Angry Neighbours

Two terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s neighbourhood last week – one in Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir and the other in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, both of which had different contexts – have further complicated Pakistan’s external security environment.

In the first attack, a bus carrying personnel of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was attacked in a mountainous region between Zahedan and Khash, leaving 27 soldiers dead. A day later, a bus of Indian paramilitary force Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was hit by a suicide bomber driving an explosive laden vehicle killing 44 troops. Notwithstanding the different contexts in which the two attacks happened – Iran, where militants have engaged the state in a low-scale conflict in its restive Sistan-Balochistan province, and Kashmir that is witnessing a raging insurgency – the targets were similar (troops in both cases) and the same mode of attack was employed (suicide bombing). And at least one element of the outcome of the attacks was similar in that, both India and Iran pointed fingers at Pakistan-based groups.

The IRGC attack was claimed by Jaish-ul-Adl, allegedly having bases close to the border with Iran, whereas Jaish-e-Mohammad said it carried out the CRPF bombing.

The bogey of Iran and India joining hands against Pakistan was long speculated and these attacks, for once, made it look a reality. The perception was strengthened by Iranian deputy foreign minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi’s tweet after his meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma in Tehran in which he said: “Iran and India suffered from two heinous terrorist attacks in the past few days resulted in big casualties. Today in my meeting with Sushma Swaraj, the Indian FM…we agreed on close cooperation to combat terrorism in the region. Enough is enough!”

PM Imran Khan’s message, though a bit late, was appropriately phrased. He not only warned Indians against any military misadventure, but also offered dialogue on bilateral disputes

Pakistan government would for sure not want such a troubling scenario to materialise. It was probably because of this reason that soon afterwards Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and offered to jointly investigate the attack and address Iranian concerns. The contact was helpful and resumed communication between the two countries that seemed to have stalled immediately after the attack. The foreign ministers conversation was followed by military level contacts and a Pakistani delegation is expected to travel to Iran.

Border security has been a major irritant in Pakistan-Iran relations and each time an incident happens in the border region, whether it’s the abduction of border guards or terrorist attack on Iranian forces like the latest incident, those problems get highlighted. The progress made by the two countries over the past couple of years, although much of it has been washed away by now, was also premised on better cooperation for border security.

The Iranian concerns have been accentuated by Pakistan’s growing cooperation with Saudi Arabia as seen during Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit. Statements like the one given by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, accusing Iran of exporting terrorism at a presser at Foreign Office and his host Shah Mehmood Qureshi tacitly endorsing his viewpoint would further heighten Iranian concerns.

Pakistan has very nominal economic and political ties with neighbouring Iran. But, at the same time it is one of the borders from where Pakistan has so far not faced any conventional military threat. Therefore, any major shift in the relationship paradigm would only serve to add to our security worries. The sooner the situation is defused the better.

The bigger problem, however, is India, which has been perpetually hostile to Pakistan. The five-year tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was perhaps one of the most acrimonious. Exchanges on Line of Control and Working Boundary intensified, resulting in significant civilian and military casualty. One major reason for India’s persistent hard line attitude towards Pakistan was the movement in Kashmir against Indian occupation.

Pulwama attack has made things look more ominous. India, even before establishing any concrete link between the attack and the state of Pakistan, has accused neighbouring Pakistan and vowed revenge. PM Modi in a public gathering said “each drop of tear will be avenged.” He has also left it to his armed forces to decide the timing and mode of revenge.

War frenzy has been created in India by its leaders and media. The hysteria being witnessed this time is much different from similar episodes in the past. Not only has Pakistan bashing been upped and Pakistani sports and entertainment outlets being blocked, but anyone talking sense in India is being attacked. It shows the level of sentiments in Indian public that have been whipped up by irresponsible Indian media and leaders. Everyone in India appears fixated on the idea of teaching Pakistan a lesson.

This presents a very scary situation because war in itself is undesirable, but one between nuclear armed states is unthinkable.

PM Imran Khan’s message, though a bit late, was appropriately phrased. He not only warned Indians against any military misadventure, but also once again offered dialogue on bilateral disputes. He also reiterated the offer of Pakistan’s cooperation in the investigations. But, India, took no time, to reject the offer as if it had already made up its mind. Indian leaders have conveniently chosen to ignore the fact that conflicts hurt both sides and there are no winners.

India, it should be remembered, has after Pulwama already made a number of moves to diplomatically and economically hurt Pakistan. The ‘Most Favoured Nation’ trade status was revoked, import duty on products imported from Pakistan has been raised to 200 percent and more importantly, a diplomatic offensive has been launched at Financial Action Task Force to scuttle any effort for Pakistan exiting from grey listing.

According to initial reports, India has won France’s backing for this. Few other Western countries have also promised support. Following a conversation between India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and President Macron’s Adviser Philippe Etienne, there have been multiple indications that Paris has not only agreed to support India at FATF, but also push for listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad Chief Masood Azhar at the Security Council. Many believe that separate meetings between Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and European ambassadors including the French were in this context. The foreign secretary had earlier briefed the EU envoys together on the situation after Pulwama attack.

In this situation, Pakistan would have to pursue nimble-footed diplomacy to ensure that this simmering tension does not break out into open hostilities. India has refused to listen to Pakistani pleas for a peaceful settlement of disputes through dialogue, and it is unlikely to change its posture because it sees no incentive in talking and more so when elections are round the corner when Pakistan bashing in the most politically profiting thing to do. However, the government should engage others who have interest in stability of this region to persuade India to desist from inflaming the situation. But, for that Islamabad too would have to make credible moves against people of concern to the outside world.

The writer is a freelance journalistbased in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Published in The Friday Times , February 22, 2019.

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