Pakistan, but also other friends of the country, such as Saudi Arabia, which have concerns similar to Beijing’s when it comes to putting their money here. These states are taking security concerns very seriously.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently approved a cooperation agreement between the Presidency of State Security in the kingdom and the military intelligence in Pakistan to combat terrorism and its financing. The Pakistani leadership appears overly confident in its assessment that the security challenges at home can be mitigated as before; it wants the states that are looking at investment prospects in the country to trust its capabilities. However, terrorist incidents such as the Dasu attack will only shake the confidence of foreign investors.

No doubt, the Taliban’s Afghanistan has emerged as a major security challenge for the country, but terrorism and extremism have a long history of state institutions using them as tools for political and strategic purposes. One can be aware of the dynamics of terrorist groups and take precautions, but what about intolerance, which can erupt suddenly and result in the lynching of innocent people?

The state has fanned the flames of intolerance in society, and this has eroded the social fabric and made conditions insecure for the minorities and for those who think differently from the state. Intolerance has become a huge hurdle in the way of economic progress, including foreign investment. How will the Chinese forget the incident last year when one of their nationals barely escaped lynching by a mob at the Dasu Hydropower Project site? The Chinese official was simply asking employees to complete their work before going for prayers.

Security firms dealing in risk assessment most often cite the killing of Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, a Sri Lankan national lynched by a mob on Dec 3, 2021, in Sialkot, to show who controls the environment for investment.

If you were to ask a Pakistani official or leader, they would claim that Pakistanis are moderate in their views and the most tolerant society among Muslim nations. Such a claim was recently made in Beijing. Lynching incidents are dismissed as the actions of a few misguided and emotional youths.

However, defending the indefensible causes more damage and shakes even friendly countries’ confidence in one’s ability to maintain security. The truth is that Pakistan’s social indicators are amongst the poorest anywhere. A major reason for this is substandard education and an extensive network of religious institutions that nurture extremism and intolerance in the country. The establishment has not stopped considering the political utility of religious institutions either.

Extremism and intolerance are thriving with state support, as the power elites are not willing to review their connection with the clergy. Making policies to counter extremism and terrorism satisfies their conscience, and they believe that by simply placing policy drafts in the cupboards of the relevant ministries, they will automatically solve the issue. The maximum effort by the state to solve the problem has been to create institutions to counter extremism. Eventually, these institutions are used to appease the clergy.

China goes by its own model to forcefully ‘harmonise’ its ethnic and religious communities. However, for Pakistan, the first and foremost priority must be to abandon its approach of pacifying the sentiments of the hardliners, and instead, stand with the weak and the victims, regardless of their religion or community.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2024

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