Gwadar attack | Business Recorder

The attack on the Pearl Continental (PC) hotel in Gwadar, Balochistan on May 11, 2019 has opened up a whole can of worms and raised troubling questions about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the continuing low-level nationalist insurgency and the future of the province. First, the facts, some of which are disputed in the garbled reporting on the incident. Three heavily armed gunmen from the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) attacked the only five-star hotel in the strategic port city, killed a Navy soldier and four hotel employees, wounded two army captains, two Navy personnel and two hotel employees, and after an almost 12-hour gun battle, were themselves killed. Why did the operation take so long against this meagre number of attackers? Where there or were there not foreign and Pakistani guests/investors in the hotel, including 40 Chinese? How was it possible, despite reportedly having donned security forces uniforms, for the BLA gunmen to gain access to the heavily secured hotel in broad daylight? These and other troubling questions have yet to be satisfactorily answered, the ritual statements of the military and government notwithstanding.

Gwadar port represents the crown jewel of CPEC, a corridor that links China’s western province of Xinjiang with the Gulf. Representing some $ 60 billion Chinese investment in Pakistan, it is clearly of crucial importance to Pakistan. However, the Baloch nationalist insurgent movement opposes CPEC as the latest example of Pakistan exploiting the resources of Pakistan’s largest in area but poorest province to the detriment of the local people.

Of late there has been a surge in the number of attacks by the Baloch nationalist insurgent groups, which reportedly is linked to the launch of the second phase of CPEC. In August 2018, a suicide attack by BLA was carried out on a bus carrying employees of the Saindak Copper-Gold Project in Dalbandin, Chaghai. In November 2018, BLA militants attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, killing two policemen and two civilians. On April 18, 2019, around a dozen gunmen singled out and killed 14 bus passengers, including 11 personnel of the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guards near the town of Ormara on the coastal highway. Not only do these attacks signal a surge in the militants’ attacks, they also point to the virtual or actual suicidal nature of the assaults, in which certain death awaited the attackers. This is of course going against the grain of guerrilla warfare principles, in which self-preservation is given such high priority. This development may be a reflection of desperation, since the traditional means of guerrilla warfare are proving difficult in the face of the military’s modern technological and firepower capability, or a deliberate turn towards spectacular, high profile attacks, even if they end in the death of the guerrillas, to provide the oxygen of publicity to a movement otherwise left gasping for coverage.

Speaking of coverage, the Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor thanked the Pakistani media for its ‘responsible’ coverage of the incident. The DG is not famous for saying things he does not mean, but it bears reflection how the incident was in fact ‘covered’ by the Pakistani media. More than likely, Pakistani TV channels were under ‘instructions’ not to provide live coverage of the attack launched around 5.00pm on May 11 (foreign TV channels had broken the story soon after the attack), a practice in line with current controls over the media.

Lack of coverage deprived citizens of their right to know, and the next day’s media coverage provided so many contradictory bits of reporting as to raise fresh questions in the mind. First and foremost, it became difficult to decipher whether the hotel had foreign and Pakistani guests/investors staying or not. Denials of the presence of any guests by the hotel spokesman and the authorities were challenged by initial media reports that at least 70 guests were in the hotel, including 40 Chinese. But this bit of information later disappeared, to be swamped by the tide of denials and assertions that only hotel staff was present. How then to explain the statement that kept popping up intermittently during the operation that all guests had been safely evacuated? It may well be that there were foreign and local guests, including some Chinese personnel, but the implications of revealing the threat they had been subjected to proved too hot a potato and was finally quashed.

The most troubling question that arises is how, even in the camouflage of security uniforms, the attackers were able to access one of the most heavily guarded and secured areas of Gwadar, itself one of the heaviest guarded places in Pakistan? The reason we surmise from the reports that the clearing operation took so long has to do with the deployment by the attackers of improvised explosive devices at all entry points to the fourth floor of the hotel where they made their final stand. It may also be that the security forces were concerned first and foremost to evacuate any guests before launching an all-out final assault on the attackers.

CPEC offers tremendous opportunities for both Pakistan’s and Xinjiang’s development. But a large part of its 7,000 kilometres route passes through Balochistan. As the Gwadar incident shows, no amount of security can completely prevent random attacks. If Gwadar, despite its high security, is not completely safe, how can the entire length of the CPEC, particularly in Balochistan, be secured?

Informed analysts have been arguing themselves blue in the face that the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan should be distinguished from the religiously-motivated terrorism that afflicts the country and attempts to find a political solution to what is essentially a political conflict be pursued despite the difficulties. And consoling oneself with the usual ‘foreign hand’ mantra is not going to facilitate matters either. The people of Balochistan have long standing and some recent grievances regarding their political rights, enforced disappearances, provincial autonomy (an unfulfilled aspiration that is pushing the Baloch youth in a separatist direction), control over their natural resources, treatment as a federating unit and as citizens. None of these, separatism aside, are issues that cannot be tackled within the four corners of the law and Constitution. Not even attempting this historic task is tantamount to running the risks of a growth of separatist sentiment amongst the Baloch people, a trend that if it sets in widely, may prove hard to reverse.

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Copyright Business Recorder, 2019

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