A Sino-American Turf Battle In Pakistan?
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—An anti-American Islamic fanatic is arrested in Afghanistan, flown to Guantanamo Bay and then released back to Afghan authorities. He’s supposedly seething with anti-Americanism. But after crossing the border and returning to Pakistan, his first mission is to kidnap and kill a Chinese engineer.In doing so, Abdullah Mehsud also becomes the first Pakistani to kill a Chinese citizen on Pakistani soil in a high profile case, creating an unfortunate precedent in the sixty-year long history of close Sino-Pak ties.Mehsud was anti-American. Or was he? We haven’t seen him target any high or low profile American assets since the famous 2004 kidnappings. But he has single handedly done what others failed to do: he effectively scuttled Chinese help in a major Pakistani development project.His sick explanation for this was, “I wanted to embarrass the government of President Pervez Musharraf.”This twisted logic has resurfaced again in the past few weeks with suicide attacks in Pakistan targeting both Pakistani soldiers and Chinese citizens in a single wave, starting with the kidnapping of seven Chinese citizens in the Pakistani capital by thugs working for Rashid Ghazi, the terrorist leader of the Red Mosque brigade. Mr. Ghazi maintained strong ties to some fringe extremist elements in the border area with Afghanistan. His contacts included foreign fighters with shadowy backgrounds.Targeting Pakistani soldiers and Chinese interests is a strange combination. Islamic radicals, who used to kill the Americans, are now ironically targeting the Pakistani military and Chinese citizens. What’s going on?Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui told me recently that ten private Chinese citizens working in Pakistan died in terror attacks in three years. “And the venue has also changed,” he says, “from rural areas to big cities like Islamabad and Peshawar. The motivation has also changed and become more diversified. So I think maybe the security risk my people face here is up.”After the Red Mosque operation, some analysts in the Pakistani strategic community detected a clear attempt at provoking a confrontation inside Pakistan between religious elements on one side, including the moderate ones, and China on the other. This attempt took the shape of successive attacks against Chinese interests here coupled with suspicious press leaks meant to inflame Muslim passions against China.A case in point: London’s Sunday Times revealed quoting unnamed sources that China is summarily executing Chinese Muslim militants arrested and handed over by Pakistan. This report is meant to inflame rightwing segments of the Pakistani public opinion, already angry at Islamabad for handing over terror suspects to Washington.In the sixty-year history of confrontation between Islam and the West over Palestine/Israel, this appears to be the first real attempt at dragging China into the battle. But the real loser here – if this plan works out – is none but Pakistan, China’s strongest Muslim ally.China is helping Pakistan launch one of the region’s hottest pieces of real estate: the Gwadar seaport on the mouth of the strategic Arabian Gulf. This piece of land is so hot that business interests from Dubai and Singapore virtually fought a battle in order to get the management rights for the port. Gwadar gives China’s massive western provinces an energy and trade outlet. Pakistan gets to give Central Asia the shortest trade route to the sea.India and Iran have been working overtime to thwart this Sino-Pakistani project. The Americans, too, don’t want to see China establishing a foothold in Pakistan, at the crossroads of South, Central and West Asia. The Americans have not said anything yet. But actions speak louder than words. Example: the shadowy terrorist organization named Balochistan liberation army.India and some elements in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan have created this outfit, commonly known as the BLA. It has real training bases in Afghanistan where there is no government beyond Kabul and where the Americans, too, are not in control. This is the same place where India has more ‘consulates’ than any other country in the world with diplomatic ties to Afghanistan. Most of these consulates are, ironically, close to Pakistan’s western provinces.The Indians are doing something else near Pakistan’s western border: building an airbase in Tajikistan and transferring military aircraft there. Indian diplomats in Pakistan are often embarrassed when their Pakistani friends ask them about the purpose of this overzealous attempt at projecting power. They simply don’t have a convincing answer.The point is, since the fall of Taliban regime in Kabul and the sudden rise of foreign influence inside Afghanistan, including that of the Americans and the Indians, Pakistan’s western regions close to Afghanistan are witnessing the worst kind of destabilization.The last time our western regions were this unstable is when Afghanistan was a Soviet proxy and being used as a forward base for stirring a communist takeover in Pakistan.BLA is a killer of Pakistanis and Chinese, a shadowy terrorist organization in the classic mold of the Cold War foreign-trained and financed proxy groups.Washington refuses to designate the BLA a terrorist organization. Pakistani authorities have known for months now that both Abdullah Mehsud, the supposed Pakistani Taliban leader, and the cadres of BLA, are in Afghanistan.This week, Pakistani security personnel swooped in on Mehsud after he sneaked in from Afghanistan and blew him to pieces. The right move at the right time.These days Washington is lecturing us, the ungrateful Pakistanis, about how we don’t trust America despite the ten billion dollars in aid since 9/11. Pundits like the U.S. presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has gone to the extent of demanding the overthrow of the Pakistani administration and maybe even invading Pakistan.The Americans expect us to bend backwards for them when they don’t demonstrate even the slightest consideration for their ally’s legitimate security and strategic concerns in the region.But if Washington is trying to meddle in our affairs, it is because the Pakistanis don’t have a strong political system. Our messy domestic politics have always been a nagging security concern for us. And since the fabricated 9 March ‘crisis’, our failed political system in its present form has actually become a national security threat and liability, providing openings for more emboldened foreign interference, with money flowing in from multiple sources to create instability and ensure the win of certain elements over others in our domestic context.
Ahmed Quraishi is a Pakistani public affairs professional. He heads the Pakistan Task Force at FurmaanRealpolitik, an independent Pakistani think tank based in Islamabad. He also produces and hosts a weekly foreign policy show for PTV World.