By K.N. Pandita
Global strategy is opening up in the crucial north-west tribal areas of Pakistan. Waziristan has emerged as the epicenter of international terrorism. In a bid to uproot terror in the region, the US-NATO alliance has already committed its proportionate military strength. Terrorists of various nationalities at war with their respective native regimes, travel all the way to find not only safe haven in the region but also the warm embrace of world’s top terrorist organizations spearheaded by Al-Qaeda/Taliban combine.
Nearly a year ago, China moved considerable manpower into Pakistan controlled Gilgit-Baltistan, the part of original State of Jammu and Kashmir. Three times larger than France, Gilgit-Baltistan borders Khyber Pukhtunkhwa to the west, Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan to the north, China to the east, Pok to south-west, and Jammu & Kashmir to south-east. This explains geo-political and strategic importance of Gilgit-Baltistan.
On October 5, 2010, Indian Army Chief, Gen. V.K Singh said in an interview that 4000 troopers from PLA were present in Gilgit-Baltistan. They were in addition to the claimed thousands of skilled Chinese labourers and engineers engaged in providing crucial infrastructure like repairing of roads, bridges and culverts etc. GOC-in-C, Northern Command, Lt. Gen Parnaik said that presence of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan close to LoC posed threat to our security.
On May 21 last, Pakistani Defence Minister, Ahmad Mukhtar accompanied Pak Prime Minister’s delegation to Beijing. In a statement he expressed his happiness on China taking over the charge of Gawadar naval base which Pakistan wants to build to counter Indian naval presence in the Indian Ocean and Gulf Region.
But while speaking in a seminar in London, Chinese Defence Minister disowned the commitment. Actually China is interested in military and not naval base, he asserted, and in pursuance of that policy, China has asked Pakistan for a military base either in FATA or FANA.
Beijing has reasons for insisting on a big military base and in the region she has demanded. First, it is to counter the growing presence of the United Sates in the region which Islamabad wants to minimize through direct or indirect manipulation. Secondly, the fast growing fundamentalist-separatist movement in Chinese Turkistan or Xingjian is becoming a worrisome development in her eastern region. Pakistan’s Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) touches on Xingjian border, and China is eager to establish its military base there to control the area and not allow pro-separatist Sunni Uighurs of Xingjian volunteers receive training and logistical support from the FANA tribesmen and al-Qaeda outfits.
East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) thrown up by Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) has extended its tentacles in the length and breadth of Xingjian Autonomous Region, and has established liaison with a number of Islamic movements outside China, especially in the Middle East.
Beijing claims that hardcore activists of ETIM/TIP receive training in armed insurgency and sabotage from militants in North Waziristan and FANA of Pakistan. It is more than a decade that Beijing has been fighting counter-insurgency. Beijing’s patience was exhausted when bomb blasts happened in Kashghar in which Uighurs trained in Pakistan were involved and Beijing made a public accusation against them.
Sometime back, Uighur militants, trained and sponsored by jihadi groups in Pakistan had been arrested as saboteurs trying to disrupt law and order in Eastern Turkistan. Some of them were Pakistani national jihadis who were handed over to Pak authorities but the Uighur accomplices were executed summarily.
Beijing believes that ETIM/TIP leadership has raised safe haven in Waziristan (FANA) and their activists are regularly receiving training at the hands of terrorists of Al-Qaida, Taliban and other denomination.
A militant arrested by the Chinese in connection with Urumchi clashes between the Uighur Sunnis and Han Chinese, had confessed that the Uighur separatists received training in Waziristan despite the fact that after the Kashghar bomb blast, China had told Pakistan to impose curbs on them.
Following Urumchi and Kashghar incidents of violence, Chinese President Hu Jintao rang up Pak President Zardari and expressed his displeasure on growing activities of external terrorists in Xingjian. Pakistan swiftly promised extending all help and foreign minister Hina issued a statement saying, “terrorists, extremists and separatists in Xingjian province constitute an evil force”. In contrast to this, Pakistan calls Kashmir separatists as “freedom fighters” and audaciously announces all except military support to them, though in real terms, she gives them only military and no other support.
In October 2003, Pakistan claimed to have killed one Hasan Mahusum alias Abu Muhammad Alturkistani in Waziristan. He was labeled as the founding leader of ETIM/TIP. Next to fall was Abdul Huq al-Turkistani, the successor of Abu Muhamamd, and most probably he was killed in a drone attack. Now Abdul Shakoor al-Turkistani has taken over the command of the group of Chinese (Uighur)-Uzbek terrorists in North Waziristan.
It has to be recollected that just two weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad blitzkrieg, Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani traveled to Beijing to garner Chinese support in case American operations in Pakistan escalated. That was the beginning of new thinking in China to defer looking for naval bases and instead seek military base particularly in a volatile region which posed serious threat to China losing her western province of Xingjian to the Islamists.
In recent days, Chinese and Pakistani civilian and military brass have been meeting and discussing the pros and cons of China having military base in FANA. While Beijing wants control of a region of nuisance in North Waziristan wherefrom the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement gains its sinews, Pakistan Army wants to squeeze the opposition to its diktat in the region. But apart from this, both converge on countering American-NATO presence in the region and also what they call India’s “clandestine” role of creating gulf between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only a couple of days back, the former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, delivering a lecture at Carnegie Institute Washington issued a warning to India to desist from conspiring breach between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan has yet one more vital interest in allowing China a strong military base in FANA. She is apprehensive that ultimately Afghanistan might get divided along ethnic lines in which Pushtuns will get Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and the Northern Afghanistan could end up in an independent ethnic entity, the Greater Tajikistan. Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan may have this dimension as well. Pakistan sees Indian hand behind this plan.
Whatever the truth, the fact is that regional strategy in NWFP of Pakistan is fast changing, and China is expanding its sphere of influence westward especially in the peripheries of Hindu Kush and Pamir regions something unprecedented in regional history.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).