Just as the internal political crisis has begun to subside, another crisis in the form of tension along borders has arisen. On the eastern border, violence has escalated along the Line of Control and the working boundary since the clashes first erupted on Oct 2, resulting in the loss of lives and displacement of population on both sides. Both countries accuse each other of triggering the latest round of hostilities. On the western front, friction along the Pak-Afghan border has become a near constant over the past decade. More recently, tension along Pakistan’s border with Iran has also mounted. The latest tension was precipitated by the killing of four Iranian security personnel by Jaish-ul Adl, an ethnic Baloch and Sunni group that claims to fight for the rights of the people of the Sestan-Balochistan province of Iran and is thought to be based in Pakistan’s Balochistan. Earlier this year in February, the Jaish abducted 5 Iranian border guards and reportedly took them across the border into Pakistan. One of the soldiers was allegedly executed and four were subsequently released after months of acrimonious negotiations. Iranian authorities repeatedly warned Islamabad and vowed to act unilaterally if the cross-border terrorist activity did not cease. A week ago, the Iranian guards did carry out the pledge when they reportedly raided a village inside Pakistan’s territory, resulting in the loss of one Pakistani Frontier Corps soldier.
Unfortunately the common denominator in the tension along all three borders is the cross-border terrorism. As of now, the only ostensibly calm border is that with China. But even China is frustrated with Islamabad’s continuing failure to curb terrorist groups within its territories. China has time and again conveyed its concerns to Islamabad about the sanctuary of Uighur Islamic militants inside Pakistan. The only difference is that, unlike the India, Iran and Afghanistan, China does not want to embarrass Pakistan and therefore refrains from criticizing it publicly. Now, what do we make of this situation? Is this another “grand conspiracy” against Pakistan? Or is there something seriously wrong within our house?
The fundamental problem is that rebels and militants of all neighbouring states have found sanctuaries in Pakistan and are using its soil to launch cross-border attacks. One may argue that the writ of the state has gradually weakened in Balochistan and FATA, and the militants are exploiting this weakness. But then one has to ask the question if the Pakistani state has really done its best to enforce the writ of the state in the first place. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not only is the Pakistani state not doing enough to curb terrorism emanating from its soil but is also accused by many, at home and abroad, of being a sponsor of some, if not all, militant groups. The Pakistani state, the argument goes on, is still using Islamic militancy as a means of achieving its regional geo-political goals. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is not entirely inaccurate. There is no denying that support to Islamic militants has remained a central plank of Islamabad’s India and Afghan policy. Nevertheless, the counter-argument that Islamabad no longer has control over all militant groups is also not false. Therefore, every cross-border militant activity should not be viewed as Islamabad’s policy. For instance, it is safe to argue that Islamabad is genuinely committed to eradicate the safe havens of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the tribal areas. In case of Iran, it is unclear as to whether Pakistan’s failure to stem cross-border militant movement is due to lack of will or capacity. However, it can be said for sure that there has been a palpable and alarming increase in the influence of sectarian outfits in Balochistan over the past few years. The state at best seems to have turned a blind eye to their activities. It is widely believed that the state is using these groups to neutralise and suppress Baloch nationalist movement. Besides, some critics believe that Islamabad’s alignment with Saudi’s regional agenda also explains its indifferent behaviour towards Iranian concerns about cross-border terrorism.
The underlying root cause of the above crisis is that a policy of distinction between the so-called good and bad militants is still in place. This policy is not only hurting our regional interests but also seriously thwarting domestic efforts for the restoration of peace. It is because of this policy that despite losing more than 50,000 lives and suffering economic loss worth $100 billion in the ‘war on terror’, Pakistan is still being accused of not doing enough to curb terrorism. This policy is acting like a double jeopardy for ordinary Pakistanis who, despite having suffered the most at the hands of terrorism at home, have to face discriminatory attitude outside the country for being potential suspects or supporters of terrorism. Most importantly, the same good militants have assisted the bad militants in killing thousands of Pakistanis by providing them operational, logistical and ideological support. Due to the same policy, the moral support for and legitimacy of the Kashmir cause has declined internationally. Today, this policy has intensified Pakistan’s isolation in the world and has the potential to create much more serious problems for us. For instance, any repetition of the Mumbai style terror attacks would plunge the region into a potentially disastrous crisis. And to make things even worse, no one in the rest of the world will stand by our side.
Pakistan has to rein in the militant groups within its borders if it wants to achieve internal and external peace. Owing to the complex regional security terrain, Pakistan cannot establish internal peace unless it contributes to peace in the neighbouring countries. Our efforts for internal peace, therefore, must coincide with initiatives for regional peace. Durable peace can only be achieved if Islamabad brings a strategic shift in its policy towards non-state militant groups and restores the state’s monopoly over violence. Such measures will help Islamabad mend its strained ties with Kabul, New Delhi, Tehran and Washington and seek their support in rooting out terrorism.
Pakistan cannot afford to remain on the wrong side of history forever. On the issue of terrorism, it is not Pakistan vs India, Pakistan vs Afghanistan or Pakistan vs Tehran. It is Pakistan vs the rest of the world. The sooner we realise it the better it is.