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Beyond veiled exchanges



By Imtiaz Gul

The News, June 01, 2014


If Pakistan is willing to fight China’s war on terror, it must draw no distinction between the good and the bad Taliban

A video released last year by the media wing of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), Islami Awazi (Voice of Islam), Abuzar al-Burmi, flanked by a German and a Chinese militant, called on the “mujahideen” to shift their focus on Chinese interests after the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in 2014. The kidnapping of a Chinese tourist from Dera Ismail Khan on May 19 this year is probably part of that strategy.

Abdullah Mansoor, the current leader of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — popularly known as TIP in Waziristan — claims the separatist Uyghur Chinese Muslims settled in Pakistan’s tribal areas number between 1,000-1,200, a claim hard to verify independently.

Mansoor had assumed the leadership of the TIP after a drone strike in 2012 took out his predecessor Abdullah Masoom. Mansoor also claims that the Chinese group enjoys full support of al-Qaeda and the TTP’s most powerful Mehsud faction controlled by Khalid Mehsud alias Khan Said (Sajna).

While many of the TIP activists have moved to the mountainous Shawwal and adjoining areas of North Waziristan, the top leadership — sources familiar with Waziristan militancy — believe that the top-tier ETIM leadership still operates out of its bases somewhere in South Waziristan, including their training camps located somewhere in Sararogha, Laddha, and Bobar.

Those who have met Abdullah Mansoor recently report that the number of Uyghur Chinese being quoted by the leader include women and children — mostly the families of the males who moved to Pakistan. These family members undergo the same rigorous training in the camps as do the male members. The group has recently released a video clip in which small children are seen firing and are receiving training with the help of al-Qaeda members in the respective region.

Overflowing with the zeal for an independent Turkestan (Xinjiang), these militants are reportedly ready to do anything that would draw them closer to their goal. And for this, hurting Chinese interests is part of the strategy.

This situation represents a mounting dilemma for Pakistan. Chinese officials have repeatedly, yet quietly, pointed fingers at ETIM in Waziristan for the string of terrorist attacks that have struck different locations in Xinjiang in recent months.

The latest car bombings in Urumqi that left about 31 people dead and 90 injured has forced China to augment extra security measures in the Xinjiang region, and reports are afloat that even Beijing is now instituting early morning and late night police patrols in almost all major cities as a terror-preemptive measure.

One had assumed that the recent aerial strikes on Uyghur and Uzbek militants (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan ) in North Waziristan, too, stemmed from Chinese complaints and a reciprocal action by the Pakistani military, whose hardware interests and operational cooperation are tied to the Chinese military.

The areas that the F-16 jets targeted also appear to be those where Uyghur and Uzbek militants maintain their hideouts. Interestingly, the strikes took place only a day before the presidents of Pakistan and China were scheduled to meet in Shanghai, and, therefore, appear to have been motivated by Chinese concerns, if not formal complaints.

In the said meeting, the Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain agreed to make joint efforts for fighting terrorism. Chinese president also underscored that China backs Pakistan in practising a counter-terrorism strategy and that they are willing to enhance bilateral security to restore peace and stability in both the countries.

This reassurance implied that the two “all-weather” friends have, indeed, moved beyond veiled and ambivalent exchanges on the issue and that the Pakistan army has responded to the Chinese calls for direct actions against those who are making and executing threats aimed at Chinese interests.

If Mansoor’s claims that Khan Said Sajna provides social safety net to his militants were true, that represents another dilemma for the Pakistani authorities that have for long considered Sajna as a “friendly” component of the TTP and are even happier now that this Mehsud militant has broken ranks with the TTP core. How will they now deal with Sajna on the issue of anti-China Uyghurs? Will he be used to pack them up, or allowed to continue hosting them?

For quite some time, despite some circumstantial evidence that the separatist movement in Xinjiang was being fueled by ideologically-driven Uyghur terrorists based in the Pakistani border regions, Chinese officials avoided raising this issue formally. Nor did they use the media for conveying their message to Pakistan. However, more recently and despite the ever-green friendship between the two countries, China has on more than one occasion conveyed it to top Pakistani officials that terrorist groups and individual extremist elements linked with the ETIM receive training in the tribal areas of Pakistan and that these regions have become their “safe havens”.

This was substantiated by a terrorist captured by Chinese police after a bomb attack who admitted that one of the leaders of their group operates from Pakistan and had been trained in making explosives and firearms in the camps of tribal areas of Pakistan. This clearly means China is losing patience with its decades’ old and most trusted friend.

Officials and local sources say that for the Pakistani government and security apparatus it should be more worrisome that second to Arabs, these Chinese enjoy full public support in their areas of operation and, in some cases, even share abodes with the common tribesmen, some reportedly married into local tribes as well. Thus, localising and isolating them will be an uphill task for Pakistan’s security agencies.

What does this mean for the future of China’s economic engagement in Pakistan? Beside the US$500 million it is spending for the upgradation of the Karakoram Highway, China has allowed its companies to invest in Pakistan in big numbers. Though this magnanimity also stems from China’s own interest in the economic corridor between Gwadar and Xinjiang, this should not dilute the reality that China’s general interest and engagement with Pakistan precedes the current fixation on the economic corridor.

In the past few years, Chinese have invested more than US$2 billion in Pakistan and with more than 100 Chinese companies venturing particularly into Punjab, the prospects of many billions flowing into Pakistan for productivity and jobs have brightened up. This will likely have a positive spin-off for the rest of Pakistan as well.

Logically, this also brings greater political pressure on the Pakistani authorities to mitigate Chinese concerns on terrorism. Even if Pakistan remains selective in fighting the war on terror because of its own tactical considerations, it most probably shall have to move to fight China’s ‘war on terror’ to safeguard its own economic interests.

President Barack Obama’s announcements on complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2016 make matters even worse for Pakistan. The US pullout will open up the entire geo-strategic space for the Indo-Afghan alliance and, thus, making Pakistan vulnerable to their scheming (as long as they believed that non-state actors remain an instrument of Islamabad’s foreign policy).

In response, both India and Afghanistan will probably not spare any effort to hit where it will hurt Pakistan and by implication China. Although shorn of evidence, the close links of TIP with al-Qaeda, the TTP, and other radical networks and their nearly impractical demands, such as enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan, withdrawal of the army from FATA, and release of their prisoners inter alia do point to the possibility of a nexus between these hardliners and some external factors.

This requires a certain paradigm shift. If Pakistan is willing to fight China’s war on terror, it must draw no distinction between the good and the bad Taliban anymore. Non-state actors — tribal militants, warlords and religio-political outfits — represent medievalism and retrogressive bent of mind. They cannot be partners for peace and development. The paradigm shift will not only encourage China into greater economic engagement with Pakistan but will also remove some of the Indo-Afghan reservations and help in mending fences with them.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk