Is the US Trying to Sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor?

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Is the US Trying to Sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor?

Intentional or not, U.S. counterterror operations are pushing militants into Balochistan, the heart of CPEC.

Is the US Trying to Sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor?
Credit: Department of Defense Photo by U.S. Army Spc Justin Young

When the United States added Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (TTP-JA), a faction of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), to the terror list in July 2016 following their claim of responsibility for a failed car bombing in Manhattan, it helped to push the group out of the tribal region of Pakistan and into areas that China was eying for their multibillion economic corridor project. This was part of a larger strategy that eventually created immeasurable headaches for both the security establishment in Islamabad and officials in Beijing, potentially causing billions of dollars in losses for both. Given Washington’s growing acrimonious ties with Pakistan and desire to constrain China’s expansion, this seems a fortuitous coincidence. But was it simply an unplanned consequence of Washington’s war on terror, or a calculated outcome set into motion specifically to keep Pakistan and China in check?

It’s no secret that Pakistan has fallen out of Washington’s good graces in recent times. The current dip in relations culminated in a U.S. bill introduced on September 20 seeking to officially designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Pakistan has also seen the writing on the wall, allegedly using their networks to disrupt progress in Afghanistan and cozying up to China as a new source for weapons and economic growth. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for which China announced nearly $50 billion in funding in late 2014, would be the triumph of their growing relationship. This was certainly unwelcome news for the United States, who had a cautious eye on both countries, but there was no way for Washington to directly intervene. Indirectly, however, Washington seems to have succeeded in meddling with the project through a recent intensification of operations in east Afghanistan.

When the TTP-JA was added to the U.S. State Department’s global terrorist list, it significantly expanded Washington’s options for dealing with the organization. The United States has already used drone strikes against designated Taliban groups in a number of instances, including a May 21 strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan that killed TTP leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour and a November 2015 strike that killed another commander, Khan Saeed, in the Khost province of Afghanistan. As illustrated by precedents involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and various Islamic State (ISIS) holdings, when the United States puts a group on the list, they intend to target it aggressively.

At the same time, security forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan aren’t sitting idly by, waving to drones as they buzz overhead and leaving all of the work for the Americans. In the last week of July alone, joint U.S.-Afghan operations killed an estimated 300 ISIS militants in eastern Afghanistan. In Pakistan, security forces have launched no less than three large-scale operations against TTP elements in the Federally Administered Tribal Region (FATA) that borders Balochistan, also reportedly killing hundreds militants since they began in 2014. Operation Khyber 3, launched on August 17, claimed 14 militant lives in its opening salvo.

Now, where can the militants run? Traditionally, Kabul and Islamabad both blame the other for abetting TTP and other terrorist groups in their borders, and to an extent both are correct. The porous border region between the two countries is much like the wild west, and terrorists enjoy a relatively large amount of freedom of movement in the less secure areas. As Pakistan turns up the heat in the FATA, militants are pushed into Afghanistan, and vice versa when Afghanistan kicks up operations. Now, with nowhere to run on either side of the border, many tribal militants are now making a home for themselves in nearby Balochistan.

Unlike in traditional Taliban strongholds, Balochistan’s security arrangements are much less comprehensive. The same areas in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital city, are targeted over and over and over despite, or perhaps because of, headway in the FATA. And while the dominant ethnic group of the province is Baloch, there is still a sizable Pashtun population in northern Balochistan to blend into, including in and around Quetta. Balochistan also has its own border with Afghanistan that militants can move through.

Not only are TTP-JA and other Taliban elements being pushed into Balochistan, but they are now more actively carrying out attacks, which is hardly an unpredictable consequence. Between their founding in 2007 and when the United States added the TTP to the terror list on September 1, 2010, the TTP had claimed or is believed to have carried out at least 16 attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere that resulted in an estimated 370 deaths. After their addition to America’s global terror list, the TTP carried out approximately 32 attacks over the next three years, resulting in almost 700 more deaths. That is a 2:1 ratio in the frequency of attacks and amount of victims killed for the three year periods before and after the designation.

It would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that the uptick in activity was owed solely to American forces targeting the TTP in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but many of the attacks claimed by the TTP were stated to be retaliatory measures against U.S. strikes carried out in the area. It certainly suggests, at the very least, that Washington’s targeting of the TTP both drove them further out of their traditional areas of influence, and challenged them to retaliate for the losses that they accrued.

The pattern has begun to repeat itself with the TTP-JA. In no small part thanks to the dual squeeze put on the group by the U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan combined with the ongoing Pakistani Khyber operations, the TTP-JA has already increased their activity in Balochistan. Before July, the TTP-JA had claimed or is believed to have been responsible for six attacks resulting in approximately 160 deaths. In August and September alone, the TTP-JA is believed to have already carried out five attacks resulting in a further 135 deaths, mostly in Quetta. The beginnings of a worrisome trend, to be sure, but more importantly it illustrates that when the United States begins targeting new militant groups along the Afghan-Pakistani border, the result predicatively appears to be an increase in terror in Pakistan. It’s simple math, and no doubt was at least part of the overall decision-making calculus behind commencing operations against the TTP-JA to begin with. If the security and intelligence establishments in the United States consider this outcome to be an unfortunate part of doing business or a deliberate means to an altogether different end still remains an open question.

The border squeeze has certainly complicated matters for China and their CPEC project. China’s concerns over Balochistan’s security are longstanding, and recent developments have done little to raise Beijing’s confidence. In order to protect Chinese workers in the country, Pakistan has promised to raise a security force of 15,000. This would include 9,000 regular Army soldiers in addition to 6,000 more paramilitary personnel. As part of the plan,manpower will be drawn not only from Balochistan but also other provinces, including from local police forces. Sindh province has already voiced disapproval over the security measures, which they say intrude on their rights. Not surprisingly, other provinces appear to be reticent to commit soldiers to places like Balochistan, the most dangerous province and soon-to-be home of the juiciest terror targets in the country once construction is in full swing.

The Pakistani government knows that it is facing an uphill battle, and so does China for that matter. In July, five projects worth billions were already on the chopping block due to their slow start and Pakistan’s inability to provide adequate security. As recently as September 28, Pakistani media was reporting about China’s dissatisfaction with the current security arrangements for the corridor and how this will affect the project’s overall timeline.

China has good reason to be worried. There have been a number of attacks against Chinese laborers, engineers, and businessmen in Balochistan and throughout the country since 2001. Not only that, but China has already poured in a reported $14 billion into the CPEC project already. All of this weighs particularly heavy on the heads of Pakistani government officials who can’t afford any more delays, as billions of dollars hang in the balance for both countries.

And that is the crux of the argument. Because of the upswing in terror and the degradation of the security situation in Balochistan, Pakistan and China risk losing billions over delays and cancellations for the CPEC project. The security situation owes to, in no small part, the pushback that the TTP-JA and other groups have received from the United States and her allies in eastern Afghanistan this summer. To put it more bluntly, the United States has contributed to the degradation of security in Balochistan, a key region for CPEC projects, risking billions for China and Pakistan and putting a strain on their bilateral relations. It would have been easy to predict this outcome, as many observers have. So this ultimately raises a very interesting question: Was the United States banking on increased violence in Balochistan all along?

Ian Price works as a South Asia intelligence analyst for a private company in Tel Aviv, Israel. He holds a master’s degree from Tsinghua University in Beijing on the subject of Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy.