CPEC and the battle for Baluchistan

At a press conference on Monday, Major General Babar Iftikhar, the director-general of the Pakistan Army’s media wing ISPR, revealed that the security forces are now “focused on Baluchistan.”

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Jan 13, 2021

At a press conference on Monday, Major General Babar Iftikhar, the director-general of the Pakistan Army’s media wing ISPR, revealed that the security forces are now “focused on Baluchistan.” Unlike earlier when the province used to have just one Frontier Corps looking after its security, Gen Iftikhar informed the media that now there were two Frontier Corps stationed in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan region.

ISPR had called the press conference to shed light on the country’s security and border situation and to present a comparative analysis of security challenges of the past decade. The information of the stationing of two Frontier Corps gives a hint of a different challenge the state of Pakistan is presently staring at in Baluchistan, the country's largest but least developed province in the southwest bordering Iran and Afghanistan, despite being rich in mineral resources that have attracted Chinese interests.

The state is crucial for the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The corridor passes through the province and houses several projects costing billions of dollars. But Baluchistan has never been at peace with Pakistan for long. The province has already seen five large-scale insurgencies against Pakistan.

The killing of the 11 Hazara miners on January 4 in Mach areas of Balochistan is the latest attack by a relatively new entrant - the ISIS - in the region. But the attack reignited the debate around the faultlines that Pakistan has long struggled to contain in its one of the most resourceful provinces.

As the CPEC and its projects made an entry into the province, Baluch rebels saw it both as a threat and a potential target to further bog down their old enemy - the state of Pakistan. For the past few years, China-funded projects have increasingly been targeted by Baluch separatists. 

Though the attacks by Baluch rebels have lately reduced in numbers, their targeting preferences remain costly for Pakistan and may have enduring effects on its ability to sustain future investments in the region.

A recent media report suggests China is backtracking from its earlier funding commitments to projects linked to the flagship CPEC. The persistent security threat was mentioned as one of the reasons behind it.

In December last year, seven paramilitary troops from a Frontier Corps were allegedly killed by the Baluch insurgents in the province. No group claimed the attack. However, security officers did not rule out the involvement of the Baluch Sub Nationalist Groups (BSNGs).

In June last year, four militants from the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) stuck the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi of Sindh province, killing 10 people. The target this time lies beyond the boundary of Baluchistan but has a message for China. Just two years back, in 2017, a consortium of Chinese firms acquired 40 percent stakes in the Pakistan Stock Exchange.

The attack marked a decisive shift in insurgents’ targeting pattern. Any joint project between China and Pakistan inside the country could become a potential target for them now.  

At Monday’s press conference, the ISPR director-general acknowledged this scenario. He said, “For the last few months, anti-state elements have been on the verge of destroying the peace in Balochistan. Therefore, security agencies are busy day and night to make this a failure.”

Over the past couple of years, the security reinforcement around the Chinese installations in the province increased multi-fold. Pakistan Army raised a special security division just to look after CPEC projects. Furthermore, the army moved several formations, earlier stationed at the provincial capital Quetta, to the hinterland for intelligence-based operations.

The country’s army is notorious for using exceptional conventional military forces to suppress the insurgency in the province. So far the tactic has not paid any long-term dividend. Thousands of activists and civilians, across the country, routinely accuse its armed forces of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings.

Recently, Baluch insurgent groups warned Pakistan against the killings of Baluch dissidents abroad. So far, Baluch insurgents have desisted from targeting Pakistan civilians in its main cities. But if Pakistan continues targeting Baluch activists abroad, they said, they would increase their targeting sphere.

In a recent development, authorities in Pakistan planned to fence the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan, citing security reasons. However among the locals, the move is increasingly being seen as colonizing and land-grabbing tactics, thus could prove counterproductive. The perception is further emboldened by the fact that CPEC projects have, so far, failed to uplift the socio-economic conditions of people there.

Over the last few years, Pakistan looks fighting a perceptional battle regarding the CPEC projects in Baluchistan. In the province, China is increasingly being looked at as the main backer of what Baluch insurgents call its "occupier" Pakistan.

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