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Chinese Ambassador To Pakistan Escapes Car Bomb Blast In Quetta

Aftermath of car bomb blast at Quetta's Serena hotel

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) allegedly claimed responsibility for VBIED attack at posh Serena Hotel in Quetta’s secure ‘Red Zone’

Quetta’s fragile peace was rocked violently on Wednesday night by a loud blast that occurred in the parking lot of the Serena hotel, the sole five-star hotel of the city located in its ‘ultra-secure’ Red Zone. Initial reports based on preliminary investigations by law enforcement agencies indicate that a sedan vehicle laden with 40-to-50 kilograms of highly explosive materials (also referred to as “research developed explosives” or RDX) detonated around 10:15pm local time, shortly after entering the hotel gate. As of the filing of this report, four people had been killed and eleven injured in the attack – the injured also include Bilal Shabbir, Assistant Commissioner Jafarabad, and Ijaz Ahmad, Assistant Commissioner (Revenue) Quetta. In a message on Telegram, the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP claimed responsibility for what it said was a suicide attack targeting a meeting of senior security personnel meeting at the hotel.

While the TTP claim remains to be fully verified, Balochistan government officials say that the possibility of this being a terror attack cannot be ruled out. Federal Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed has already acknowledged a security failure, in that a vehicle with such high quantities of explosive materials was able to enter unchallenged into a five-star hotel’s premises – one situated in the most secure area of the provincial capital. Such a swift admission could also have been prompted by serious embarrassments the PTI government faced over the past couple of weeks as a religious-political organization, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), took to the streets in violent protest to pressure the expulsion of the French ambassador. While that confrontation appears to have simmered down, it must be mentioned that the TTP did issue a formal and verified message of support for the TLP’s platform.

Why did this car bomb attack take place at the time and at the location that it did? Pakistani commentators are quick to point out that the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong, was on an official visit to Quetta and was due to visit the hotel. Sources indicate that the improvised explosive vehicle detonated minutes before the Chinese ambassador arrived at the hotel; while the timing, location and coincidence thereof is as yet unconfirmed. Official government sources have verified that the Chinese ambassador and his delegation is safe and unharmed. Obviously, the knee-jerk reaction in the mainstream is to view this as a targeted attack on the Chinese ambassador and on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC – Pakistan’s solitary economic lifeline and singular source of inbound investment – by India through covert action and/or sponsored proxies.

One would be remiss to ignore an analogous event that took place a little over 24 hours ago: a VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) attack of similar magnitude occurred in Kabul’s PD-15 area, apparently targeting a convoy of Afghan security forces and Unit 097 of the NDS, Afghanistan’s intelligence service. That bomb blast was also loud enough to be heard in different parts of Kabul, with photographs of a plume of smoke being captured from multiple vantage points.

Terrorist groups suddenly being able to deploy VBIEDs/car bombs bearing explosives of such high magnitudes into highly secure sections of densely populated urban areas is a huge cause for concern. This sudden surge in the asymmetric operations of violent insurgents and non-state actors points to the apparent complacency of security forces and a steady degradation in the defensive posture of counterterrorism apparatus. Not expecting such an attack, or lower levels of readiness due to Ramadan, are incredible excuses for a ‘battle hardened’ nation.

While Afghanistan is under increasing military pressure from the Taliban as US and NATO forces prepare to withdraw by September, Pakistan’s ubiquitous security institutions have either been unperturbed by the extremely low level and intensity of terror attacks since 2018-19, or have been distracted by a plethora of “other matters” most of which are outside the standard purview and domain of national security. Experts would say that these matters could include various aspects of governance, ‘judiciousness of accountability’, pandemic response, and even the latest distraction posed by the TLP in the form of a nationwide internal security quagmire that threatened to derail the fragile incumbent government from its delicate tenterhooks. That the TLP was formed in 2016 and mobilized as a political force in 2017 to deprive the PML-N of its Barelvi vote bank in the Punjab, and now functions as a radical extremist pressure group that exhibits disproportionate street power as it exercises agency on the corridors of power in Islamabad, is not lost on the objective observer of Pakistani politics. Given Pakistan’s woeful education standards, deficient culture of tolerance, and inability to accommodate – much less comprehend – opposing points of view with civility and rational argumentation, the TLP has efficiently weaponized religious sentimentality into a potent political tool that can monopolize Pakistani public discourse and exert it unilaterally into national narratives and matters of international importance.

The blast in Quetta cannot be segregated from the recent events that have taken place on Pakistan’s streets. Rising societal intolerance and effervescent religious extremism in Pakistan are ripe conditions for violent militants and terrorists to abuse: first by exploiting the ever-growing sense of marginalization to attract sympathizers, and then by establishing cells of operatives nationwide to conduct asymmetric attacks. This has been done before, more successfully by Islamist radicals than by separatist groups. Pakistan constantly reminds itself and the world of the ‘gains’ it has achieved in its kinetic war against terrorism, even as extremist ideologies that contrive violent militancy continue to fester and metastasize. The TLP protest and successful mass mobilization is even more disturbing in light of the Taliban’s latest ascendance, as well as military potency and renewed relevance, in Afghanistan: their brand of strict Sharia law could spill over into Pakistan as easily as religious conservatism creeps into ideological fanaticism and intolerant dogmatism.

If Pakistan wants to secure CPEC and truly create an enabling environment for sustainable economic development, it must adopt a ‘whole of nation’ approach in combating extremism and intolerance that pervades Pakistani society. Kinetic solutions – no matter how simplistic or sophisticated, reactive or proactive – alone will not succeed in ensuring peace and stability. Practical emphasis from both state and society on developing and pursuing a national approach – one that redefines Pakistan as a united, cohesive, tolerant, inclusive and harmonious polity – is long overdue.

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Naya Daur