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China will need to sift through a long list of suspects attacking its citizens in Pakistan

There is a very serious threat knocking at the gates of Pakistani establishment, and it’s well inside the country. China is not going to like that at all.

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It couldn’t have got more embarrassing for Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi. A blast on a bus kills more than 13 people, including nine Chinese dam workers in the remote areas of Kohistan in northern Pakistan. According to a Chinese readout, Qureshi informed China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a meeting in Dushanbe that it was a mechanical failure resulting in leakage of gas. The Chinese minister emphatically said that it was not.

Turns out that Beijing was right. That says something about the abilities of both countries. But it’s curious that China chose to do so publicly, before the Pakistani establishment had time to draw breath. A furious China has already sent its own investigation team to, quite literally, dig through the evidence. In its own interest, Beijing would be advised to also look carefully into the reasons why Chinese nationals are being targeted not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but also in other provinces like Sindh and Balochistan. The usual cry of subversion from India is lazy analysis. Dig deeper.

Blast at Dasu hydropower project, Kohistan

The blast targeted a bus belonging to the China Gezhouba Group, which is building the Dasu hydropower station on the Indus River in Kohistan, carrying 41 people, 28 of them Chinese. Five other Chinese companies are involved in other sectors on the project, which was financed initially by the World Bank. The Chinese embassy confirmed that nine of its nationals were among the 13 killed, which also reportedly includes two Pakistani servicemen.

One report suggests the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber in an explosives-packed vehicle. That’s quite a stretch from ‘mechanical failure’ or sabotage as pointed out by local officials. It’s all rather puzzling. Meanwhile, Qureshi is being sent hot foot to Beijing to assuage Chinese anger, while Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed was in a more than half-an-hour ‘conversation’ with China’s public security minister. In addition, a virtual meeting of the Joint Coordination Committee has been postponed.

Also read: Pakistan keeps making bad decisions with India. Its insecurity is hurting peace

Everybody wants to attack the Chinese?

Dasu is not on the list of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) energy projects. That makes the attack rather curious, since Pakistanis regularly accuse ‘foreign forces’ and India of targeting projects under the CPEC like the Gwadar Port. A collation of facts indicate that these attacks began decades before such projects were even thought of. The first known attacks against Chinese nationals in Pakistan started in 2004 and were claimed by the Baloch Liberation Front. In July 2007, Chinese nationals were attacked in Peshawar, but this was linked to Pakistan’s storming of the Lal Masjid that year. That was when extremists inside the mosque protested against the activities of Chinese sex workers and abducted seven Chinese women. The clerics said they valued friendship with China, but would not allow such immoral activities.

Thereafter were random attacks, such as one in 2018 against two Chinese citizens who worked with Cosco Shipping Lines, a company operating in Pakistan since the 1980s. With some 44 attacks between 2014 and 2016, more suspects became apparent. That included the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and later the Pakistani Taliban, who claimed the recent attack on the Peshawar luxury hotel, at a time when the Chinese ambassador was staying there. It seems there are as many suspects as there are attacks.

Suspect No. 1: Dissident Uyghurs, ETIM

Uyghur unhappiness with China dates back to the 1950s, when Osman Batur led a rebellion in Xinjiang, which sparked severe repression. But the ETIM was raised in 1993, operating mainly from Pakistan. Despite repeated requests to end their activities, Islamabad managed to kill its leader Hasan Mahsum only in 2003, while milking the Chinese for economic assistance all along. And as noted above, the first attacks against the Chinese began in 2004. But China was not deceived.

In 2011, the China Daily was noting, “The leaders of the group learned terrorist techniques in ETIM camps in Pakistan before they penetrated into Xinjiang.” This was a clear sign of Chinese fury. Then came a car bomb attack on Tiananmen Square in October 2013, and a series of other attacks thereafter. Then-Army chief General Raheel Sharif promised a crackdown, and air attacks followed in the tribal areas. By then, however, associations had been made with other groups like al-Qaeda, which was even admitted by the US, which briefly designated it as a terrorist organisation.

