The Wagah Bombing and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Pakistan

As a series of earlier posts note (here, here and here), the last few months have cast new light on the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” problem in Pakistan.  Drawing on Goethe’s classic tale about the dangers of conjuring up proxies one cannot ultimately control, this refers to the predicament Pakistan finds itself in whereby some of the Sunni-based jihadi forces it has long directed to do mayhem against others have now turned against it.

Besides causing increasing levels of chaos inside Pakistan*, the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” problem raises significant questions for Indian deterrence policy vis-à-vis its vexatious neighbor.  As then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned a while back, an ominous possibility exists that freebooting jihadi groups will mount operations aimed at catalyzing inadvertent war between New Delhi and Islamabad as a way to advance their own interests.  A timely illustration occurred in early September when jihadi forces assaulted a naval dockyard in Karachi, apparently with the aim of seizing a Pakistani frigate that would then be used to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles.

Although some details remain unclear, the suicide bombing earlier this month at Wagah, the main road border crossing with India, could well be another example.  The deadliest terrorist strike in Pakistan in over a year, it killed nearly 60 people, including three Pakistani paramilitary troops, and injured well over 100.  It occurred just inside Pakistani territory as the famous border-closing ceremony involving Indian and Pakistani guards was concluding at the end of the day.

A variety of jihadi outfits have claimed responsibility.  One of these, the Jundallah, a Pakistani Taliban offshoot, states that the bombing was in retaliation for the major military assault the Pakistani army launched this past summer to clear anti-government militants from the North Waziristan tribal area, a notoriously lawless zone along the border with Afghanistan that has become infested with all sorts of jihadi groups.  The operation commenced shortly after the terrorist attack on Karachi’s international airport in early June, and a senior commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan acknowledged earlier this month that it has weakened the Haqqani network, one of the main Pakistan-based jihadi groups fighting in that country.

But Wagah remains a curious choice if the real objective was payback for the North Waziristan operation.  Even with a heightened police profile due to the Shia holy day of Ashura, the public spaces in near-by Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, would have offered a much more inviting target.  The security presence at Wagah, which had been beefed up due to an intelligence report about a possible attack, should have served as a deterrent.  Indeed, the suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at a security checkpoint half a kilometer away from the border.

This detail points to the possibility that the attack’s true objective was the infliction of mass casualties on the Indian side of the border.  If such an event had occurred, already strained ties between New Delhi and Islamabad could have been pushed to the breaking point.  As the eminent Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, notes:

Militant groups such as the [Pakistani] Taliban – which wants to topple the government in Islamabad – would like nothing better than a conflict between India and Pakistan to distract the army from north Waziristan. The easiest way to achieve this would be by planting bombs on the border, leading both governments to levy accusations of terrorism against each other.

Indian security officials have reportedly reached a similar conclusion.  The Economic Times quotes one as saying that “It appears the target of the bomber was India with collateral damages across the border, but he exploded due to some miscalculation.”

Further underscoring this possibility are the statements issued by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a newly-formed Pakistani Taliban splinter group also claiming to behind the bombing.  Its spokesman tweeted that “This attack was a message to the governments on both sides of the border. If we can carry out an attack on this side, then we can attack the other side too.”  He also warned that the group had set its sights on India and would avenge the deaths of Muslims in the disputed Kashmir region and in Gujarat, the home state of new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Following this threat, the Indian security services issued an unusual alert about a strike by Pakistan-based terrorists in the port city of Kolkata (Calcutta), causing the Indian navy in turn to hurriedly send two of its visiting warships to sea.

Reuters quotes an Indian security official as acknowledging that “It has been clear for some time that there is no [jihadi] group that is fully within [Pakistan’s] control. They are all itching for independent action, some want to have a go at us immediately.”  Yet it is unclear whether Mr. Modi’s government understands this as well.  The “zero-tolerance policy” it has adopted toward Islamabad suggests not.  But the failure to differentiate between jihadi forces over which Pakistan has some control and those that operate entirely in defiance of the Pakistani state could well lead to military conflict neither country intends.

*UPDATE, November 20: The newly-released Global Terrorism Index reports that, with the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan was the country most affected by terrorist activity in 2013.  The anti-state Pakistan Taliban was responsible for almost a quarter of all terrorist-related deaths that year, as well as half of all claimed attacks.  The report also notes that India ranked sixth, behind Syria but in front of Somalia and Yemen, in terms of the impact of terrorist action.

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4 thoughts on “The Wagah Bombing and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Pakistan

  1. A good analysis of the situation.The ‘Wagah’ incident is mystifying-why the ‘Jihadis’ chose this spot and not more lucrative target or was it simply an accident?

  2. Religion based terrorism was conceived, created and nurtured by Pakistan to be used against erstwhile USSR in Afghanistan in late 1970s with material resources provided by some rich and some powerful countries. Ideological resources were framed and provided by Pakistan for militant and terror activities in name of religion and it was effectively utilized against USSR in Afghanistan. After Russians left Afghanistan, Pakistan utilized these terrorist infrastructure against India in Kashmir and subsequently other parts of India for terror activities.
    Terrorists are not robots that once one create them and utilize to meet his end, and then they can again be reprogrammed by erasing and replacing their memory with good program to become a good person. It takes a lot of time in instilling terrorist ideologies in their brain. Once a person has been created as terrorist based on certain reason or ideologies, he wants to live for that ideology. And once one task is over, he will look for other opportunity structure where he can act in similar way in order to live to his ideologies. If even his creator comes his way in fulfilling his ideologies, then he will deal with iron hands, because he feels cheated in changing ideologies. Similar situation exists in Pakistan. In this process some of the terrorist groups have slipped out from control of ISI and Pak army, and they are having conflicts with military and political establishments in Pakistan. Now the question arise why this bombing took place at Pak side of Wagah Indo-Pak border. Perhaps terrorist might have intended to bomb Indian side of Wagah border, but could not be possible to do it Indian side due to some unknown reason, so they did it Pakistan side itself as second option. It clearly shows that Pakistan created some terror groups are also some extent anti to Pakistani military and political establishment. However, Pakistan can not shirk its responsibility taking plea that non state actors in Pakistan are waging terrorist activities against India. If any terror attack from state or non state actor is emanating from Pakistani soil, it should be construed as an act by Pakistan and Pakistan should be made responsible for that. Pakistan should learn a lesson from some of the recent terror activities in Pakistan and should wind up it terror infrastructure for its own benefits.

  3. So once we accept that Pak is responsible for all terror activities from its soil, what next for India to do?
    In theory it sounds fine!India still has to deal with terror, so what is the next step for India?

  4. I fully endorse the views of Dinesh C Srivastava . By their own admission in “ALL FORUMS” Pakistan has confirmed time and again that acts of terrorism in India are by “NON-STATE ACTORS” in Pakistan( Although we do not subscribe to that view). For a moment even if we take that on the face value- the fact still remains -that these terrorists are CITIZENS OF PAKISTAN!!!Therefore it is the responsibility of the Pakistani State to either reign them in -since they appear to have a contrarian view to Pakistan – or hand them over to India if they can’t reign them in.
    The question of what to do next should be actually answered by Pakistan. Definitely -we should not be expected to continue to engage with a Govt. in Pakistan which does not have the ability/authority to reign in their terrorist. In such a scenario let us not continue to be a party to enact a drama by engaging with the Pakistan on a never ending dialogue which we know will be derailed by forces within Pakistan whenever a solution is in sight!!

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