There has got to be some irony in the confident statement of Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa that terrorism has been contained, made while addressing the Multan garrison after witnessing an exercise, coinciding with not just the attack on the Chinese Karachi Consulate but also the bomb blast in Hangu, in which 33 people were killed.

It might seem disappointing to General Bajwa, but terrorism has not been controlled, mainly because it is not just religious terrorism which is at work, but also other types. The attack on the consulate was not carried out by a religious outfit, but the Baloch Liberation Army, which is a separatist organisation. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Baloch separatists were rather Marxists in inclination, and looked to Moscow for inspiration. This was the time they developed an association with India’s RAW.

RAW is being quite openly blamed for the attack, and it should be noted that its main focus is no longer Moscow, but Washington. This change in US attention has been deeply resented by Pakistan’s policymaking circles, with the result that these circles have begun to look towards Moscow and Beijing for succour. Pakistani ties with Russia are still embryonic, while China has for the first time shown, in the course of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit and then that of a team headed by Finance Minister Asad Umar, that its friendship with Pakistan, while deep enough to make it integral through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to its One Belt, One Road initiative, does not run to its subsidising Pakistan’s current account deficit.

The BLA attack is supposed to have been carried out to promote Indian interests. Pakistan seems caught in the middle of the Sino-Indian rivalry. At the same time as an Indian shift towards the USA after the collapse of the USSR, the USA has started a trade war with China. This seems to have been the most prominent feature so far of the USA’s vaunted ‘Pivot East’. One result has been that the USA has not been as supportive of Pakistan as it would like at the IMF, where Pakistan has to go, especially now that China, the UAE and Malaysia have not come up with the relief packages Pakistan wanted.

The mastermind of the Karachi attack is supposed to be under treatment in a New Delhi hospital, and the captured RAW agent, Kulbhushan Yadav, has admitted putting money into Baloch separatism. The Baloch are a particular target, and it has been said that Baloch separatism in Iran is the primary target, where the USA is particularly active. That Iran is facing difficulties there is well known, and the role of US ally and Iranian enemy Saudi Arabia is suspected, providing a nexus between religious extremism and Baloch nationalism. Saudi Arabia is suspected not only of encouraging Baloch nationalism, but of supporting religious extremism, by funding Deobandi seminaries in Balochistan. It should not be ignored that there is a sectarian component of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, the former being Wahhabis (in Pakistan Ahle Hadith), the latter Shias.

The blast in Hangu has been claimed by the Islamic State, once again introducing the sectarian element. Whereas IS in the Mideast is fighting the US-backed regime in Iraq and the Iran-backed regime in Syria, its focus in Pakistan is more clearly sectarian, mainly because sectarian outfits entered its fold. While the BLA was not thought a religious party, let alone a sectarian, the coincidence of its attack with that in Hangu creates the possibility.

The fact that the BLA is cooperating with RAW should not only draw attention to continuing Indian meddling, but also to the Iranian port of Chabahar, which India wants to develop as a rival to Gwadar. Gwadar may be essential to Chinese plans to link itself, via Chinese Turkestan and Pakistan, to the ‘warm waters’ of the Gulf, but the landlocked Central Asian republics are expected to prefer the Chabahar route for trade with India, which is expected to see a reduction of 60 percent in costs, and 50 percent in time. With the Gwadar project, the Karachi consulate has been playing a prominent role, and is a more logical target than China’s Islamabad embassy.

CPEC does not give India jitters because of Gwadar alone, but because it has access to Pakistan all across the Karakoram Highway, and thus to India. A look at the map will show that it already abuts India in its east (both directly and through Myanmar) and north, and through CPEC it will do so in its west. For the first time in history, China has reached the Indus. This gives an added dimension to the Hangu blast, for which responsibility has been claimed by IS. The coinciding of terrorism with the BLA and IS, and through the BLA, with RAW, cannot be ignored. While it might be premature to jump to any conclusions, the possibility that the Sino-Indian rivalry is being played out on Pakistani soil cannot be ignored.

Pakistan can avoid this only by sacrificing the Chinese relationship. However, while that might stop Indian interference in Chinese-origin projects, it will not stop India from using Baloch separatists and religious extremists in the future, as well as any other fringe elements it can bend to its purposes. Against this, the entire range of cooperation with China will have to be jettisoned. This includes a large military component, and thus it is very unlikely that this government will risk this particular aspect. It should be stressed that the US rapprochement with India is part of the mix. Any reduction in Pakistani friendship with China will only serve to please the USA.

The USA will have to consider whether its pursuit of India is worth the consequent abandonment of Pakistan. It will also have to decide how far that rapprochement will go, whether it extends to the use of the kind of terrorism that was on display in Karachi.

However, it should not be forgotten that when the USA began its so-called War on Terror, some US experts had spoken of it lasting several decades. Now that one of the foremost warriors in that War, Pakistan, has started declaring victory, the War itself may have started undergoing a tectonic shift, from one against religious extremism to one involving national identities.

This poses a challenge to Pakistan, which has been its main battleground, as well as to the USA, which made the War its own. This transformation is what may allow the USA to prolong the War. However, it cannot escape notice that where India is supporting some disaffected Baloch in exercising that right of self-determination already exercised in 1947, India is preventing its exercise in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Also, there is little that India can do to prevent its many disaffected peoples from launching separatist movements of their own. There has been a spate of state creation in India, which has as one purpose giving disaffected peoples a separate state identity before they demand a separate national one. That problem will worsen for India if it keeps on stirring the Baloch pot.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation. 

The mastermind of the Karachi attack is supposed to be under treatment in a New Delhi hospital, and the captured RAW agent, Kulbhushan Yadav, has admitted putting money into Baloch separatism.