By Saniya Kulkarni
Security in the Central-South Asian region is an issue of increasing importance to China, especially in light of growing uncertainty in Pakistan and an ongoing threat to infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K, or IS-K), a regional wing of the Islamic State, has declared a “journey of vengeance” against China for supporting the Taliban government and “killing, arresting, and torturing Uyghur Muslims.”
Although the group has targeted China since 2015, it is only since the Taliban regained power in 2021 that there has been an acceleration of its Xinjiang-centred propaganda. It has also forged closer ties with the Turkmenistan Islamic Party (TIP), which Beijing has historically been most wary of. In a call to action, the group has encouraged militants to commit violence against Chinese interests in the region, resulting in an attack on a hotel frequented by Chinese diplomats and businessmen in Kabul in December 2022, following which, China urged its citizens to leave Afghanistan.
While there is still a debate on whether this will lead China to withdraw further from Afghanistan, it may have called into question the idea that China will assert its presence in the region to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. A colleague argued previously that China’s engagement in Afghanistan might serve as a good litmus test for its Global Security Initiative, to assess the extent to which China is willing and able to engage meaningfully in regional security. A good indicator of this is its military ties with Pakistan, whether it instrumentalizes Pakistan’s military-intelligence nexus, and how it does so.
Indian experts are generally of the opinion that IS-K is a fabrication of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. These claims must be taken with a grain of salt for obvious reasons, although ISI having ties to groups within Afghanistan is not uncommon and certainly not unlikely. The first emir of the IS-K was a veteran commander of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), from which there was wider recruitment.
On the other hand, the ISI was one of the most significant actors in the creation of the Taliban in the 1990s, and has long-standing ties to the Haqqani network. Although Pakistan has suffered decades of violence at the hands of some of these groups, it cannot be denied that these ties can be of value to Islamabad as well as – potentially – to allies like China. However, the military apparatus in Pakistan may not have quite the level of influence that it held even a decade ago. And if former PM Imran Khan has it his way, there is a chance the military’s grip might loosen even further.
The country is currently doused in uncertainty on all fronts – from the economic turmoil following last year’s devastating floods to the current political climate. Ahead of a special joint session of the Pakistan parliament on Wednesday, March 22, the country’s civilian and military high command held deliberations in Islamabad “to ensure the writ of the state is enforced” in light of anti-establishment protests staged by Khan’s supporters across the country. The state-run Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) reported the consensus of the meetings that Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is a “group of militants” and that the smear campaign against the government must be stopped, and strict actions be taken against perpetrators.
Khan’s platform is explicitly centered on restructuring the country’s political system with the goal of limiting the power the military holds in the current machinery. His party has also claimed that the military played a role in Khan’s removal from his Prime Ministerial role. The ruling coalition government does not seem to be taking Khan’s movement lightly, evidenced not just by the multiple high command meetings and a parliamentary joint session to ‘solve’ the problem posed by him, but also by cases of media censorship. Bol News, a channel considered to be sympathetic towards Khan was shut down on Monday, and although official reasons differed, this is not the first time journalists and TV channels have been taken off air for reporting in favour of Khan.
There was also an attempt to arrest him on March 15 – Khan is facing over 85 different charges, including counts of terrorism, corruption, and rioting. What is significant about this attempt is that the only reason it failed was because thousands of Khan’s supporters gathered outside his residence and clashed with the police to stop his arrest. The charges are significant in and of themselves, but more importantly, if Khan is found to be in contempt of court, he is likely to be disqualified from contesting elections scheduled for later in the year.
Khan’s popularity is not to be taken lightly, and the government is clearly aware of the dangers his movement poses. If predicted trends are accurate, and Khan does return to power, the question that remains is how much political capital the military apparatus will be able to retain. This is of course contingent on several factors, including the willingness of the PTI to initiate and enforce a comprehensive restructuring process. But, more importantly, it is dependent on the malleability of the political structure, which has been in place since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, and has remain largely unchanged.
It has been the case when Khan was previously in power that his stances on issues altered dramatically post-election from what they were during his campaign. His views on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are a case in point, although it is worth noting that there was a slowdown of CPEC projects during Khan’s tenure. It has also been argued that despite his critical remarks of the military he is not in principle against the armed forces, but rather urging them to “pick a side” – and specifically, his side.
Imran Khan’s ‘shifting scales’ are not news, but with the military apparatus so publicly wary of him, it will be a tough road ahead to salvage ties. The coming months will tell us more, and it will be interesting to keep an eye on how the Beijing-Islamabad relationship weathers tough times.
Saniya Kulkarni is a project coordinator at LSE IDEAS