Chaos in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Breaking Down Pakistan’s Dasu Bus Blast

The Indus River passing by Dasu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan (Wikimedia Commons)

On July 14, Pakistan’s mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province was rocked by a bus explosion that claimed the lives of 13 people, including nine Chinese nationals. The bus, which had been carrying Chinese workers employed at KPK’s Dasu Hydropower Project (a project funded by the World Bank but widely perceived as affiliated with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), experienced a blast followed by a plunge into a ravine. While Pakistan initially claimed the explosion was an accident, both Chinese and Pakistani investigators are looking into the possibility of intentional terrorism.

As an observer of CPEC and the Belt and Road Initiative more broadly, this event immediately caught my attention as a possible act of sabotage against Chinese interests in Pakistan. This post, while brief, catalogues my thoughts on the blast. Given that investigators have discovered explosive material at the crash site, I operate on the assumption that the explosion was intentional. I believe that this incident could signal a major shift in Sino-Pakistani relations, possibly highlighting the rise of a new threat to Chinese interests in Pakistan.

Even though the Dasu Hydropower Project is not “officially” designated as a CPEC project, South Asia Terrorism Portal has classified the July 14 attack as “CPEC related“—the only attack listed within this category in 2021 so far. Other “CPEC related” attacks listed on SATP include Balochistan’s infamous Pearl Continental Hotel attack of 2019, a 2017 IED attack that claimed no lives but damaged part of a road in Karachi, and a 2016 bombing that injured a Chinese national in the same city. But several factors set the Dasu Dam bus attack apart from its earlier counterparts. The Dasu Dam attack claimed the most lives, but what really stands out about this most recent attack is its location and methodology. The three other “CPEC related” attacks listed on SATP were all perpetrated by clearly designated attackers with clear motives. As SATP reports, the group that attacked the Pearl Continental Hotel in 2019—the Balochistan Liberation Army—explicitly sought to target “Chinese and other foreign investors.” Meanwhile, the Sindhudesh Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the 2017 bombing. Investigators examining the site of the 2016 attack discovered a pamphlet left by one “Sindhudesh Revolutionary Party” at the scene of the crime. The pamphlet went so far as to name and shame China as an “accomplice of the Punjabi Establishment,” subject to attack as an ally of Pakistan.

These case studies reveal a common pattern: typically, attacks against Chinese nationals or Chinese interests in Pakistan—even those that fail to accomplish what the attackers likely set out to do—typically prompt a public declaration of intent with a clear motive. Even though the July 2021 bus attacks have killed the greatest number of Chinese nationals and garnered a great deal of media attention, no group has yet come forward to leave a manifesto, list a motive, or claim responsibility. This suggests that the perpetrators of the most recent attack in KPK might derive from a group not traditionally known for targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan.

Interestingly enough, SATP’s list of CPEC-associated attacks doesn’t seem to be exhaustive. Several notable attacks against Chinese nationals or Chinese projects in Balochistan, the politically restive province home to Gwadar Port and other BRI projects, are left off the list. In August 2018, a Balochistan Liberation Army suicide bomber attacked a bus full of Chinese miners, killing himself and wounding several of the workers. November of the same year saw an unsuccessful BLA attack on China’s consulate in Karachi. And in June 2020, BLA militants attempted to storm the Karachi Stock Exchange, in which China is a prominent investor. The BLA openly took credit for all of these attacks, rationalizing the 2018 consulate attack with the claim that “China is exploiting our resources.” Perhaps SATP neglected to include these attacks because they centered on Chinese interests in Pakistan writ large, as opposed to projects explicitly tied to BRI or CPEC (in the case of the bus attack, the miners in question worked at a mine owned by a Chinese company but not considered a BRI affiliate). Nevertheless, Balochistan’s attacks showcase a pattern: militant attacks against Chinese interests in Pakistan are often perpetrated in the south of the country, by a group that seeks to claim credit. Attacks against Chinese projects in KPK tend to be far less common.

