On May 11, three terrorists attacked the only five-star hotel in Gwadar, the new port city of Balochistan being built with assistance from the Chinese Belt-and-Road Initiative. They killed four hotel employees and a navy soldier before being shot by the army. The attack was claimed by the outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).
The official view was that “sudden intensification of attacks is linked to the launch of the second phase of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the progress on border fencing and the fluid situation in Afghanistan”. This statement encapsulates the new threat perception in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The reference to “border-fencing” points to the threat to a state that felt threatened only on the eastern border in the past. And border-fencing with Afghanistan is not going to be easy as there is no agreed formula of demarcation of the Durand Line.
In the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) — now merged with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and thus “regularised” — a new protest movement, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), complains of the “disappeared” people of FATA. The complaint is similar to the one made by the BLA in Balochistan but with a difference: PTM is a regular political party with two seats in the National Assembly.
The trouble in Balochistan is seen as connected with the ongoing covert conflict with India. The BLA is composed of the “disappeared” (through extrajudicial killing) men that the Baloch nationalists in the Quetta assembly blame on the Pakistan army, accusing it of capturing and eliminating them. Pakistan wavers between belief in the two versions because of the capture of Kulbhushan Jadhav from Balochistan in 2016.
The PTM too is accused by the army of being funded by the Kabul government in tandem with India. It is evident that Pakistan is now worried about its western border more than its eastern one which is already fenced against infiltration by India. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s India policy — backed by the army — is that of normalisation, which to many looks like putting aside Pakistan’s “revisionism” over Kashmir in favour of concentrating on the western border which it never thought of protecting in the past.
The move away from “India centrism” has come in the wake of internal upheaval in the two tribal areas — comprising almost half of of Pakistan’s territory — where lack of development has caused the population to move. The Baloch, small in number, have lost their youth across the border or in the badlands of Balochistan while the Pashtun of FATA have migrated inland — mostly to Karachi where they form the largest group after the Urdu-speaking refugees from India — and to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates of the Gulf. Lack of development in Balochistan, from where Pakistan extracted gas and spent it lavishly in Punjab and other provinces till it was exhausted, has alienated the Baloch intelligentsia and caused the emergence of the BLA.
The lack of development of infrastructure in FATA has made this crucial northwestern region unlivable. Moreover, by allowing the Afghan Taliban and their Arab and Uzbek fellow-warriors to locate themselves in FATA and infiltrate Afghanistan to fight the American war against the Soviet-supported government in Kabul completely destroyed the local hierarchies that had kept the “tribal museum” of Pakistan intact.
Imran Khan’s talk of normalising relations with India has caused many to do a double-take. Everyone knows “making peace” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi means forgetting Kashmir. In Pakistan too the “Kashmir first” mindset is changing under pressure from the Chinese Belt and Road project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is crucially dependent on the development of the Gwadar Port and its hinterland. CPEC is viewed by Pakistan as a game-changer. But without peace on the borders, this transformation may not be achieved.
Peace with India becomes crucial because of the neglected western border and the offended countries beyond it: Afghanistan and Iran. In 1998, the Taliban, along with infiltrators from Pakistan, tried to take the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, killing its anti-Taliban Shias and the five Iranian diplomats in the city’s Iranian consulate. Pakistan has spent half a century facing trouble on both eastern and western borders, including Uzbekistan.
It is time for change in Pakistan and it is going to be difficult, given the tough man expected to be ruling India for some time — Modi. Pakistan’s economy is in deep crisis. Meanwhile, China’s persuasion to “normalise” the state of Pakistan is becoming intense, judging from the way it has abstained from vetoing the resolution on Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar at the UN. China wants its corridor through Pakistan to run normally and that requires Pakistan to live normally as a state.
The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan