Why is Pakistan’s counter terrorism strategy ineffective?

Pakistan has been jolted by three high-profile terror attacks recently. The Majeed Brigade of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) has taken responsibility for two attacks in Balochistan. The first targeted the Turbat naval air base, which reportedly deploys Chinese drones and two, the Port Authority Complex of the Gwadar port, operated and expanded by the Chinese. The third attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) killed five Chinese engineers working at the Dasu Hydropower Project on the Indus River under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). These attacks in close succession, on Chinese personnel and facilities underscore the degree of unhappiness of the common man with the exploitative Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that China has thrust upon the people of Pakistan. More importantly, it signals the complete inability of the Pakistani state to combat terrorism and the knee jerk reaction is to blame such attacks on India and more recently, on Afghanistan.

In the latest series of such attacks, five Chinese workers were killed (26 March) when a vehicle packed with explosives was rammed into the bus in which they were travelling from Islamabad to their camp at the Dasu hydro-electric dam in KPK province.  A day earlier, militants launched an attack (25 March) on the Pakistani naval station PNS Siddique, one of its core functions was to provide support to the CPEC, the flagship BRI project in Pakistan. Chinese drones are reported to be stationed at the naval air base at Turbat, in Balochistan. While the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) was suspected to have carried out the attack on the naval air base, the deadly attack on Chinese workers in KPK is suspected to have been carried out by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The involvement of diverse militant groups in these attacks point to the widespread ire in Pakistan against the BRI being sponsored by China.

Significantly, Chinese personnel and interests have borne the brunt of periodic terror attacks in spite of the constitution of a special force to protect them. The presence of a number of Chinese personnel in Pakistan in connection with the CPEC projects, makes them an easy target and is a serious issue for China. The Chinese are reported to have leaned heavily on the Pakistanis behind the scenes to counter this threat effectively. China’s diplomatic mission in Pakistan has demanded that Islamabad carries out a thorough investigation into the deadly attack at the Dasu hydro-power station. On an earlier occasion, Beijing had demanded that China be allowed to arrange its own security for Chinese personnel working in Pakistan, but this was not agreed to by Islamabad, with the contention that this will amount to sacrificing the sovereignty of Pakistan to China.

The ineffectiveness of the Pakistani state’s response is clearly shown in the multiple attacks on Chinese personnel and facilities over the years. The findings of a recent three-month study by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), Islamabad, indicates that in the first three months of 2024 at least 432 individuals have been killed due to attacks by militant groups, with more than 92% of the total casualties (and 86% of the total attacks) attributed to KPK and Balochistan and which share a border with Afghanistan. The study has shown that at least 245 terrorist attacks occurred in Pakistan, including limited instances of counter-terrorism operations. The findings indicate that Balochistan witnessed a staggering 96% increase in violence, with the number of victims rising from 91 in the first three months of 2023 to 178.

The latest in the series of attacks occurred on 20 March, on the Gwadar Port in the Balochistan province where China is planning to establish a naval base. Heavily armed BLA militants entered the complex, opened fire, and carried out multiple explosions. The Gwadar Port has been projected by Chinese and Pakistani authorities as the crowning glory of CPEC, though in commercial terms the port is a complete failure. It will, however, provide China with a convenient access to the Indian Ocean region. In yet another similar attack on Chinese personnel at the Dasu hydro power dam by militants of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in July 2021, nine Chinese engineers and four others were killed in a suicide bombing on a bus in which they were travelling. Groups like the BLA and the TTP are opposed to Chinese investments in Balochistan and accuse China of exploiting the resource-rich province of Pakistan.

The BLA has been vocal against the CPEC, warning of more attacks if China does not vacate Balochistan. They have also warned that the BLA has formed a special unit particularly to attack Chinese personnel and installations in Balochistan. Incidentally, the responsibility of the latest attack on Gwadar Port has been claimed by the “Majeed Brigade” of BLA, which is opposed to Chinese investments in the Balochistan province and accuses China and Pakistan of exploiting the resources of the region. The reality is that projects sponsored by China bring little benefit to the common people in Pakistan. At Gwadar, local fishermen complain that they are no longer allowed to carry out fishing in the area where the port has come up. People have been forced to part with agricultural land in places where CPEC projects, like power plants have come up. Charges of terrorism have been slapped on people who have protested such forcible acquisition of land. The highly polluting thermal power plants have also raised health issues as well.

Pakistan has followed exploitative policies in Balochistan and China has become complicit in these policies through its projects that have brought little benefit or employment opportunities to locals. The Saindak Copper-Gold Project run by the Chinese and construction activities in relation to the Gwadar port are some examples. China’s activities in the strategically located Balochistan, particularly the potential projection of its naval power from Gwadar and other Pakistani ports, sitting close to the Strait of Hormuz, have been a matter of concern. Recall that Rehman Malik then Interior Minister of Pakistan had said in 2012 that 14 organisations were operating in Balochistan, and both “friends” and “foes” of Pakistan were equally involved in financing and encouraging them. This is really a result of Pakistan’s own policies regarding the state sponsorship of terror. The more the deep state colludes and nurtures the terror infrastructure, the blowback will be harder. Pakistan needs to face this reality as it faces an angry China whose unsaid message is that Islamabad is incapable of combating terrorism and protecting Chinese interests in Pakistan.

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