Just over a year ago, Nawaz Sharif was swept back to power, prompting expectations that he would tackle the country’s security and economic crises, and improve relations with India. But, one year is an eternity in the politics of Pakistan! The United States is refusing to pledge additional aid beyond what was promised earlier under the Kerry-Lugar Legislation. Even ‘all-weather friend’ China has expressed disappointment that Sharif’s Government has not done the requisite preparatory work for utilising the aid that Beijing had promised for development of Pakistan’s ailing power sector. The only silver lining has been increased remittances from Pakistan’s workers in the Gulf, despite calls by cricketer-turned-politician and Sharif’s opponent Imran Khan for workers to halt such inward remittances.
Instead of acting circumspectly in such a situation, Pakistan has chosen to escalate tensions on its borders with Iran, Afghanistan and India. The tensions with these three neighbours, with whom Pakistan shares land boundaries, have arisen because of support to cross-border terrorism. This support is rendered by state agencies to extremist Sunni groups, ranging from the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba to the Afghan Taliban and the Jaish-e-Adl. The tensions with Iran have risen because of the support that the extremist Sunni group Jaish e-Adl receives in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, where the Pakistan Army is simultaneously engaged in a bloody conflict against the Balochi separatists.
Tensions with Iran escalated last year, when the Jaish-e-Adl mounted cross-border ground and missile attacks in Iran, resulting in Iranian casualties. This prompted an Iranian spokesman to warn that Iranian forces would enter Pakistani territory if Pakistan “failed to act against terrorist groups operating on its soil”. More or less coinciding with this, was an incident when the Jaish-e-Adl kidnapped five Iranian border guards and moved them into Pakistan. Iran not only warned Pakistan of cross-border retaliation, but also brought repeated incursions from Pakistani soil to the notice of the UN Security Council, in writing. Ever since the pro-Saudi Nawaz Sharif, whose links with radical Sunni extremist groups is well documented, assumed power, Pakistan has moved towards rendering unstinted support to Saudi Arabia, even in the Syrian civil war. It has also unilaterally annulled the Pakistan-Iran oil pipeline project, prompting action by Iran, which has now sought compensation.
While Nawaz Sharif was commencing negotiations for a peace deal with the Tehreek-e Taliban in the tribal areas of North Waziristan bordering Afghanistan, the Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, disregarded the views of the Prime Minister. He launched a massive military operation, involving over 50,000 military and paramilitary personnel, backed by artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships and fighter jets. An estimated one million Pashtun tribesmen have fled from their homes. They are now homeless and facing barriers preventing their entry to the neighbouring Provinces of Punjab and Sind. Not surprisingly, ISI ‘assets’ like the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network have been quietly moved out from the battle zone, quite obviously into ISI safe houses.
Unrest is brewing amidst the displaced Pashtun tribals, as the army is not willing and able to coordinate its operations with civilian relief agencies. One can expect that the displaced and homeless Pashtun tribals will in due course resort to terrorist violence across Pakistan. The special treatment meted out to ISI assets like Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network would have been carefully noted by the new Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai dispensation in Afghanistan, as a prelude to more serious attacks by the Afghan Taliban acting out of ISI and Army-protected safe havens in Pakistan. Pakistan’s western borders are not going to be areas of peace and stability in coming years. Unfortunately for both Mr Sharif and General Sharif, the escalating tensions with Iran, the partisan stance on Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalries and the military action in North Waziristan have invited criticism within Pakistan.
The promotion and escalation of tensions with India across the Line of Control and International Border have to be seen in this context. What better way for the Pakistan Army to divert attention from its misadventures in the west, than to revive the ‘India bogey’ in Pakistan? Such an action would also test the resolve of the Narendra Modi dispensation to deal with cross-border terror. Moreover, with the Assembly election due in Jammu and Kashmir soon, the Pakistan Army would strive to ensure that the credibility of the election is questioned, by ensuring a low turnout. Hurriyat leaders like Shabir Shah and Yasin Malik had already been commissioned to stir up discontent and discredit the Indian Army, during the floods. Three successive and successful Assembly elections in the State would erode the credibility of Pakistan’s propaganda.