Sergio Restelli

Pakistan’s new “anti-terror” campaign to protect CPEC

On June 22, Pakistan initiated Operation Azm-i-Istehkam (Resolve for Stability), a comprehensive counterterrorism campaign to combat the rising tide of terrorism and religious extremism. Historically, such efforts have been concentrated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan and normally against anti-Pakistan terrorist groups which are being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban. This new operation however appears to be significantly influenced by pressure from China. The timing of the announcement, shortly after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to China, suggests it is a response to Beijing’s concerns about the security of Chinese nationals and interests, especially with the start of the second phase of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. Given a large part of the CPEC passes through Balochistan, where Pakistan is at constant war with the Baloch population, divided in between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, this “anti-terrorism” drive seems to be aimed at wiping out Baloch resistance for Chinese interests.

Liu Jianchao, a senior Chinese official, highlighted during his June 22 visit to Islamabad that security threats are the main challenge to CPEC cooperation. He noted that Pakistan’s security situation is undermining the confidence of Chinese investors. The relationship is further complicated by Pakistan’s significant debt to China and recent financial assistance from Beijing. Despite these financial ties, attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan have increased, such as the March suicide bombing in KP’s Shangla district that killed five Chinese engineers and their driver.

The new counterterrorism operation follows the breakdown of peace talks between Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamabad in 2022, which led to a rise in terror activities nationwide. According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Pakistan experienced 1,524 fatalities and 1,463 injuries from 789 terror attacks and counterterrorism operations in 2023, marking a six-year high. General Syed Asim Munir, Pakistan’s army chief, announced the operation, continuing the trend of military power consolidation seen since 2001.

This announcement came two months after Shehbaz Sharif’s military-backed coalition government took power. Such a move would have been more challenging under the previous government led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), whose regional leaders expressed concerns about the operation and still enjoy widespread support.

Security analysts fear that this new initiative, like previous ones, could adversely affect the Pashtun population in KP’s tribal areas and increase civilian casualties. Since the announcement, groups like the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) have protested in Pashtun-dominated tribal areas. The local population is threatened by both Islamist terror groups and the armed forces’ activities under the new operation. Previous operations in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) led to significant displacement.

Additionally, the Free Balochistan Movement (FBM) launched a social media campaign against the operation, claiming it was started at China’s behest and targeted Baloch sovereignty. There is widespread skepticism about the operation’s effectiveness and the military’s commitment to addressing all terror threats rather than selectively targeting groups under Chinese pressure.

A substantial portion of the Pakistani population, particularly Imran Khan’s supporters, distrusts the military establishment. Critics argue that the new campaign could be used to target political opponents and detractors of the Pakistan Army. In response to growing criticism, the Pakistan Army’s leadership expressed concerns about “unwarranted criticism” and misrepresentation of the operation. The government clarified on June 25 that the operation would not be a “kinetic large-scale military operation” nor involve mass displacement.

The timing of this military campaign poses challenges for Pakistan, given the country’s economic fragility and political opposition. The Pashtun and Baloch populations are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of this campaign, which aims to meet Chinese demands and attract further investment. While China remains unaffected by the operation’s outcomes, Pakistan faces significant economic and security uncertainties. The effectiveness of Operation Azm-i-Istehkam in eradicating terrorism from Pakistan will be under observation.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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