Self-serving politics threaten not only to strain Pakistan’s relations with the United States, but heighten tensions in the geostrategic region of Balochistan, a vital node in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative that has been earmarked as home for China’s second foreign military base.
Pakistan’s short-sighted political battles are being fought at a time of worsening relations with the US over alleged Pakistani support of militants and concern that the US may withdraw from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran. This potentially creates a dilemma for China, which is heavily invested in Pakistan with more than US$50 billion committed to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a collection of infrastructure projects.
Beijing may freeze further CPEC-related investment until the country’s domestic politics stabilise. So far, China is believed to have invested US$29 billion of its committed US$56 billion.
“Political events in Pakistan have sent China in a watchful mood … I am concerned if we continue to throw surprises to the outside world, then anyone can be forced to rethink their economic investments,” Pakistan’s chief CPEC negotiator, Ahsan Iqbal, told Pakistani daily The News.
Iqbal spoke after the Pakistani military seemingly backed a successful effort to force the resignation of Nawab Sanaullah Zehri, the chief minister of Balochistan, the troubled region that is core to CPEC and contains its crown jewel, the deep-sea port of Gwadar. The removal of Zehri, a member of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was part of an effort to prevent the PML-N from returning to power in elections scheduled for July.
Zehri’s resignation signalled an end of efforts to drive a wedge between various nationalist Baloch insurgent groups and weaken Islamic militants that have wreaked havoc in Balochistan with attacks on Chinese, Pakistani and Shiite targets.
Informal contacts between the Baloch provincial government, the federal government when Sharif was still in office, and Brahmdagh Bugti, a Baloch nationalist living in exile in Switzerland who heads the Baloch Republican Party, had already fizzled when Zehri came to office in late 2015. Nonetheless, he refrained from slamming the door shut.
One reason contacts failed was Bugti’s demand that Pakistan fend its military and paramilitary operations against nationalist forces in Balochistan – a resource-rich, population-poor region the size of France that straddles the border with the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan – as a precondition for formal talks. Some militant nationalists refused to endorse his position, but quietly watched whether he would make headway.
The timing of the effort to topple Zehri and foreclose renewed contacts with Baloch nationalist factions could not be more sensitive. It comes against the backdrop of a long history of military support for militant religious groups to counter the nationalists in Balochistan. It also coincides with the military’s use of militants elsewhere to weaken the PMN-L while at the same time refute US allegations that it backs extremists in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.
US President Donald Trump’s administration said this month that it was cutting almost all security aid to Pakistan, believed to total more than US$1 billion, until it deals with militant networks operating on its soil. Pakistan, in response and in advance of a visit by a UN Security Council team to evaluate compliance with its resolutions, has sought to crack down on the fundraising and political activities of Muhammad Hafez Saeed, an internationally designated terrorist accused of having masterminded the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
The crackdown constitutes a double-edged sword. Pakistan and its military needs to be seen to be acting against internationally designated terrorist groups, yet Saeed has been treated over the years with kid gloves. His organisation was allowed to continue operations under multiple guises, and although he was put under house arrest several times, he was never put behind bars. It isn’t clear whether the crackdown by the PMN-L-led federal government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has the backing of the military.
Saeed has recently attempted to move into mainstream politics with the support of the military. The military is motivated not only to keep control over defence, security and foreign policy, “but also give these former militant groups that have served the state a route into the mainstream where their energies can be utilised”, a senior military official said. Saeed headed the militant terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), one of South Asia’s most violent groups.
Associates of Saeed said their participation in this summer’s election was in part designed to prevent the PMN-L from returning to office. “There is little else more patriotic than ensuring the ouster of the Sharifs. Pakistan needs a government that serves Pakistani, not Indian interests,” said Nadeem Awan, a spokesman for Jamat u-Dawa, widely seen as a LeT front headed by Saeed.
Former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf said last month he was discussing an alliance with Milli Muslim League (MML), the political party Saeed is trying to register. Speaking on Pakistani television, Musharraf pronounced himself “the greatest supporter of LeT”.
Also last month, the military displayed its political influence and inclinations by mediating an end to a weeks-long blockade of a main artery leading into Islamabad. The blockade was a protest against a perceived softening of the government’s adherence to Islam in a proposed piece of legislation.
All in all, the Pakistani military appears to be embroiled in battles on multiple fronts in a Herculean effort to satisfy target audiences with contradictory demands. Countering the PML-N by supporting religious forces complicates refuting US allegations of support for militants. It also risks escalating violence in Balochistan and enhancing opportunity for external players like the US and Saudi Arabia to use the province as a launching pad for efforts to destabilise Iran, should they opt to travel down that road.
China, despite its concern about Pakistan’s political stability, sees the military’s use of proxies against India as beneficial, yet it also needs stability in Balochistan to secure its massive investment.
Pakistan could well be the ultimate loser in institutional battles that appear focused more on vested interests than on resolving issues that have long held the country back, such as extremism, intolerance and a lack of fundamental human rights.
In pursuit of their own interests, neither the US nor China appear willing to help their Pakistani allies look beyond their narrow and most immediate concerns towards the development of policies that would launch the country on a path of security, stability and economic prosperity. ■
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies