Written by Muhammad Nawaz Khan.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the leading project of China’s vision for a modern reconstruction of the Silk Road. The construction of the corridor has been defined by many as a strategic moment, such that Pakistan has assumed the position of economic pivot for the whole region. This paradigm shift in circumstances is a cause of great worry for the enemies of Pakistan both within and outside its borders. Therefore, security concerns have been the most critical challenge to CPEC and both Pakistan and China have been trying to meet these challenges. An arc of militancy stretches from Xinjiang to Gwadar consisting of groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Daesh (ISIS), Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), and the militant wings of some political parties. Most of these groups may not have enmity with China itself, but intend to attack Chinese interests like CPEC as a means to oppose the Pakistani state.
Pakistan is worried that foreign countries and hostile intelligence agencies are extending support to militant groups to sabotage the Pakistan-Chinese plans of developing the multibillion-dollar CPEC project.
The changing security dynamics in Balochistan indicates the province likely faces a greater challenge from jihadi militants than from Baloch insurgents. The latter usually launch low-intensity attacks; groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and its global arm LeJ Al-Alami, Jamaatul Ahrar, and TTP have been carrying out periodic attacks in the province including the latest ones in Mastung and Khuzdar. In reality, the provincial government of Balochistan has been able to overcome the low-level insurgency in the province to significantly improve security, yet it will take some more time to completely root out the underlying factors of the insurgency.
In order to further improve the security situation of the province, the provincial government launched a political reconciliation scheme. In this context, it is estimated that over 50 percent of the militants from various banned Baloch organisations have surrendered their weapons so far. In return, the provincial government rewarded them with cash prizes and announced that their families and children would be financially assisted by the government. Additionally, 1025 militants belonging to various proscribed outfits surrendered before the provincial government during 2015; 400 militants in Balochistan surrendered weapons on Independence Day in 2016; 43 militants surrendered arms in October 2016; 202 Baloch separatists surrendered in November 2016; and 21 Ferrari (Baloch militant commanders) among 434 lay down arms in April 2017.
Undoubtedly, the security situation is improving in Pakistan. As indicated by the Pakistan Security Report 2016, the country has witnessed a reduction of terrorist attacks of 48 percent in 2015 compared to 2014. The situation improved further in 2016 with a reported year-on-year decline of 28 percent; the overall security situation has improved by 70 percent between 2013 and 2016. Military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) including Zarbe-Azb, Radd-ul-Fasaad and similar counterterrorism campaigns in the rest of the country as well as the National Action Plan (NAP) actions have also contributed to the decline in acts of terrorism. Pakistan’s internal security landscape has continued to improve.
Despite the improved security situation, Pakistan faces many challenges, as in Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (2017) and also during Operation Zarb-e-Azb (2014). In both operations, militants survived and successfully escaped into Afghanistan. These individuals have since reorganised in Afghanistan – with plans to re-launch their offence on Pakistan’s soil. Although, the Operation Zarb-e-Azb was an attempt to destroy miscreants’ operational baseline, at the same time the hostile groups escaped and assembled in Khost, Nuristan, Nangarhar and Kunar regions of Afghanistan. In Nangarhar in particular, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other like-minded groups under the title of Islamic State in “Khorasan” (IS-K) have gained strength. For these reasons, Pakistan has major concerns about these regions of Afghanistan, where multiple terrorist groups including al Qaeda, the self-styled ISIS, the TTP, the Movement of Islamic Uzbekistan and the Turkmenistan Islamic Party, etc., are concentrated and their mastermind, planners and handlers are using Afghan soil and telecommunication networks in preparation for a conducting a future strike in Pakistan. Consequently, these groups (and their periodic attacks) will likely pose a security challenge to the CPEC initiative in Pakistan.
Pakistan is also worried that foreign countries and hostile intelligence agencies are extending support to militant groups to sabotage the Pakistan-Chinese plans of developing the multibillion-dollar CPEC project. Pakistan has presented evidence, which suggests that amid India’s reservations against CPEC, the Indian spy agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is supporting terrorism in the country. Even after military operations in different parts of Pakistan, the sleeper cells, facilitators, and terrorist infrastructure still exist inside and outside of the borders, which will continue to pose a challenge.
Pakistan believes that India might consider CPEC in the short- and medium-term as an opportunity to generate jobs and growth in Pakistan; but that over the long-term its strategic consequences could reshape the regional balance of power in favour of China, thereby limiting India’s geopolitical reach. This is why India argues that CPEC is the initial step in the creation of a political and security bloc. In reality though, CPEC is merely an economic alliance. CPEC will be completed despite the existence of such misperceptions, as it is part of both countries’ strategic vision. Besides economics, CPEC has become a national strategy for both countries. Pakistan will get benefits from it; China’s reliance on CPEC means that it needs a stable and amicable Pakistan. The Silk Road Economic Belt initiative may become one of the cornerstones of Asian economic growth and integration – and eventually of closer political and economic cooperation among states – but the pathway to this outcome is long and fraught with obstacles.