ISLAMABAD -- Members of Pakistani militant groups who attack projects under China's Belt and Road Initiative are being assassinated in growing numbers in Afghanistan by Pakistan security forces.
According to Kiyaa Baloch, a journalist covering insurgency in Pakistan's massive Balochistan province, the intensification of Pakistani military operations against Baloch separatist groups first kicked off in 2004. Many Baloch families have since fled across the border to Afghanistan, where locals regard them as refugees.
In recent months, numerous Pakistani militants have been killed in Afghanistan, mostly in Kandahar province, which borders Balochistan.
On Dec. 20, a son of Hazrat Gul, a Baloch leader, was kidnapped in Nimroz province; five days later his bullet-ridden body was found. The Balochistan Post, a pro-militant, Urdu-language website, reported that Gul had provided refuge to Baloch people escaping military operations in Balochistan. There were incidents on Dec. 10 and Dec. 19 in which two members of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP) and two others from another militant outfit were killed in the Kandahar area.
Baloch separatist groups have been alarmed by the increased killing of their members and sympathizers. Brahumdagh Bugti, the BRP's leader, issued a statement on Dec. 20 claiming that "Baloch refugees" were being attacked inside Afghanistan by Pakistani security agencies. He said international human rights bodies should take note.
Aslam Baloch, the key commander of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), was killed in December 2018 by a suicide bomber in Aino Mina, a major town in Kandahar. Since then, Baloch militants and their families inside Afghanistan, mainly in Kandahar, have been under frequent attack, according to sources close to Baloch militants and tribal elders there.
Under Baloch, the BLA formed a special unit that carried out suicide attacks on Chinese interests, including BRI-backed projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. CPEC is a BRI flagship relationship worth over $50 billion in infrastructure projects in Pakistan.
Baloch masterminded attacks in 2018 on China's consulate in Karachi and on a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Balochistan's Dalbandin region.
A 40% stake in the Pakistan Stock Exchange is owned by three Chinese companies. After four BLA militants attacked the Karachi bourse last June, Pakistani law enforcement officers concluded they had been in direct phone contact with their handlers in Kandahar during the operation. The day after the attack, the BLA's local headquarters in Aino Mina was bombed.
"Drug-dealers, Taliban commanders, tribal chieftains, police officials -- everyone in Kandahar is involved in the booming assassination industry," Sanauallah Noorzai, a tribal elder in Kandahar, told Nikkei Asia. "Just pay and hire a hitman to kill anyone in the region."
Interestingly, nobody has so far claimed responsibility for any of the recent deadly attacks on Baloch militants in Afghanistan.
The violent upturn may support Pakistan's longtime contention that Baloch militants supported by India use Afghan territory to launch attacks on Pakistan.
In November, Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, held a joint press conference with his country's military. Qureshi claimed to have evidence of India aiding Baloch militants with "terrorist" activities launched from Afghan soil that targeted Chinese interests in Pakistan. New Delhi and Kabul both dismissed the allegations as "fabricated."
Pakistan has raised the issue of Baloch militants based in Afghanistan during peace talks between the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban. It has called for assurances that Baloch militants will be unable in future to launch attacks from Afghanistan.
"It seems that the attacks on Baloch groups on Afghan soil is a result of the agreement of security cooperation and intelligence sharing between Pakistan and Afghanistan under pressure from the United States," a former Afghan diplomat who had served in Pakistan, told Nikkei on condition of anonymity. In 2019, the U.S. added the BLA to its list of global terrorists, mainly at the request of Pakistan.
Last year, a number of Pakistani Taliban commanders, notably Sheikh Khalid Haqqani and Qari Saifullah Peshawari, were killed in Afghanistan, including in Kabul, by various means, the Afghan diplomat said.
Leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, like many Baloch militants, have also taken refuge in the Afghan border provinces of Kunar and Khost after eluding Pakistani military operations.
Some analysts believe that after establishing contact with the Afghan Taliban, Beijing wants it to target Baloch groups in Afghanistan. Beijing has engaged on various security issues, including delinking the Taliban with Muslim separatist groups in Xinjiang province and protecting Chinese investments in West Asia.
Although the Afghan Taliban has denied involvement in the December killings, analysts believe China could be hiring loose Taliban commanders to target Baloch militants.
CNN reported on Dec. 31 that President Donald Trump recently received unconfirmed intelligence of China offering payment to non-state actors in Afghanistan to attack U.S. soldiers.
On Monday, the chief of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security told the Afghan parliament that at least ten Chinese nationals suspected of being Beijing spies were detained in December in Kabul. The alleged agents were pardoned and deported.
A security official in Islamabad said that with the recent increase in cooperation between Iran and Pakistan, and ongoing work fencing their shared 900 km border, Baloch militants are increasingly shifting their hideouts to Afghanistan.
Over the years, Iran and Pakistan have traded blame for the failure to stamp out militants sheltering along the border. Pakistani intelligence has been closely monitoring Baloch militant groups in Balochistan's districts of Panjgur, Kecch and Gwadar -- the areas that border Iran, the official said.