PESHAWAR – When militants attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange on June 29, an assault launched with grenades and guns that left eight people dead including four assailants, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government quickly accused India of masterminding the attack.
Pakistan’s security agencies claimed the attackers hailed from the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), an insurgent group listed by the United States, United Kingdom and Pakistan as a terrorist organization.
A BLA spokesperson took responsibility for the assault, which he said was launched by “suicide attackers” in a Twitter message from an account that was later suspended. Asia Times could not contact the militant group active in remote areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Prime Minister Khan made no bones about the perpetrators when he told Parliament that he had “no doubt” that India was behind the deadly attack on the country’s economic hub of Peshawar.
He said intelligence agencies were aware of Indian activity two months before the assault and that they had foiled four prior India-hatched terror plots.
His Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi claimed India had activated “sleeper cells” to disrupt Pakistan’s “peace”, while his Special Assistant on National Security Moeed Yusuf said in a statement the attack was “state-sponsored” terrorism.
Khan’s government, to be sure, has reason to deflect blame on traditional rival India for its own woes, including a spreading Covid-19 outbreak, a floundering economy and food scarcity that threatens famine in the upcoming winter season.
Indeed, none of Khan’s top officials have offered any concrete evidence of Indian complicity. India, for its part, has refuted the official allegations as “absurd.”
Pakistan has long blamed India for providing covert support to the BLA, including arms, training and finances delivered via its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad in Afghanistan, and medical support to injured BLA commanders in India’s hospitals. New Delhi has consistently denied the claims.
Founded in 2000, the BLA is nominally struggling for the liberation of the ethnic Baloch people in Pakistan’s volatile southwestern Balochistan province, the country’s largest land area known to be rich in natural resources including deep stores of natural gas.
Since 2017, however, the BLA has targeted China’s budding strategic interests in Pakistan, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project that is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and designed to pass through Balochistan. The China-invested Gwadar port is also situated in Balochistan.
The militant group launched a suicide assault on Chinese engineers working on the corridor in Balochistan in August 2018, stormed the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November 2018 and attacked a Chinese-invested five-star hotel in Gwadar that killed eight hotel workers, soldiers and militants in May 2019.
The group has claimed in statements that China is “plundering the wealth of the Baloch nation.”
The BLA’s attack on Karachi’s stock exchange was consistent with previous anti-China attacks. Chinese investment companies have management control over the bourse, with 40% of its shares held by the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Shenzhen Stock Exchange and China Financial Futures Exchange.
After the attack, the BLA claimed in a press release that it aimed to hit the “economic interest” of Pakistan and China for their activities in Balochistan, a not-so-veiled reference to the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
By striking while India and China are squared off over contested Himalayan territory at Ladakh, the insurgent group reputedly also sent a first salvo warning to Beijing of a possible wider regional conflict that could bring its wider interests under potential proxy attack.
Islamabad has moved to reassure Beijing. This month, Pakistan’s top envoy Qureshi assured his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that Pakistan and China have a tradition of “mutual support to each other in the face of common challenges.”
He said Pakistan was committed to the ‘one-China policy’ and firmly supported China on its core interests, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, where Beijing is under fire for its concentration camp-like treatment of ethnic Muslim Uighurs.
Moinuddin Haider, a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army who has also served as governor Sindh province and a federal interior minister, told Asia Times that the China-Indian military built up near the strategic Karakoram Highway has strategic implications for Pakistan.
The Karakoram Highway is a 1,300-kilometer-long Beijing-funded CPEC project connecting China’s western Xinjiang Autonomous Region with Pakistan’s Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan areas. It’s route also runs through areas disputed by India.
“We had a mutual economic interest in CPEC in which the Chinese investments and Pakistan’s economic prosperity is interlinked. It is legitimate to go to the bitter end in defending a venture in which your stakes are so high,” Moin said.
Earlier this month, India’s media added fuel to the situation by running reports based on intelligence reports that claimed Pakistan had deployed 20,000 troops along the volatile and contested Line of Control in Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. That, the reports said, put India at risk of a possible two-front war with China and Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military’s media wing repudiated the report as “false and irresponsible.” Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director-general Major General Babar Iftikhar also refuted reports of the presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan, including at the Skardu Airbase.
India’s concerns of a possible two-front threat, not least at a time of extreme economic distress and fast-spreading Covid-19 outbreak, give certain credence to speculation that the BLA could have acted tacitly in India’s interests by sending a threatening signal to China via Pakistan.
Any future BLA attacks on the CPEC, which India likewise clearly sees as a Chinese threat to its national security and position, could elicit more top-level Pakistani allegations of India complicity and heighten regional tensions.
But while Pakistan may see China’s military buildup vis-a-vis India at Ladakh as a new line of defense for the CPEC in the volatile Gilgit-Baltistan region, it’s not clear where and what the BLA may strike next considering China’s increasingly widespread interests and presence in the country.