Pathankot, Charsadda and the Curse of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Image 2The complexity of South Asia’s security dynamics once more came into full view last month.  The new year was barely more than a day old when a group of Pakistan-based jihadis slipped into a major Indian air base at Pathankot and engaged in a multi-day firefight that left at least seven security personnel dead and wounded about 20 more.  The attack came less than a month after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of the possibility of “an unintentional conflict” between New Delhi and Islamabad sparked by a terrorist strike.

New Delhi places blame for the assault on a militant outfit called Jaish-e-Mohammad (“The Army of Mohammad”), which is also thought to have played a role in the brazen December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament – an event that in turn ignited a months-long military confrontation between India and Pakistan.

Two weeks after the Pathankot attack, another jihadi band snuck across the border from Afghanistan and massacred least 20 students and teachers at a university in Charsadda in the northwestern part of Pakistan close to the country’s tribal belt, a notoriously lawless area festooned with all kinds of extremist organizations.  Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a faction of the Pakistan Taliban that had carried out the horrific December 2014 slaughter of some 140 children at a school in nearby Peshawar that is managed by the Pakistani army.

Both attacks this month were conducted at widely-separated locations by two different jihadi networks with distinct agendas.  JeM, which benefits from links with Pakistani’s security services, is focused on wresting control of the Indian portion of Kashmir away from New Delhi. The Pakistan Taliban, on the other hand, directs its energies to attacking the institutions of the Pakistani state.

But both groups share a few similarities.  First, they find shelter in cross-border sanctuaries, effectively placing them beyond the retaliation of the aggrieved countries.  JeM has been officially banned in Pakistan since 2002 but nonetheless maintains an open presence in the country’s Punjab heartland.  Indeed, Pakistani authorities have attempted in recent years to build up the organization in an attempt to diminish the Pakistan Taliban’s ideological appeal and lure away its foot soldiers.

In contrast, the Pakistani army has mostly driven the Pakistan Taliban out of that country.  But the group has found refuge in Afghanistan, in connivance with Afghan officials seeking to pay Islamabad back for its patronage of the Afghan Taliban.  A senior Pakistan Taliban leader recently conceded to a Western journalist that “In Pakistan we can hardly operate anymore.  In Afghanistan, we have no problem going anywhere.”

A second similarity between JeM and the Pakistan Taliban is that they are manifestations of what can be called the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” problem.

Read the full essay at Fair Observer.

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