The April 26 terror attack in the heart of the University of Karachi indicates that militancy in Pakistan, of both religious and ethnic variety, while not sparing traditional adversaries – minorities and the state – is increasingly getting a distinct anti-China edge, and it should worry self-touted “iron and all-weather friends”.
On paper, an impoverished but friendly Pakistan has welcomed China, mainly through the multi-million China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), allowing the latter’s expansion and access into the Indian Ocean region.
In reality, however, it has proved to be an expensive venture on several counts, not the least in terms of lives lost. Twenty-four Chinese nationals have died and many more injured in targeted attacks in the last year alone, according to Pakistan’s Samaa news and TV network.
Besides, many – unaccounted or kept secret – died during the making of the Gwadar port and naval base and other projects in the pre-CPEC era.
With CPEC, the governments of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have battled unsuccessfully, unable to deal with coordinated surprise attacks, despite oppression by the state and hundreds of youths having ‘disappeared’, ending up dead or in jail indefinitely. Forming an elite division of the Army exclusively for CPEC’s security has not helped.
Founded in 1851 and among the oldest in South Asia, the Karachi University has a past tradition of strong student politics of different hues, but is also a hotbed of sectarian violence fuelled by mosques and mullahs who work the labyrinthine poverty-stricken youth in the country’s largest city and port town.
Yet, suicide attack by an organised group is not part of its record. The attack in which four persons, including three Chinese, died, has spawned many unwelcome ‘firsts’.
One was that a university campus and not an industrial or infrastructure project with a significant Chinese presence was chosen for the act. Secondly, the target was not a CPEC project that attracts opposition from the locals, but Confucius Institute, China’s cultural hub, one of the many set up worldwide. Begun in 2004 to impart free education in the Chinese language and culture, it has been rejected in many Western countries as a purveyor of propaganda.
Thirdly and more worrying, it was a “suicide attack” and four, it was by a woman. There is yet another ‘first’ in that she had made a prior announcement on social media.
Shari Baloch’s photograph with a smile and a ‘V’ for victory sign, was available on social media. She belonged to the Baluchistan Liberation Army’s Majeed Brigade that has claimed responsibility for the attack.
As per her profile drawn by the Express Tribune, she was a post-graduate, a teacher by training and profession and a mother of two children. This indicates another disturbing aspect of growing militancy.
It confirms the views of Pakistan’s noted security analyst, Amir Husain Rana of the Institute of Conflict Studies, that militancy’s face in Baluchistan has radically changed. It is not from the impoverished tribal youths alone but also draws from the urban and educated classes of the province that feel exploited as a result of the CPEC.
Karachi metropolis has been the target of the Balochs earlier. Back in November 2018, there was an attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, which was also claimed by the BLA. In 2020, the BLA claimed responsibility for the attack on the Karachi stock exchange. Baloch militants were also said to be behind a 2021 attack in Dasu, targeting a bus carrying Chinese nationals – the attack killed nine Chinese nationals. That too was said to be a suicide attack.
While the Balochs have a political and economic agenda, that of the Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is sectarian. It has spread its wings across the country and in the areas bordering Afghanistan, allegedly using the Afghan territory.
This led the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to cross the border earlier this month and strafing and killing not only the TTP cadres but also Afghan civilians. Kabul has since notified to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), as a major act of diplomatic hostility, the first since Pakistan helped the Taliban to regain power in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan has already seen the TTP brand of terrorism making a comeback in the country. And now attacks targeting the Chinese are an added security concern,” the News International newspaper noted in its editorial.
Regarding the targeting of the Chinese (the Confucius Institute Director and two faculty), “The Chinese are no stranger to attacks in other parts of the country either, where the development projects they have initiated are viewed with suspicion by many of the locals as well as militants.”
It also noted that “For years, the Baloch insurgency had been regarded as a low-intensity conflict. But this is no longer the case. The attacks are growing more audacious – as seen earlier this year when 10 soldiers lost their lives in an attack on an FC post in Kech. The militants’ reach is also growing as an earlier attack in Lahore demonstrated.”
The new government of Shehbaz Sharif has announced its resolve to address the militants, particularly those in Baluchistan. But security in the provinces is managed by a mishmash of intelligence agencies, both civil and military, and there remain militants who are nursed as ‘assets’, to be played one against the others, till they turn rogue. Thus, it has a tough task on hand.