CPEC Project: Why US Pull-Out From Afghanistan Could Spell Doom For China-Pakistan Economic Corridor?

Is Pakistan is deeply concerned with the US decision to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan fearing it could make projects under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) vulnerable to terror attacks?

Last month, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the bombing at a luxury hotel in Balochistan’s capital Quetta that was hosting the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan. Luckily, the diplomat was not present in the hotel when the bomb went off.

The US plans to fully withdraw its troops along with that of its allies by September 11 has raised many eyebrows with security and strategic analysts saying this could embolden the Afghan Taliban.

Even China has blamed the Biden administration’s troop withdrawal move for the multiple explosions at a girl’s school in Afghanistan which killed at least 60 people, most of them female students, on May 9.

Cut From The Same Cloth

The TTP is a coalition of militant groups within Pakistan but it has links with the Taliban, which originated in Afghanistan. Both are predominantly filled with Pashtun members who mostly reside around the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has pointed out the links between the instability of Pakistan’s western frontier with the influence of the Taliban. The proximity to Afghanistan has made it a place of refuge and potential recruitment for the Taliban.

Despite alleged links between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Army, the latter may not be able to tackle the new threats posed by the Islamist group.

“Ironically, this complexity continues to remain unresolved because Pakistani Army has not been able to tame the TTP despite its well-known influence and control over the Afghan Taliban, to whom the Pakistani Taliban owes its allegiance, and also despite the fact that it might be maintaining its links with some groups affiliated to TTP,” according to Ashok Kumar Behuria of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India’s leading defense think tank.

Anonymous Pakistani officials have told Nikkie Asia that the Afghan Taliban is looking the other way when TTP uses sanctuaries on Afghan soil to mount attacks inside Pakistan.

Quoting security analysts news agency ANI reported last year that the Taliban splinter groups would reunify to strengthen their hold in Afghanistan after the US withdraws.

Thus, a reunited Taliban might not stop its Pakistani elements from attacking the Pakistani government and army.

Why CPEC Project Is Vulnerable

The western alignment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a signature project which connects to the Gwadar port in Balochistan.

The project passes through Quetta where last month, the TTP claimed responsibility for the explosion at a hotel housing the Chinese envoy to Pakistan.

The TTP has already kidnapped and/or killed many Chinese nationals in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. In Balochistan, the local population believes that Pakistan and China are exploiting resources in the region in a bid to colonize the province.

Balochis stay poor despite the resource richness of the region and the billions of dollars of Chinese money flowing in. Most of the jobs under CPEC go to outsiders, they allege.

Most attacks till now have been from the Baloch insurgents. But foreign policy analyst Prakash Nanda says that strategic needs might lead to a re-orientation of ties as “enemy of the enemy is a friend”.

But CPEC is here to stay, according to Fawad Chaudhry, federal minister for information and broadcasting who stated that the attack “will not change the ground reality that it’s safe [for Chinese companies] to invest in Pakistan.”

The Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, lists a few reasons for the TTP targeting China. China is arguably Pakistan’s biggest ally currently and thus an obvious choice for attacks.

The second reason is the TTP’s ideological commitment to Islamism, which runs counter to Chinese suppression of Uyghur Muslims.

In addition, there are allegations by Pakistan that India supported and funded TTP.

According to The Economic Times, Pakistan and China had last year collaborated to present a dossier at the United Nations Security Council, linking the TTP to India.

Can Pak Army Solve This Problem?

Nevertheless, Nanda believes there are other threats to the CPEC. The Balochi insurgency is a bigger militant threat than the TTP. CPEC has also led to a surge of corruption within the Pakistani establishment.

In a similar line, China has recently become worried that Pakistan won’t be able to repay its debts. There are reports that China is expressing reluctance in approving a $6 billion loan for the Mainline-I (ML-I) railway track, the single largest project under CPEC.

According to Nanda, the only way to resolve potential terrorist threats against BRI is for China to pressure Pakistan into creating order in its military.

Pakistan Army is running with hares and hunting with hounds,” Nanda stated, showing how the TTP is at large due to renegade elements within the army.

Nanda also pointed out that the Afghan Taliban would have been nothing without the Pakistan army’s support. The army should use that leverage to control the TTP through the Afghan Taliban.

This would all be possible only if strict discipline is imposed in the army. While Pakistan political leaders do not have that much clout to impose this, Chinese pressure might.