In an ever-evolving global socio-political landscape, China’s emergence as a major power has prompted shifts in the unipolar world order, compelling peripheral states to realign their strategies. Pakistan, with its strategic location amidst emerging global powers like China and India, has become a focal point of interest for both global and regional players. The introduction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has further strengthened the bond between Pakistan and China, offering transformative infrastructure and reducing Pakistan’s reliance on Western powers. However, this initiative has also drawn the attention of global powers seeking to resist change and regional actors striving for dominance, resulting in the exploitation of Pakistan’s security vulnerabilities.
This article critically examines how terrorism is being used to sabotage the CPEC and explores potential countermeasures to address this threat, which has significant implications for regional stability and global power dynamics.
Genesis of Terrorism in Pakistan
The history of terrorism in Pakistan can be divided into five distinct phases. The first phase, from 1979 to 1989, was shaped by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, leading to the rise of Islamist militant groups. These groups initially fought against the Soviet forces but later turned their attention to Kashmir and Pakistan. The second phase, spanning the 1990s and early 2000s, witnessed the emergence of sectarian violence and jihadist groups targeting religious minorities. The post-9/11 phase (2001–2014) marked the third stage, with Pakistan becoming a frontline state in the U.S.-led war on terror, resulting in the formation of new terrorist groups like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The fourth phase (2014–2018) saw Pakistan launch a significant military operation called Zarb-e-Azb to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries, followed by the implementation of a National Action Plan (NAP). Although this phase saw a decline in terrorist attacks, it also raised concerns about human rights violations. In the current phase (2018-present), there has been a relative decrease in terrorist attacks, but the threat persists, particularly concerning the CPEC.
Various terrorist groups, such as the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), Baluchistan Republican Army (BRA), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State (IS), and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), have targeted the CPEC, employing tactics such as targeted killings, suicide bombings, ambushes, and sabotage of infrastructure.
Foreign actors have played a significant role in supporting terrorism in Pakistan. India has been accused of backing Baloch separatist groups and directly interfering through its intelligence establishment, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), which was authenticated by the capture of Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, who confessed to efforts against the CPEC. The United States, despite its alliance in the war on terror, has at times caused serious concerns, particularly through drone strikes and unilateral actions like the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Afghanistan’s porous border has allowed militants to launch attacks in Pakistan, and the Taliban and other extremist groups find refuge in Afghanistan. Iran, with a substantial border with Pakistan, has been accused of aiding militant organizations, particularly in Baluchistan, and supporting terrorist activities in Baluchistan.
These foreign actors have added complexity to Pakistan’s struggle against terrorism, with accusations of interference and covert support for militant groups, especially those targeting the CPEC. These dynamics underscore the multifaceted nature of Pakistan’s battle against terrorism and the intricate regional geopolitical context in which it unfolds.
Socio-Economic Impact of Terrorism on Pakistan
Terrorism has severely impacted CPEC projects, particularly due to the actions of the BLA, which targeted both Chinese workers and vital infrastructure. These attacks have led to labor shortages, causing substantial delays and cost overruns on these projects. For instance, the Gwadar port project, originally set for completion in December 2016, experienced a setback after a May 2016 terrorist attack, which deterred Chinese laborers due to security concerns. Similarly, the Gwadar International Airport project, initially scheduled for December 2017, also faced significant delays due to security issues. The Sukkur-Multan motorway, a part of the CPEC, encountered multiple delays due to security concerns, including attacks by the BLA, resulting in the loss of Chinese workers and security personnel. These terrorist incidents have adversely affected the timeline and cost of CPEC projects.
Terrorism’s impact extends to foreign investment in Pakistan, with investors being risk-averse and favoring stable environments for their ventures. Terrorism is perceived as a high-risk factor, leading to panic and uncertainty among potential investors, resulting in reduced investment. This impact manifests in various ways, primarily through delays and cost overruns in CPEC projects. Chinese investors are hesitant to send workers to Pakistan due to security concerns, causing labor shortages and project completion delays.
Additionally, foreign companies planning to invest in Pakistan have postponed their investments, awaiting a more stable environment. The impact of terrorism on both local and Chinese investors in 2022 is evident in the figures of terrorist attacks, highlighting the severity of the situation. Pakistan’s standing in the Global Terrorism Index for 2023 further highlights the challenges posed by terrorism. These incidents have not only disrupted the economic aspects of CPEC but have also negatively impacted Pakistan’s global reputation and image. The perception of insecurity has deterred potential tourists and investors, leading to decreased tourism revenue and reduced foreign investment. Consequently, it is imperative for the government to take swift and resolute measures to enhance security, restore confidence in foreign investors, and ensure the stability necessary for CPEC’s success and Pakistan’s economic development.
