Pakistan: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Strikes Again

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.

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2 thoughts on “Pakistan: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Strikes Again

  1. Pakistan has nurtured terrorism based on religious ideology for more than three decades to serve its political interests against other countries, and occasionally in its internal politics also. These terrorists have been charged for more than three decades with so called noble idea of jihad by the military, and to some extent by political and religious leadership also. These terrorists have been kept in high esteem, their acts have been glorified and their personal needs have been taken care very well by these leadership. All these things have changed the culture and way of thinking of these terrorists. And many of these terrorists consider their action righteous for their religion and community and consider themselves hero. After upholding such types of belief, ideology and action for a generation , it will not be possible for military, religious or political leadership to ask these terrorists to change their ideologies and their path. And any forceful attempt to change their ideologies, beliefs and actions fostered over many decades will lead to internal conflicts, and these terrorist groups will try to snatch those resources from these leadership which were provided to them by these leadership be it military, religious or political. And this is reflected in exactly what happened in form of jihadi attack on naval dockyard in Karachi or taking over of frigate. And even attempts will be made by jihadi group to grab weapon of mass destruction. This will further escalate to internal conflicts between terrorist and military.

    Terrorist will wage wars with neighboring countries based on lesson learnt during indoctrination. The type and potency of response of neighboring countries against terrorist activities will determine the further relation between terrorist, military,political and religious leadership. The solution lies in WW-II model of Japan.

  2. Pakistan is a completely messed-up country and yet instead of creating a conducive environment along the border with India in order to dialogue and benefit, it is obsessed with injecting terrorists into Kashmir and foment trouble there. It has enough trouble within its own country and now developing tension with Iran. It wants a hold on Afghanistan. ISIS is also establishing a strong foothold in Pakistan in order to expand eastwards. Considering the overall Geo-political Strategic scenario, of this region, it would be wise for USA to intervene effectively to defuse the impending threat, including taking over their Nuclear Arsenal.

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