As of now, Uyghurs remain in Pakistan, with some admitting that they assist fellow citizens in Xinjiang to escape the now infamous detention camps in the province. One probable cause for terrorism is, therefore, the most simple one — those badly affected are hitting back, wherever and whenever they can. And that is clearly most easily done from inside Pakistan, a long-time ‘friend’ of the extremist narrative.

Also read: Pakistan must stop looking to leverage Taliban, focus on fixing its own economy

Suspect No. 2: Pakistani Taliban, unrest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 

Then there are the Pakistani Taliban, a thorn in the side of the Pakistani military since 2007, when the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was first formed by Baitullah Mehsud, a former ‘mujahideen’ recruited to fight the Russians, and then the Afghan Taliban. He has been described as a charismatic leader who reigned over a bloody series of attacks, primarily against the Pakistan Army, including one on the ISI headquarters. Mehsud’s death in a US drone attack in 2009 led to the TTP splintering into small groups, some stooges of the Pakistan Army itself. One instance of this was a suspicious ‘escape’ of Ehsanullah Ehsan and his later interview from Turkey (a known Pakistan ally), which indicated that he had arranged a ‘deal’ with military intelligence.

Ehsan was, however, right in predicting a TTP revival as evident from the April 2021 bombing of the Peshawar hotel. But it does not seem to have been specific to China, with even Chinese mouthpiece Global Times observing that the group wanted to “create bigger noise by targeting Chinese nationals…in a bid to advance a “malicious domestic agenda”, and quoting Chinese sources that said locals were not anti-China at all.

People in these areas have, however, been seething with resentment against the Pakistani military. This is most apparent in the PTM (Pashtun Tahafuz Movement), an entirely non-violent group that has been protesting the abduction and humiliation of locals for decades. Its popularity has spread across the country, leading to it being labelled ‘foreign funded’ without the slightest evidence and its leaders being murdered in broad daylight.

Unhappiness following the ‘historic’ merger of the tribal areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018, which was opposed by various tribes even at the time, has increased with elders demanding revocation of the merger, while a black day was observed against it on 1 June in the restive Khyber area. In sum, the very real grievances against the iron hand of Islamabad has led to an explosive situation, where any friend of the State is seen as an enemy.

Suspect No. 3: Balochistan ‘terrorism’ and decades of repression

The story repeats itself in Balochistan, where the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) recently claimed a series of attacks on Chinese telecommunications installations, and detained several employees. It accuses Islamabad of using the Universal Service Fund fibre optic service to spy on them. This project worth PKR 5.11 bn was awarded to Chinese companies last year. Again, Baloch opposition to Pakistan’s dominance goes back to the time of Pakistan’s betrayal of the Khan of Kalat in March 1948.

The history of repression and Baloch courage is too long to be adequately outlined here, but suffice to say that the thousands of heinous attacks on Baloch youth have been ignored by the so-called ‘international community’ for years. But it exists, and continues to grow such as the recent murder of respected Baloch leader Usman Kakkar. The spectacle of massive crowds grieving his passing was ignored by the Pakistani media, now largely tamed into submission. But that resentment again leads Baloch groups to view the Chinese as much of an occupation force as the ‘Punjabis’ who push its agenda.

Also read: On Afghanistan, China should join India — for a change

And now for the ‘accused’

Pakistanis are most prone to accusing India and the US primarily for anything and everything, including the actions of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a body whose job it is to root out financing of terrorism across the world. At various times, there are cries of an Axis with Israel’s Mossad. Overwhelming evidence over decades shows that Pakistan has not only become a resting place for terrorists of every shade, but its own government also seems to be tilting more and more to the Right. Prime Minister Imran Khan wasn’t called ‘Taliban Khan’ for nothing.

Now it seems that the Army has got it right, as usual. Najam Sethi reports that the top brass has warned the government and media not to glamourise the Afghan Taliban – probably because it would further expose Pakistan’s role. But more to the point, it has asked that activities of the Pakistani Taliban in Balochistan and tribal areas not be reported in the press. Apparently, there is a very serious threat knocking at the gates of the establishment, and it’s well inside the country. Beijing is not going to like that at all.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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