Pakistan: CPEC Security Challenges

A road construction site near Balochistan's city of Turbat. (ViewsWeek photo)
A road construction site near Balochistan’s city of Turbat. (ViewsWeek photo by A. M. Khan)

An economic force-multiplier encompassing road connectivity, energy, and infrastructure outlays, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) faces a host of internal and external security challenges.  Annunciated by the Chinese President, “One Belt, One Road” OBOR concept connects China to markets in Asia, Europe and beyond. Projected at US$ 46 billion, US$ 36 billion for energy projects and US$ 10 billion on roads, bridges, etc, the 3000 kilometer long route links Gwadar port through three different roads to Hasan Abdal and a single road thereafter to Kashgar via Thakot and Gilgit.


Kashgar to Hasan Abdal through Thakot, Gilgit, Abbottabad and Havelian is the common “Northern” route.  The “Western” and “Central” separate on the West bank of the Indus after running together from Hasan Abdal to DI Khan, passing through underdeveloped areas. The Western route goes through Zhob, Qila Saifullah, Quetta, Sohrab, Basima, Panjgur, Hoshab, Turbat to Gwadar while the Central route connects DI Khan to DG Khan, Shikarpur, Rati Dero, Khuzdar, Awaran, Hoshab, Turbat and Gwadar. The “Eastern” route augments the existing Motorway through developed areas of the country east of the Indus from Hasan Abdal to Lahore, Multan, Sukkur, Hyderabad and Karachi.


Failure to coordinate with the provincial governments, greater transparency and proper publicizing could have avoided the controversy about the routes, the federal government botched this up. Former CM Abdul Malik tasked “Chief Minister Policy Reference Unit” (CMPRU) to ensure inclusion of areas of minimum population density in Boluchistan. CMPRU put maximum emphasis on the western route because “lack of access to markets and to employment, educational and health and socialization opportunities in some areas defines as required inequality and, in most cases, constitutes the basis of disaffection and insurgency, creating conditions for higher security cost” along the western and central routes where the militants are operating.


Some countries consider CPEC a strategic threat to their military and economic interests and pervasive influence in the region. India vehemently objects to CPEC, given the matrix of intense geo-strategic competition it gives Pakistan a strategically profitable position along the Arabian Sea. Authentic evidence exists about a special cell within RAW funded solely for acting against the CPEC. One of our very close friends, the UAE, sees Gwadar a challenge to its virtual monopoly over trade in the gulf and or the Asian Continent. Rather strange since India is assiduously promoting the “Chabahar Port”initiative in Iran close to Gwadar to provide Europe and Central Asia as an alternative, having more of an effect on UAE than Gwadar.


About 8000 Chinese workers are presently working on 210 projects in Pakistan while 7,000 additional workers are expected for executing multi-billion projects along the proposed routes Research shows. Where Chinese interests clash with those of India in Afghanistan and in African states, Chinese have been killed or kidnapped. Nine Chinese workers were killed and seven abducted at one of the several oil fields in April 2001 operated by Chinese firms in Ethiopia while 11 Chinese road construction workers were killed in June 2004 working on the Kunduz-Baghlan road project in Afghanistan which Chinese companies got in competition with India.


Asking Beijing to stop persecuting Xinjiang Muslims or face action, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (TTPJA), a splinter group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), warned in 2014 that it would hit Chinese interests in Pakistan. Militant groups associated with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) working with various factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Al Qaeda and the Jundullah could attack Chinese nationals. Attempts to kidnap and kill Chinese workers in Hyderabad, Matiari and Sukkur have been foiled in recent years by law enforcement agencies LEAs).


The Chinese will be looked after by the Special Security Division (SSD) consisting of 9 army battalions comprising 8000 soldiers, 5000 SSG commandos and 6 wings of paramilitary forces having around 9000 personnel from the SSG. With military operations already ongoing in FATA, Swat, etc against TTP, etc, specially constituted counter-terrorist forces must target militant elements like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LEJ), Sipah-e-Sahiba (SSP), etc deeply entrenched in urban areas.


Authored by Naveed Elahi, a China-Pakistan Institute (CPI) paper focusses on providing physical security to CPEC viz (1) Implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) (2) Activating National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) (3) forming CPEC Security Commission to consolidate the security arrangements and (4) Regularly publicise development work of CPEC in print and electronic media, with PEMRA banning negative reporting.


CPI wants “Protective Intelligence” with ISI, MI, Intelligence Bureau (IB), etc enhancing their realtime intelligence coordination with the Chinese intelligence agencies, NACTA operating as the hub for receipt of intelligence from all agencies and dissemination thereof to LEAs for timely action. Media and academics can play a positive role deflecting, malicious and misleading propaganda by highlighting by the significance of CPEC for Pakistan, countering conspiracies and subversive activity by creating awareness about efforts to sabotage CPEC. Controversy about alignment of the route creates mistrust in the minds of the people. The intelligence agencies must operate in tandem against enemy initiatives to undermine CPEC.


A resident academic of a prestigious educational institution in a Panel discussion about “Security Challenges to the CPEC” called the CPEC a figment of “Shaikh Chilli’s” imagination, “a grandiose undertaking which we cannot pay for”. One of the students gently reminded him that energy projects and roads pay for themselves.  The motivated negativity of this visiting Professor can poison the minds of our youth at a higher place of economic learning, who was he planted by? Agent provocateurs create doubts spreading confusion and mistrust to undermine the CPEC project. Playing to the gallery, the media person present made a snide remark at my “not looking a gift horse in the mouth” metaphor. A gift of the gab and theoretical knowledge is no substitute for practical experience, otherwise eloquent theorists like him would be successful entrepreneurs. His quite visible jealousy notwithstanding, this theoretical genius could not explain which country in the world is willing to give us US$ 46 billion as soft loans at this time.  One forgives him his spite!


Specific estimates notwithstanding, this project will create billions of US dollars for Pakistan over the long term. Dr Kaiser Bengali, Chairman CMPRU, says, “security considerations are important, however bombardment of disaffected areas with jobs is a better option than bombardment with drones”. Expressing satisfaction publicly, a high-level Chinese security delegation visiting Pakistan recently clearly had muted reservations, over the politicisation of the routes. A Senior Chinese statement hoped this would be resolved soon. Securing this Project and shaking off any controversy is a huge challenge, it will define this country’s future!


(Ikram Sehgal is a defense and security analyst).

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