My last post examined the significant anti-state violence in Pakistan caused by a myriad of non-state actors residing within its borders, and highlighted the danger of freebooting jihadis mounting terrorist operations aimed at catalyzing unwanted tensions between Islamabad and its neighbors. The problem is rooted in what can be called the Sorcerer’s Apprentice syndrome, from Goethe’s classic tale about the dangers of conjuring up proxies one cannot ultimately control. Among other things, it raises difficult questions for how New Delhi and, to a lesser extent, Tehran structure credible deterrence equations with a country that is being challenged internally by capable militant elements it once supported.
Two developments in the last month or so underscore these points. The first is an audacious seaborne jihadi assault upon a naval dockyard in Karachi, which Pakistani security forces were only able to beat back following a six-hour gunfight. According to a detailed statement by the newly-formed Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the strike had a two-fold objective. One was to take control of a Pakistani frigate and “steer it toward the Indian waters in order to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles.” The other aim was to seize another frigate and use it to attack U.S. Navy vessels operating in the region.
If successful, the operation would have vastly exacerbated Pakistan’s fraught relations with New Delhi and Washington. During the recent electoral campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a “zero-tolerance policy” against Pakistan-sourced terrorist attacks, and he has pursued a noticeably tougher line in the on-going skirmishes along the Kashmir divide than his predecessor. As a senior official in the Indian home ministry puts it, “The message we have been given from the prime minister’s office is very clear and precise. The prime minister’s office has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses.”
Speaking a few days ago, Modi reiterated this stance, proclaiming:
Today, when bullets are being fired on the border, it is the enemy that is screaming. Our jawans [soldiers] have responded to the aggression with courage. The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated… People know my intentions and I need not express those in words. When the jawans have to speak, they speak with their fingers on the trigger… and they will continue to speak that way.
Given the new political atmosphere in India, a naval engagement initiated by Pakistan-based jihadis could quickly escalate into a perilous military confrontation between New Delhi and Islamabad. And an attack upon U.S. Navy ships by these groups carries its own dangers.
Following the May 2010 car bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square by a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, the Obama administration put Islamabad on notice that future terrorist attacks on American soil emanating from Pakistan would result in retaliatory military action. Indeed, President Obama used an October 2010 White House meeting with Pakistani senior officials, including then-army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to repeat this message, which according to Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington at the time “sounded more ominous coming directly from the president of the United States.”
The second development is an increasing series of attacks by Pakistan-based Sunni insurgents upon border posts in the Sistan and Baluchestan province of Iran, which is roiled by a disgruntled Sunni minority in the predominately Shiite country. The assaults have caused Tehran to warn that it will launch hot-pursuit operations into Pakistan if Islamabad fails to control its borders.
[UPDATE, October 17: The deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps yesterday reiterated that Tehran reserves the option of launching military strikes into Pakistan if Islamabad fails to take action against Baluchi rebels staging cross-border attacks.]
[UPDATE, October 18: A Pakistani paramilitary officer was killed and four other personnel were injured yesterday when their vehicle came under fire by Iranian border guards. Dozens of Iranian troops also raided a village along the Iran-Pakistan border. More on these developments here, here and here.]
So much of the regional security environment in South Asia turns on a Pakistan that is unable to keep its raging domestic turmoil from spilling over into the neighborhood. Expect to see more of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as the country’s internal travails mount.