China is tying itself in knots in Pakistan
By Rajeev Sharma
China has for long been using Pakistan as a counterfoil to India. There is nothing wrong with that as every sovereign state has the right to conduct its foreign policy to suit its national interests best. But China is gradually tying itself up in knots in its dealings with Pakistan as far as the issue of Pakistan’s export of terrorism is concerned. The two simultaneous terrorist attacks in Kashgar, the volatile city in China’s Uighur Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province, on July 30-31, made the Chinese government pin the blame on terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan’s vast terrorist sanctuaries.
This was the first time that Beijing pointed accusing fingers at its ‘all-weather‘ ally for terrorist attacks inside China. So peeved were the Chinese authorities, they summoned ISI chief Shuja Pasha to Beijing for a dressing down. China has for long been accusing East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a terrorist group which claims Xinjiang as part of East Turkistan, an Islamic state that existed from 1933 to 1934 and from 1944 to 1949. ETIM is part of the al Qaeda network and has been sheltered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With Afghanistan becoming the sanctuary of all hues of terrorist groups prior to 2001, ETIM relocated itself to Kabul and utilised the Taliban-al Qaeda facilities to train.
After the US bombing of Taliban-al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan, ETIM, like other terrorist groups, moved to the new sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. ETIM is not the only terrorist group which is sheltered, most of them with the complicity of the state, particularly Pakistan Army and ISI. Pakistan’s tribal areas are today a vast terrorist sanctuary where several terrorist leaders and their cadres have found safe haven as well as a free training campus. The area has virtually become a Taliban emirate. In fact, the terror sanctuary has been expanding since 2001, covering a swath of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan. A clear sign of this expansion became evident when the Taliban came closer to Buner, a town quite close to Islamabad in 2009. It took the full might of the Pakistan Military, and several months, to push back the Taliban and their allies to the Waziristan sanctuary. Two things were evident during the 2009 Taliban siege of Pakistan’s hinterland. One, the Taliban and other terrorist groups were not fully in control of their patrons in Pakistan Army and ISI. Second, the terrorist groups had their own agenda and were willing to pursue them at all costs. These consequences were evident even to the Pakistan Army which had to re-deploy several thousand troops supported by artillery guns and fighter jets to tame the Taliban. But despite these events, there has been no change in the attitude of the army towards supporting and sheltering terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and ETIM.
In fact, General Ashfaq Kayani created an effective smokescreen by selectively targeting terrorist groups carrying out attacks inside Pakistan. Kayani, while he was the ISI Chief, had helped in relocating terrorist groups like LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa areas, closer to the tribal areas, to train new cadres of the Taliban fighting the NATO forces in Afghanistan. New terrorist training camps were set up in Dir and nearby areas with the ISI funding both training and other logistics. Several thousand terrorist recruits since then have graduated from these camps, most of them beefing up the Taliban strength in Afghanistan. Kayani also created a new, anonymous wing of ISI to support these terrorist groups. This wing formed part of the Security Directorate or Directorate S and was staffed by men and officers who had retired from ISI and reemployed. These men, from the non-commissioned cadre, civilian security agencies and officer corps of the army, were given considerable autonomy in operations. They operated out of front offices and had no visible links to the official ISI.
Members of this shadowy group have been involved in some of the most serious terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, India and other countries. The Mumbai attack of November 2008, for instance, was planned, managed and monitored directly by this group but with the permission of the Chief of Army Staff. This group was also responsible for the safekeeping of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the Taliban chief Mullah Omar and several other leaders of different terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan. The Abbottabad raid, conducted by the US Special Forces in May 2011, exposed Pakistan Army’s complicity in protecting the most wanted terrorist in the world even while claiming to be a ‘victim of terrorism‘ and ‘a strategic ally’ of the US in ‘war on terror’. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a damning indictment of the army and its policies. The incident also sparked off vocal public debate about Pakistan Army’s role in bringing the country to ruin. Strident criticism of the ISI and army became a staple of the media outlets till the army came down heavily on some of them, killing, quite brutally, Saleem Shahzad who had exposed the infiltration of extremist elements in the armed forces. So was there a change in the army’s attitude towards supporting terrorist groups and their leaders? Hardly; in fact the army adopted an aggressive stance against the US, denying visas, barring travels and raising the rhetoric in the popular media to protect their other ‘strategic assets‘, including Mullah Omar.
Today, Omar, the one-year cleric and amir of the Taliban is the most wanted man as far as the US is concerned. His capture or death will change the equation in Afghanistan. The army has also refused to launch a military offensive against the Haqqani network which remains the key support base for the Taliban. Without the Haqqanis, the Taliban will lose its grip of south-western Afghanistan. To return to China, it has been vocal in supporting Pakistan in international forums against the charges of terrorism. In fact, China went out of its way to prevent the blacklisting of Jamaat-ud Dawa, the parent body of LeT. China’s facetious excuse was that India had not presented enough evidence while there was considerable proof of LeT’s involvement in the Mumbai attacks.
China has also been relying more on the ISI to ensure that no terrorist groups sheltered in Waziristan and other areas posed a direct or indirect threat to China. Beijing has also signed a MoU with Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical right wing party which supports the Taliban. The idea behind these bilateral agreements was to ensure that China’s sensitive autonomous region of Xinjiang remained free of radicalization and terrorist incidents. The recent spate of terrorist attacks in Kashgar and other areas in Xinjiang has rendered this ‘strategic alliance‘ as a myth. After the July attacks, the fact that Beijing was quick to blame Pakistan for sheltering ETIM showed its patience with Pakistan had run out this time. China must realize that Pakistan, particularly its army and intelligence service ISI, would not give up terrorist groups so easily. If China failed to squeeze its ‘all-weather ally‘ now, it could become a new hunting ground for global terrorist groups riding the domestic Muslim anger.