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Countering BLA: A Combined Threat to Pakistan and China

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The events of June 29, 2020 were aimed at denting another substantive symbol of strategic partnership between Pakistan and China. The attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange’s (PSX) building in Karachi failed eight minutes into the attack as all four terrorists were shot down by Rapid Response Force (RRF) of Sindh Police. Five innocent people were killed by BLA in this dastardly attack. This terrorist act was the brainchild of Majeed Brigade of Balochistan Liberation Army – a banned terrorist organization. A well-prepared response by RRF thwarted terrorists equipped with automatic AK-47s, grenades and other sophisticated equipment from entering inside the main building.

Despite the high-profile nature of the target, the heinous terrorist attack failed to create a downslide in the trading index. The trading on June 29 closed with bullish trend at 34,181 points with an upswing of 242 points.

What is Balochistan Liberation Army?

The four terrorists that attacked PSX belonged to the Majeed Brigade (a suicide squad) of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). The group is a secessionist terror-outfit. It has a long history of engaging in terrorist attacks against innocent civilians, law enforcement agencies and armed forces, foreign partners, including Chinese nationals and professionals working in Pakistan. The BLA has been listed as a terrorist organization by Pakistan, United States of America, United Kingdom and European Union. In July 2019, United States placed it on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) organizations and froze assets belonging to the group.  The group has also engaged in acts of ethnic cleansing against Pashtuns even at times against members of Baloch ethnic background.

Ever since the initiation of the BRI flagship project, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the terrorist organization has been attacking Pakistani and Chinese symbols of partnership. The frustration of the group is evident given that BRI holds the promise of transforming the port city of Gwadar and other cities in Balochistan resulting in poverty alleviation of province’s ethnically diverse population. The attack on PSX was well-thought and premeditated. PSX is a significant component of the Pakistan-China partnership. It holds a 40 percent stake which is owned by a Chinese consortium.

The Ajit Doval Doctrine

India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval in his public talk at Sastra University on February 21, 2014, stressed use of “Defensive Offensive” strategy against Pakistan. This was his proposition to employ strategic coercion against Pakistan. The video clips of his public talk have beena on YouTube since then. In this lecture, he argues adopting an array of actions to exploit Pakistan’s weak points ranging from creating instability in Afghanistan, exploiting Pakistan’s economic vulnerabilities, aggravating its internal security, isolating Pakistan through coercive diplomacy, including employment of terrorism through terrorist organizations such as Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and ethno-nationalist terrorist outfits in Balochistan. This lecture was given at a time when Pakistan, in the summer of 2014, was about to fight a decisive war against terrorist groups such as TTP and its affiliates.

Countering BRI and CPEC

By 2015, significant returns started yielding in Pakistan’s war against terror. President Xi Jingping in his address before Pakistan’s National Assembly on April 21, 2015 also acknowledged Pakistan’s efforts against terrorism. On this same visit, both China and Pakistan formally agreed to launch the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the Belt and Road Initiative. Since then, CPEC has matured in the first phase with completion of motorways, energy power plants, communication infrastructure and Gwadar Port. Now in its second phase, operationalization of technology parks, special economic zones, and construction of ML-1 railway line and a host of other projects are underway. It is in this milieu that the Doval doctrine appears to have found relevance once again. A segment of strategic enclave in India holds a hawkish view about BRI and particularly CPEC. Its attitude approaches CPEC through the lens of security and justifies the use of covert means to contain and counter it.

On 24 May 2017, Lt. General Vincent Steward, former head of United States Defence Intelligence Agency briefed US Senate Committee and stated “anti-Pakistan groups probably will respond to this (Pakistan’s) sustained pressure (on terror outfits) by focusing their efforts against soft targets.” These remarks were made by Lt. Gen Stewart while acknowledging Pakistan’s widened scope and success of counter-terror operations against all forms of terrorist groups. This resounding assessment still holds valid. Advocates of the Doval doctrine have found a constituency justifying the threatening of Pakistan and China’s mutual interest. Pakistan has been accusing India of using BLA as a subversive tool against Pakistan’s integrity for a long time. BLA’s massacre of labour working on CPEC in Gwadar in May 2017, its attack on China’s Consulate in Karachi on November 23, 2018, on Gwadar’s Pearl Continental Hotel on 11 May 2019 and the attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange, demonstrates its open hostility towards Pakistan and China. Thus, it brings out a combined threat to Pakistan and China.

Neutralizing BLA and Dissuading India

Terrorism’s utility as a tool in the existing milieu of geopolitics by India appears valid. Especially considering BLA’s ability to acquire weapons, funds and recruit terrorists when Pakistan is consolidating its efforts against terrorism. Interestingly, these three elements (weapons, funds and manpower) are cardinal to Doval (in his public talk) for sustaining terrorism, including against Pakistan. The question we must ask is not only how should BLA be neutralized, dismantled and dislocated, but also, how should India be dissuaded from employing it as a policy choice from competing against Pakistan and China’s mutual sovereign interests.