The days of denying the presence of US military personnel in Pakistan came to an end after three US soldiers were killed in a bomb blast near a girls’ school in North West Frontier Province this week. The admission that US troops are in Pakistan training the country’s paramilitary Frontier Corps could not have come at a more delicate time. Not only could it further weaken Pakistan’s embattled central government; it could up the stakes considerably in the Great Game for supremacy in Central Asia. Between insurgency, corruption charges and a bad economy the government in Islamabad was already facing severe domestic criticism. Following on the heels of increased US drone strikes in Pakistan, the revelation that US troops have been operating in the country with Islamabad’s consent will almost surely increase public resentment. Insurgents have already exploited the news for their own purposes. The TTP, Pakistan’s largest coalition of Taliban groups which claimed responsibility for the girls’ school blast alleged that the US personnel involved were not soldiers but employees of the scandal-prone private security firm Blackwater Worldwide. (The TTP employed the same propaganda tactic last year when it blamed an attack on a market in Peshawar on US private security contractors.)
The impact of such allegations should not be underestimated. Chaos breeds conspiracy theories and right now, Pakistan is rife with them. One in particular which has gained momentum in recent months is the accusation that the US is not trying to stabilize Pakistan but to destabilize it along sectarian lines in order to influence Afghanistan, contain Iran, promote India as the regional superpower – and most crucially, control the flow of energy between the Middle East and China.
Conspiracy theories that float on the fringes of society are one thing. But the destabilization theory is seeping into the Pakistani mainstream. The crucial question now is – has it reached China?
Pakistan is key to securing China’s energy needs. China has invested billions in developing energy routes through Pakistan including highways and a strategic port in Gwadar in Baluchistan province that sits at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf. The last thing China wants is to see its plans dashed by a Yugoslavia style bust up of Pakistan.
How far would China go to protect its interests in Pakistan? An article posted last week on a Chinese government website may offer a clue. In it, Beijing signaled it was considering building military bases overseas asserting that it was its ‘right’ to do so. The article also stated the biggest threat to China is not pirates in the Gulf of Aden (where the Chinese Navy patrols) but countries which would block its trade routes.
Was China speaking specifically of Pakistan? I’ll leave that to the big shot analysts. But the lifting of the veil on US military personnel operating in Pakistan will have undoubtedly raised eyebrows in Beijing.