The Quetta Massacre and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Quetta Massacre and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

Aug. 22, 2016  |     |  0 comments


On August 8, 2016, over 70 people were killed and more than 120 injured in a suicide bombing in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. As Balochistan is the location of Gwadar Port, the southern terminus of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Quetta massacre highlights the security risks facing CPEC. The Quetta attack followed a two-step tactic. First, the terrorist group assassinated Bilal Kasi, the president of the Balochistan Bar Association. Later that same day, they sent a suicide bomber to infiltrate the large crowd of lawyers and journalists who had gathered at the hospital where Kasi’s body had been taken and to detonate himself. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, as did the Islamic State (IS), though analysts suspect IS’ claim might be due to Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s past expressions of support for it. As security experts have noted, the two-step tactic has long been used by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including an earlier attack in Quetta in 2013 when a Pakistani Taliban suicide bomber killed 30 mourners at the funeral of a policeman who had similarly been assassinated (Masood, 2016; The Soufan Group, 2016).


Security experts note that, following a series of militant attacks between 2007-09 against military and other “hard” targets in Pakistan, jihadist groups have resumed their attacks on “soft” targets: not just minority ethnic groups like the Hazara or minority religious groups like the Ahmedis, Barelvis, Christians, and Shiites; but also relatively unprotected civilian locations like airports, schools, hospitals, polio vaccination centers, and parks; as well as key civilian groups like lawyers and policemen (Fair, 2016; Husser, 2016; Masood, 2016; Rifaat, 2016; Shahid, 2016; Cornish & Peshimam, 2016). Highlighting the Pakistani state’s anxiety over the security threats to CPEC, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif warned that the deadly Quetta attack was “an attempt to undermine improved security” in Balochistan, and that the terrorists had been “specially targeting CPEC” (Sharif, 2016). The Pakistani military has promptly launched “special combing operations” against suspected militant targets, and Pakistani intelligence has been authorized “to go anywhere in the country and to target anyone who was responsible for the horrific attack” (Shahzad, 2016).


For IS, which has been actively recruiting former Taliban militants in Pakistan, Balochistan presents a tempting target (Hussain, 2016). According to Arif Rafiq, a security expert with the Centre for Global Policy:


“Balochistan provides IS with an opportunity to not only strike at Pakistani interests, but also those of China and Iran … Anti-state jihadis in Pakistan have previously sought to target Chinese citizens in Pakistan, knowing that this would strain relations between Beijing and Islamabad. Jihadis in Balochistan who’ve made the switch from al-Qaeda to IS are on a similar mission.” (Hussain, 2016)


Of particular concern for the security of Gwadar Port is IS’ recruitment of ethnic Baloch jihadis who had formerly served with al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Pakistan, as they offer IS “access to the safe houses and human smuggling networks operated by separatists and Karachi-based criminal gangs” (Hussain, 2016). However, the primary threat to Gwadar Port and CPEC’s Western Route highway network in Balochistan remains the separatist Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), which has described CPEC as “an occupation of Baluch territory” and which has threatened to “attack anyone working on the project” (Hassan, 2016). Earlier this year, Pakistani intelligence intercepted a plot by Afghanistan and India to “encourage and assist Baloch violence against the CPEC,” and an alleged Indian intelligence agent was subsequently arrested in Balochistan (Lim, 2016).


Baloch separatist violence against the Chinese development of Gwadar Port dates back over a decade, when three Chinese engineers were murdered by Baloch separatists in 2004. (China’s Gwadar Port project was inaugurated by then-Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in 2001.) The separatist violence has persisted after the incorporation of the Gwadar Port project into the larger CPEC megaproject. In April 2015 the BLF killed twenty Pakistani construction workers, and later that month, on the day Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Pakistani parliament, the BLF attacked a radar station at Gwadar, pointedly warning both the Chinese and Pakistani governments of their continued presence (Garver, 2006, pp. 7-10; Masood & Walsh, 2015; “Baloch ire prompts,” 2015).


Further north, past Balochistan, the highways of CPEC’s Western Route cross into the contested territories claimed by the jihadist militias located in Peshawar and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan-Pakistani border (Hassan, 2016). Chinese projects in Pakistan have long been menaced by these groups. Over a decade earlier, in 2004, two Chinese engineers working on a hydroelectric dam in South Waziristan were kidnapped by the Taliban, and one of them was killed in the ensuing rescue operation (Masood & Walsh, 2015). Three years after this incident, Chinese workers from a massage parlor in Islamabad were kidnapped by radical Islamists from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), and furious pressure from the Chinese government forced the Pakistani government to launch a deadly raid on the mosque. The 2007 crackdown on the Lal Masjid had a devastating unforeseen consequence: the jihadist militias in FATA decided to form the Pakistani Taliban, transforming their limited rebellion into a “full-blown insurgency” (Small, 2015, pp. ix-xv; Tankel, 2016, p. 12).