This situation is exemplified by a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry during Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s visit to China in November 2022, expressing concerns about the safety of Chinese nationals in Pakistan and the hope for a reliable and secure environment for cooperation projects.
Countermeasures to Mitigate Terrorism Threat
- Enhancing Law and Order:
To counter the threat of terrorism along the CPEC route, one essential strategy is to improve law and order. This involves bolstering security measures by increasing the presence of law enforcement, establishing specialized units, and rigorously enforcing laws. These efforts create a stable and secure environment for economic activity. The result is the attraction of investments, the generation of job opportunities, and a reduction in the socio-economic grievances that terrorists often exploit for recruitment. Furthermore, by ensuring the equitable distribution of benefits from CPEC projects, authorities can address underlying economic disparities and reduce the potential for radicalization.
- Strengthening Intelligence-Gathering:
Another crucial step in mitigating the terrorism threat is enhancing intelligence-gathering capabilities. This involves significant investments in advanced surveillance technology, rigorous training for intelligence personnel, and the establishment of effective information-sharing mechanisms. These measures aid in identifying and countering terrorist threats along the CPEC route. By dismantling the networks that exploit social inequalities and grievances, effective intelligence can disrupt terrorist activities, target their financial networks, and provide insights into the underlying social conflicts that terrorists may exploit. In doing so, it contributes to a more secure and stable environment for CPEC development.
- Engaging Local Communities:
Acknowledging the role of cultural factors in radicalization, engaging with local communities along the CPEC route is paramount. Initiatives include fostering cultural dialogue, promoting tolerance, and addressing cultural grievances. Such efforts can counter extremist narratives, create a sense of inclusion and belonging, and ultimately reduce the potential for radicalization within local communities. Collaboration with community leaders, religious institutions, and cultural organizations can be instrumental in challenging extremist ideologies and promoting alternative narratives emphasizing peaceful coexistence.
- International Cooperation:
International partnerships play a pivotal role in countering terrorism. By collaborating with other countries facing similar challenges, sharing intelligence, and conducting joint operations, states can showcase successful examples of countering terrorism. This serves as a deterrent against extremist ideologies, as individuals observe and learn from international efforts. Moreover, international partnerships reinforce the norm that terrorism is a global threat requiring collective action, fostering a sense of collective responsibility.
China’s Role in Countering Terrorism
China’s significant economic and strategic interests in the CPEC underscore the need for security. China’s interest is in safeguarding physical infrastructure, protecting Chinese personnel, and minimizing the risk of terrorist attacks that could disrupt or undermine the progress of the CPEC project. To achieve this interest, China needs to consider the following measures:
- Strengthen Security Cooperation:
China can enhance collaboration with Pakistan by sharing intelligence, conducting joint counterterrorism operations, and improving border security along the CPEC route. This collaboration is essential for identifying and disrupting terrorist networks, tracking their funding sources, and enhancing overall security.
- Invest in Security Infrastructure:
Investing in advanced surveillance technology, security personnel training, and specialized counterterrorism units dedicated to protecting CPEC can deter potential terrorist attacks and ensure the safety of CPEC projects.
- Promote Economic Development:
China can support socio-economic development initiatives in the areas along the CPEC route. This includes investments in education, healthcare, job creation, and infrastructure development. These initiatives foster economic opportunities, reducing socio-economic disparities and thereby mitigating the potential for radicalization. Examples like the USAID model can provide guidance for initiating such projects.
- Engage with Local Communities:
Building trust, promoting cultural understanding, and addressing local concerns through engagement with local communities can mitigate the risk of radicalization. This can involve collaborating with community leaders, conducting outreach programs, and involving local stakeholders in decision-making processes. By addressing grievances and fostering cooperation, China can gain local support for CPEC security.
The presence of terrorism poses significant challenges to the CPEC and Pakistan’s overall economic development. Terrorism threatens the security and stability of CPEC, potentially disrupting infrastructure projects and deterring investors. This erodes confidence, hampers foreign direct investment (FDI), impedes economic growth, and exacerbates socio-economic disparities. Therefore, countering terrorism and ensuring CPEC’s security are crucial for Pakistan’s long-term prosperity.
Addressing terrorism is essential for infrastructure, investor confidence, and economic growth. Implementing these countermeasures can foster sustainable development, ensuring CPEC’s success and Pakistan’s economic growth. The future requires enhancing security, engaging communities, international collaboration, promoting economic opportunities, and countering extremist narratives to achieve regional stability and prosperity.