On July 14, thirteen people, including nine Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis, were killed and 28 others were injured when a bus carrying them to a construction site of the Dasu hydropower project fell into a ravine following an explosion in the Upper Kohistan area in northern Pakistan (Dawn, July 15). After investigation, both Pakistan and China have confirmed that the bus blast was a terrorist attack. This confirmation was, however, made after several twists and turns by Chinese and Pakistani authorities, which are concerned that the incoming Taliban government in Kabul might embolden terrorist groups operating in neighboring Afghanistan.
Was the July 14 Incident a Terrorist Attack, or Accident?
Pakistan’s Foreign Office had initially described the incident as a bus accident caused by mechanical failure. Islamabad then stepped back from its earlier position. This was probably under pressure from Beijing, which urged Islamabad to conduct a more thorough investigation and claimed that initial investigations could not rule out terrorist involvement in the bus tragedy (Geo TV, July 17).
China, for its part, sent a 15-member team of investigators to Pakistan to deal with the aftermath of the bus incident. Later, Pakistani authorities claimed that the incident was a planned terrorist attack days before a meeting of the Joint Coordination Committee of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The meeting, which was scheduled for July 16, was postponed due to the bus blast (Dawn, July 17).
Chinese media also warned that those attacking Chinese nationals would pay a heavy price. An editorial in the state-owned nationalist tabloid Global Times stated, “if Pakistan’s strength is insufficient, China’s missiles and special forces could also directly participate in operations to eliminate threats against Chinese in Pakistan with the consent of Pakistan. We will set an example as a deterrent” (Global Times, July 16).
The investigations involved high-level meetings between Pakistani and Chinese officials during visits to Beijing in July from Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Director General Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. The Dasu terrorist attack raised concerns in Beijing and Islamabad over the security of the $62 billion CPEC project, which is a main component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Dawn, July 24).
About two weeks after the attack, the Chinese and Pakistani investigations finally concluded that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), whose self-given name is the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), and the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, had carried out the July 14 terrorist attack (Express Tribune, July 28). Islamabad also placed blame on the Indian and now former Afghan intelligence agencies for the attack, as Pakistan believes that the TTP has been funded by India and the now defunct Afghan government. Foreign Minister Qureshi also told the media that China was satisfied with Pakistan’s findings (Dawn, August 12).
Beijing and Islamabad Pressure the Afghan Taliban to Crack Down on Terrorism
A delegation of the Afghan Taliban led by Taliban negotiator and then-deputy leader (now chief political leader of the Taliban-controlled Afghan state) Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar visited China on Beijing’s invitation in July (Express Tribune, September 3). The delegation held a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who stated that ETIM was a threat to China’s national security. He asked the Afghan Taliban to crack down on the group, which reportedly has bases in Afghanistan (Express Tribune, July 28).
Both Beijing and Islamabad have placed two demands before the Afghan Taliban: first, it must completely distance itself from the TTP; and second, it must launch a full-fledged crackdown on terrorist groups, particularly organizations hostile to China and Pakistan. These include TTP and ETIM, which have bases in the ungoverned areas of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan. While Islamabad has political leverage over the Afghan Taliban, Beijing has financial leverage.
Both countries also warned the Afghan Taliban of consequences if they failed to meet these demands (Express Tribune, July 28). The Afghan Taliban see China as a “friend” of Afghanistan and want China to invest in reconstruction work. The Taliban’s spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, vowed in July that the group would no longer allow safe haven for China’s Uyghur separatist fighters, some of whom had previously sought refuge in Afghanistan under the previous Taliban administration (South China Morning Post, July 9). Since capturing Kabul, the Taliban have reiterated that China is their main partner and investor in reconstruction and development and have indicated their interest in expanding Beijing’s BRI to Afghanistan (Express Tribune, September 2).
No group has claimed the July 14 incident in Dasu, and as a result the identity of the perpetrator remains a mystery. Investigations by China and Pakistan indicated the involvement of TTP in the attack, likely because both TTP and Baloch separatists have targeted Chinese nationals and Chinese interests in Pakistan in the past. However, the involvement of ETIM, which has little capability of targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan, would be surprising. The alleged terrorist attack nevertheless sent a message to Beijing that Chinese nationals engaged in development projects, and particularly those related to CPEC in Pakistan, are not safe, and that Islamabad is unable to provide security to Chinese workers and projects in the country.
China may in the future seek to establish a greater Chinese security presence at strategic points along the CPEC route that enters Pakistan via Gilgit-Baltistan from Xinjiang province and extends to Gwadar port in the country’s southwest. China could also provide military assistance to the new Taliban government in Afghanistan (instead of putting boots on ground) as a means of strengthening its counterterrorism muscle and securing its regional interests. This could help the Afghan Taliban to deal with the TTP and ETIM if they are deemed to be continuing to target Chinese interests in Pakistan.