Another jihadist militia of concern to CPEC is the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur militant group which is primarily based in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but which has cells located across Western and Central Asia, including a cell in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region with up to 500 jihadists (Lim, 2015c). ETIM has been responsible for a series of terrorist attacks across China, and there are concerns that their members in Pakistan may target CPEC projects. These concerns have increased with reports in 2014 of ETIM jihadists joining IS. The prospect of IS-trained ETIM jihadists poses a threat not just to China but also to China’s global projects, especially CPEC (Gohel, 2014; Qiu, 2014; Allen-Ebrahimian, 2016). Underscoring the seriousness of the threat posed by ETIM and other jihadist groups, President Xi announced during his 2015 state visit to Pakistan that China will be assisting the Pakistani military with its operations against jihadist militias on the Afghan-Pakistani border (Haider, 2015).



To protect the CPEC construction sites and their Chinese engineers and workers, the Pakistani government is establishing a special security force consisting of 15,000 security personnel.



One of the counterinsurgent strategies pursued by the Pakistani government against the jihadist threat has been the organization and arming of civilian militias in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, this strategy has serious implications for security, as not only is there the possibility of foreign influence over these civilian militias, there is also the possibility that such militarization of tribal groups could lead to lawlessness, including tribal warfare. Following the establishment of these civilian militias, armed conflict between rival tribes has indeed been reported (Ullah, 2016, pp. 165-169).


To protect the CPEC construction sites and their Chinese engineers and workers, the Pakistani government is establishing a special security force consisting of 15,000 security personnel, 9,000 of whom will consist of military personnel and the remaining 6,000 civilian personnel. One percent of China’s USD 46 billion investment in CPEC will be used to pay for this security force, and the Chinese government will also supply 500 security experts to train the Pakistani security personnel. At the local level, the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will establish its own security force of 9,000 personnel to protect its CPEC construction projects. The other provincial governments may follow suit (Chaudhry, 2016; “KP to establish,” 2016).


These security arrangements highlight the importance to which China and Pakistan both view CPEC. For Pakistan, CPEC represents a major opportunity to upgrade its transportation, communications, industrial, and energy infrastructure at low- or no-interest concessional financing rates (Lim, 2015c; Markey & West, 2016). Not only is Pakistan’s economy expected to receive a major boost to its growth from the increased trade and logistics activity along the new CPEC highways and railways, as well as the increased manufacturing and associated economic activities in the new CPEC industrial parks and special economic zones; this economic development — in particular the expected increase in employment and business opportunities in Pakistan’s economically underdeveloped regions — is in turn expected to facilitate the establishment of long-term peace and security in the troubled country (Yousafzai, 2016; “CPEC to Benefit,” 2016).


For China, CPEC, like the other international infrastructure projects under the Chinese government’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) global investment framework, will function as one of the engines of growth underlying the Chinese economy’s “new normal” of single-digit growth. CPEC, like the other OBOR projects, will also assist with the Chinese government’s supply-side reform plans by creating space in Pakistan’s industrial sector for Chinese enterprises to migrate their industrial plant, thereby helping China reduce its domestic industrial overcapacity. This in turn will facilitate the Chinese government’s strategy of transitioning China from a manufacturing-based to a consumption-based economy (Lim, 2015b; “China to resolutely,” 2016). More urgently, the successful completion of CPEC will be a crucial demonstration to the world that OBOR remains a viable project for future investment. Such a demonstration is needed given the unexpected recent challenges to OBOR in Southeast Asia. In Laos, the commencement of construction of the Kunming-Vientiane high-speed railway has been delayed over demands from the Laotian government for improved financing terms from China (Goh & Webb, 2016). In Indonesia, the Indonesian government has recently chosen to grant port and rail development projects to Japan, despite having earlier considered China’s OBOR proposals for these projects (Lim, 2015a, p. 37; Budiman, 2016; Vatvani, 2016). With so much at stake, it is critical for China and Pakistan to ensure that the security arrangements for CPEC are sufficient to protect its projects from the threats posed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the BLF, ETIM, and other groups.


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