TTP’s Killing of Chinese Citizens in Pakistan Presents Afghan Taliban with Dangerous Dilemma

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 8

Lin Jian, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, condemning the TTP's attack on his countrymen. (Source: Chinese MFA)

Executive Summary:

  • The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or “Pakistani Taliban,” likely are responsible for a suicide attack that killed five Chinese engineers in Pakistan’s north on March 26.
  • China may use the incident to push Afghanistan to disavow the TTP, but such a maneuver would force the Afghan Taliban to choose between its legitimacy in the eyes of Islamists or economic investment in the diplomatically and financially isolated country.
  • This is the second fatal attack on Chinese personnel sent to work on Pakistan’s Dasu Dam project, and the incident has prompted a senior Afghan Taliban official to chide the TTP for the first time.

Initial investigations by Pakistani authorities indicate the involvement of the Afghanistan-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or “Pakistani Taliban,” in a suicide attack that killed six people, including five Chinese engineers, in the country’s northwest on March 26 (Express Tribune [Pakistan], April 2). An explosive-laden vehicle rammed into a convoy that was transporting the Chinese engineers to the Dasu Dam project site in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Immediately after the suicide attack, the Chinese government “[demanded] that the Pakistani side conduct a thorough investigation.” So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack (Dawn, March 26).

Following the suicide attack, China vowed to continue its cooperation with Pakistan. Lin Jian, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, stated, “Our iron-clad friendship is deeply rooted in the two peoples. No attempt to sabotage China–Pakistan cooperation will ever succeed” (Dawn, March 29).

Pakistan has allegedly collected sufficient evidence to prove the TTP’s involvement in the attacks and has shared as much with China. The perpetrator of the March 26 attack was an Afghan national, which investigators discovered from the suicide bomber’s SIM card. The car used in the attack was also smuggled into Pakistan through the Afghanistan–Pakistan border checkpoint at Chaman, which is in the southwestern portion of Balochistan Province. Islamabad hopes that Chinese pressure on Kabul might force the Afghan government to tamp down on TTP activity (Express Tribune [Pakistan], April 2).

It can be assumed that the TTP has not claimed responsibility for the attack in order to avoid placing the Afghan Taliban in an even more awkward position than it already has. Claiming an attack on China, one of the few states willing to invest in Afghanistan, could hurt the extremely fragile Afghan economy. More the point, claiming responsibility would give Beijing cause to demand a change in Kabul’s stance toward the TTP.

Chinese Pressure?

If China is satisfied with the evidence provided by Pakistan, the TTP’s involvement could foment a diplomatic crisis between Kabul and Beijing. Since 2021, the Taliban have repeatedly ignored Islamabad’s calls for Kabul to rein in TTP militants, who enjoy safe haven in Afghanistan and use Afghan soil to plan and launch attacks against Pakistan. TTP-led violence has seriously strained Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban over the past three years (Express Tribune [Pakistan], January 5, 2023). It remains to be seen if China will do more than engage in backdoor discussions with Afghan diplomats.

China is the largest investor in Afghanistan and has made huge investments in the otherwise economically and diplomatically isolated country’s energy and mining sectors. China officially recognized a Taliban envoy to Beijing in February, whereas Western nations continue to sanction Afghanistan for the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s rights and bans on female education (Al Jazeera, February 14). Despite the fact that Kabul, Beijing, and Islamabad have all declared their support for expanding the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan in principle, so long as China questions the safety of its personnel in the region, this dream is unlikely to become a reality (Global Times, May 7, 2023).

It should also be noted that this was not the first attack on Chinese nationals working on the Dasu Dam. That occurred in July 2021, when 13 people, including nine Chinese engineers, were killed. Similar to the most recent bombing, no militant group claimed responsibility for the attack (Dawn, July 14, 2021). Chinese and Pakistani investigators concluded that the TTP collaborated with Uyghur militants to carry out the bombing. Both Beijing and Islamabad pressed the Afghan Taliban to launch a full-fledged crackdown on groups hostile to both China and Pakistan, such as the TTP and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), who also have bases along the Afghan–Pakistani border (see Terrorism Monitor, September 7, 2021).

Taliban–TTP Split?

In early April, Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Muhammad Nabi Omari warned the TTP that they were not as popular in Pakistan as they might think they are. While this fairly mild statement was not directly attributable to Chinese intervention, it was the most scolding the TTP has ever received from a senior Afghan Taliban leader. Likewise, the comment came amid a larger call from Kabul for the TTP and Pakistan to resume the long-stalled peace negotiations which collapsed in late 2022 (Dawn, April 4). Given how the peace talks and related ceasefire ended previously, however, Pakistan is unlikely to opt for this option again (see Terrorism Monitor, October 7, 2022; Express Tribune, June 23, 2022).

Last year, the Taliban proposed that the TTP and their families be disarmed and relocated from their current bases along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border into another location in the former’s interior. A similar offer was made for Uyghur militants. This already unlikely plan was finished by Kabul’s insistence that Pakistan bear the cost of the resettlement. From the point of view of Pakistan, this meant paying an undisclosed sum so that the Taliban could continue to provide shelter to dangerous, hostile groups, just in a location that was slightly further away from the country’s borders. Unsurprisingly, the plan failed (Express Tribune [Pakistan], February 24, 2023).


It will be difficult for the Taliban to truly sever ties with the TTP or otherwise crack down on the group. The attacks by the TTP on Pakistani and Chinese targets bring to light the Taliban’s fundamental dilemma—either risk destroying their legitimacy by repressing Islamist militant groups on their soil or give up their desire to improve the country’s abysmal international standing entirely. Kabul is particularly concerned that launching any hostile actions against the militants on its soil could push the Afghan Taliban’s own supporters toward Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP)—or otherwise embolden the TTP to turn their guns on their erstwhile allies.