The region in which the KPK attack took place—KPK is in Pakistan’s north, near the Afghan border—along with the fact that the attackers have not yet provided a motive, at first led me to believe that Pakistan’s Taliban might have perpetrated the latest attack. After all, Taliban fighters maintain an incentive not to provoke the PRC as the US vacates the region, providing them with a motive for withholding their role in the attack. In fact, the Taliban has gone so far as to explicitly state its intent to maintain peace with China, refraining from speaking out against China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and agreeing not to harbor groups hostile to China or any other country. After digging a little deeper, though, I realized that the Pakistani Taliban, much like the BLA, also has a precedent for claiming attacks against Chinese interests in Pakistan. In April 2021, the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for the bombing of a Quetta hotel that was playing host to Chinese ambassador Nong Rong at the time. The Pakistani Taliban, known widely as the TTP, has a precedent for claiming attacks against non-Chinese targets as well. In June, the group claimed the murder of two policemen in Islamabad. Besides, the TTP may share a name with Afghanistan’s Taliban, but the two groups don’t always see eye to eye in terms of strategy or outlook. The TTP might not maintain the Afghan Taliban’s same incentive to avoid conflict with China by failing to claim responsibility for an attack. The TTP’s past behavior, in conjunction with the fact that the TTP may not necessarily take orders from a PRC-wary Afghan Taliban, leads me to believe that the TTP did not perpetrate this attack.

If the Taliban (Afghan or Pakistani) is not behind these attacks, who is? According to SATP, two insurgent groups remain “active” in KPK: Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) and Haqqani Network. However, a dive into SATP’s data reveals that HuT has not demonstrated seemingly any activity since 2000, and Haqqani Network’s only “activity” over the past 20 years seems to consist of deaths amongst its own members (a drone strike in 2013, for example, eliminated several suspected HN adherents at once). Clearly, neither of these so-called “active” groups seems to pose a credible threat to Chinese or Pakistani security in KPK.

Clearly, the Dasu bus attack stands out from past attacks against Chinese interests in Pakistan in a number of ways. No group has come forward to claim the attack, which took place in a region where few insurgents are active and where no precedent for attacks like this seems to exist. But the Dasu attack defies precedent in yet another notable manner: China’s response to the incident. As I wrote in my last analysis of CPEC, the threat of terror has not typically deterred Chinese investment or activity in Pakistan. China meets BLA attacks with a “business as usual” approach, pushing forward with investment and construction amidst rising security threats. After the April hotel attacks by the TTP, China’s notoriously nationalistic Global Times ran an editorial entitled “CPEC Will Certainly Carry on in Pakistan,” claiming that “There are no political forces in Pakistan that clearly identify themselves as anti-China and anti-BRI” and that “Generally, the CPEC cannot and shouldn’t be viewed as a risk project.” Nong Rong himself, commonly viewed as the target of the attack, tweeted days after the bombing that “Nothing could prevent us from further developing China-Pak relations.” But in the wake of the Dasu bus attack, China decided to postpone a key Belt and Road meeting scheduled to take place on July 16. Initially, China also threatened to lay off a number of local workers and pause work on the hydropower project, but has since reversed its decision amidst Pakistani backlash.

China’s behavior, so different from its past rhetoric and actions vis-a-vis attacks on CPEC projects, leads me to believe that China may be facing a new and more dangerous threat within Pakistan. The exact nature of this threat remains to be seen. Given the location of the attack, as well as China’s out-of-character response to it, I hypothesize that a new or previously unrecognized insurgent group—one not seeking credit or recognition, but some more illusory goal—could be on the rise. Regardless of the specific nature of the threat, it is clear that the PRC will come down hard on Pakistan until it can ensure to a greater extent the safety of its workers.

China and Pakistan’s border at the Khunjerab Pass on the Karakoram Highway. China and Pakistan’s relationship has historically been described as an “iron friendship” (Wikimedia Commons)

The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan throws China’s presence and stake in the region into sharp relief. As American withdrawal shifts the balance of power in the region, potentially emboldening extremists both within Afghanistan and the states that surround it, the PRC may be forced to step up its security measures in South Asia. The China-Pakistan relationship—a decades-long security and trade partnership historically described as an “iron friendship”—will experience new tests in coming months and years as security concerns continue to press both countries.

Additional Readings

For anyone interested in learning more about China and Pakistan’s unique and fascinating relationship, I would recommend Andrew Small’s The China-Pakistan Axis. Small blends history, anecdote, and hard-hitting analysis to produce an expansive work that, in my opinion, deserves far more recognition than it has gotten. This book, along with Steve Coll’s masterful On the Grand Trunk Road, has proven instrumental in shaping my understanding of Pakistan’s internal affairs and the impact of the Sino-Pak relationship on Afghan affairs, the predicament of the Uighurs, and more. I am always looking for new books on South, Central, and Southeast Asia. Small and Coll are my go-tos on all things Pakistan, but new recommendations are always welcome.

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