Why is Gwadar’s Pearl Continental attack significant for Pakistan?

By Yasmeen Aftab Ali

The Pearl Continental hotel in Pakistan’s all important port city of Gwadar was recently attacked by terrorists. Soon after the attack, militant group Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) was quick in accepting the attack’s responsibility. The BLA said that four of its fighters were involved, all of whom were later killed in a swift operation by Pakistan’s security forces. The Gwadar seaport is currently leased and operated by China, with Beijing aiming at gaining direct access to the Indian Ocean via the port. For Pakistan, the port, as well as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, means billions dollars of revenue for transit facilities, while China gets to access Middle East and the African continent at much cheaper transit costs.

Hence, this latest attack in Gwadar is not by chance or coincidence and suggests a pattern worthy of analysis.

The Indian involvement in cross border terrorism in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon. During his visit to Bangladesh, Indian PM Modi had boastfully admitted the key role that his country played to Vajpayee to disassociate East Pakistan from the West. He also admitted to his participation in the Satyagraha Movement to show his support for Mukti Bahini, which was also allegedly an extended arm of the Indian intelligence agency, RAW. Modi has also openly supported the BLA and other disenchanted elements in Pakistan. This Indian involvement in Pakistan was also evident when its spy Kulbhushan Jhadev was arrested near the Iranian border in Pakistan. In his confessional statement in June 2017, Jhadev admitted that the “purpose of his visit to Pakistan was to meet the basic leadership of Baloch separatist and militant groups, the BLA or the BRA, and train around 30 to 40 operatives for the Indian intelligence agency along the Makran Coast for Operations” (Read his full confession here).

Dr. Jumma Khan Marri – who defected from Baluch separatists in 2018 and was a participant at Pakistan Day celebration on 23 March at the Pakistani Embassy in Moscow – also recently raised valid questions on the support these dissidents got from sponsors abroad. One “inconvenient truth” question that he posed was:

“How come terrorists like Brahamdagh Bugti, Hyrbyair Marri and Mehran Marri are allowed to run their organisations like the BRA, BLA and UBA from the UK and Switzerland? Why is the international media quiet on these so-called Baloch leaders who are carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistan while enjoying a luxurious life in Europe?”

In addition to this, the Indian activities against Pakistan also include false allegations and diversions when major attacks take place on the other side of the border. After the Pulwama attack in February this year, India was quick to accuse Pakistan for orchestrating the attack. As per the Indian sources, the attack came from Jaish-e-Mohammad, an outfit outlawed by Pakistan in 2002. Immediately following the accusation, the US picked up the cue. Secretary Pompeo in a tweet, on 15th February, said, “The U.S. condemns yesterday’s horrific terror attack on Indian security forces. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. We stand with #India as it confronts terrorism. Pakistan must not provide safe haven for terrorists to threaten international security.”

Adil Ahmad Dar – also known as Adil Ahmad Gaadi Takranewala and aged 20 years of age – was the “perpetrator” of the Pulwama attack and was a resident of Gundibagh village of Pulwama district of South Kashmir. According to the Indian sources, he recorded a video before ramming his explosives laden vehicle into an Indian forces convoy.  However, the Kashmir Times, a reputable source on Kashmir Affairs, published a story, in October 2017, reporting that two 2 militants were killed and one arrested in the Barbugh village of southern Shopian district during an Indian raid. This report also cast doubts on Dar’s involvement in the attack. The report said, “The encounter had started at around 6.00 PM Saturday after the forces including army and Special Operations Group (SOG) of police laid a siege to the village following an input about the presence of militants there. Official and local sources said that the fresh firing near the encounter site began this morning after the forces advanced towards the house for conducting searches. They said that as the fresh firing started, forces razed the house to the ground, killing another militant. He was identified as Tariq Ahmad Dar of Barbugh Shopian. The third militant, Adil Ahmad Dar, sources said, rose from the rubble of the house and was apprehended by the forces along with his weapon. He, they said, was soon whisked away in a forces vehicle for interrogation. Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of police for southern Kashmir, S P Pani said that the militants belonged to Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. The police officer also confirmed that one of the militants was caught alive near the gunfight site. The apprehended militant had joined militant ranks three months ago while the slain were active for last over a year.”

Hence, one could assume that the Indian narrative on Pakistan regarding terrorism has more to it than meets the eye. For that, one has to look at what happened in Sri Lanka recently as well.

After the heart wrenching Sri Lankan “Easter Blasts”, Suhasini Haidar and Meera Srinivasan reporting for the reputable newspaper The Hindu, revealed that Zahran Hashim the mastermind of Easter attacks, spent “substantial” time in “South India”. They quoted a top Sri Lankan military source making this claim. It is pertinent to note that China’s ingress in Sri Lanka is growing. From the Southern part of Sri Lanka hosting Chinese projects, China has expanded in the Northern parts. Traditionally, the Northern parts have had a strong Indian influence. The Northern Province as well as central highlands house largely Tamil-speaking people. The Tamils of both Indian origin and Sri Lankan origin have strong bonds with their kin in India. With Chinese ingress in Indian influenced Northern region, India not only sees China as competition, but is also angry with Beijing’s growing influence in Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka is, therefore, caught between an ambitious India and a rising global power that is China. This also suggests that Sri Lanka might soon become a proxy battle ground between China and the Indo-US alliance.

In sum, an extremely interesting picture is emerging for the region. A picture that reflects power struggle between major regional and global actors; the US wanting to nullify the increasing outreach and rise of China and India – a determined nation wanting to rise in stature –  allying with the US and converging on mutual regional interests. The US sees in India, a strategically placed nation willing to comply to attain the goal she has set for herself.

Will this developing scenario compel Pakistan move closer to China?

Politically, as both China and Pakistan’s interests converge as far as the Belt and Road and the CPEC are concerned, both the allies need to move in coordination in order to fend off regional nuisances. Pakistan, however, also needs to adopt a pragmatic policy and therefore needs to walk a tight rope in terms of balancing its ties with the US and avoiding global isolation. This is because Washington still holds substantial sway over global financial institutions, most of which are vital for Pakistan’s economic revival.

However, with these complexities and emerging scenarios, doe the current Pakistani leadership have the understanding to maintain this balance between the US and China?