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India, Pakistan, Iran & Transnational Jihadism

Pakistan is facing simultaneous crises with two of its key neighbors: India and Iran – after terrorist groups with sanctuaries on Pakistani soil on Feb 13-14 attacked Iranian and Indian security forces. While two different sets of groups based in Pakistan have been staging attacks in India and Iran for many years, this time they both struck within a 24-hour period and just days before Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was due to visit Islamabad and New Delhi. The broader geopolitical context in which these two attacks took place increases the risk of the Indians and the Iranians resorting to retaliatory action inside Pakistan as they view Islamabad as an enabler of these attacks. This deeply complex and deadly transnational dynamic involving state and non-state actors has a direct bearing on American interests in both the Middle East and South Asia.

A few days after the commander of Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Maj-Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari warned that “Pakistan would no doubt pay a high price,” another top IRCG commander said that two of the militants involved in the Feb 13 suicide bombing attack on a military bus that killed 27 IRGC personnel were Pakistani nationals. The head of the IRGC’s ground forces, Brig-Gen Mohammad Pakpour, was quoted by the Corps’ Sepah News service as saying that the suicide bomber, as well as one of the masterminds, were Pakistani citizens. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, during a Feb 21 National Security Council meeting authorized the country’s military to swiftly retaliate against any Indian military action against his country in response to the Feb 14 suicide bombing that killed 46 personnel of India’s Central Reserve Police Force in Indian-administered Kashmir and claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed jihadist group. In an earlier televised address, Khan remarked, “We all know that starting a war is easy. [But] starting a war may be in our hands, ending it won’t be.”

Pakistan has long been a sanctuary for a variety of Islamist terrorist groups due to two main causes. First, is the country’s role as a front-line state in the U.S.-backed war to force the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Second, and more important, is Islamabad’s policy of using Islamist militant proxies as instruments of national security and foreign policy, especially when Pakistan cultivated multiple groups to take advantage of an indigenous uprising in Indian-controlled Kashmir in the 1990s. However, the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan followed by the Sept 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-Jihadist War terribly undermined security within Pakistan.

Consequently, the Pakistanis have spent a better part of the last 12 years struggling to stamp out a brutal jihadist insurgency, which claimed at least 80,000 lives. In recent years, Islamabad’s security forces have gained the upper hand against Taliban rebels. However, the country remains a hotbed of religious extremism and a sanctuary for Islamist militant groups, especially those that are not hostile to Islamabad. Much of this has to do with the state’s incapacity to deal with the chronic social, political, and economic problems.

Jihadism in Kashmir

That said, the Pakistani state has largely ignored entities like the Afghan Taliban and the various Kashmiri militant outfits because it continues to see them as providing geopolitical dividends. From the Indian point of view though, Pakistan is not just allowing groups like JeM, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and others to operate as they please. New Delhi is convinced that Pakistan’s premier spy directorate, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) remains intimately involved in the planning and execution of attacks on Indian soil. Certainly, in the past, Pakistan’s foreign intelligence service has openly supported these groups, however, since 2001 Islamabad has been under intense international pressure to take action against them.

After the 2002 standoff between the two nuclear-armed neighbors following an attack on the Indian Parliament, Pakistan – through U.S. mediation – had to rein in its support for anti-India outfits. As a result, relations improved between New Delhi and Islamabad for several years, but the two South Asian nuclear rivals were once again at odds in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. This was a much bigger crisis than the one in 2002, but once again, U.S. diplomatic intervention prevented the two sides from coming to blows. Islamabad was forced to crack down harder against LeT, its premier Kashmir proxy group and the mastermind of the horrific attacks in India’s financial capital.

Another period of calm ensued between the two countries, which have fought four wars since gaining independence in 1947. However, the Mumbai attacks took place at a time when Pakistan was experiencing a surge in violence at home from Taliban rebels, specifically targeting the army and the ISI. For most of 2009, the Pakistani military focused on mounting major offenses to reestablish the state’s writ in the Swat and Waziristan regions near the Afghan border. In fact, in a rare move, Pakistan pulled forces from the border with India to mount the campaign against the Taliban insurgents.  

Pakistan remained preoccupied with this anti-jihadist campaign through 2015, which is when there was a noticeable decline in Taliban rebel activity. Around this same time, there was a resurgence of Islamist militant activity in Indian-administered Kashmir. JeM and HuM have been the main groups behind the recent spike in terrorist incidents in India. These groups have been exploiting the surge in public unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir and the resulting crackdown by New Delhi’s security forces, which have been involved in widespread human rights abuses.

A combination of factors: international pressure; the rise of transnational jihadist forces; and the Taliban rebellion, have altered the nature of the relationship between the Pakistani security establishment and its militant proxy outfits. At the very least it has become complex and opaque, but it is a fact that these groups are allowed to operate freely in Pakistan. Without their support base in Pakistan, it is not possible for them to conduct cross-border terrorist operations. Certainly, the indigenous Kashmiri separatist struggle in India serves as a massive enabling environment. At the same time though, there is a major arrestor in the form of New Delhi’s large security footprint consisting of several hundred thousand army, paramilitary, and police personnel in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Pakistan and the Saudi-Iranian Geosectarian Struggle

While the likes of JeM are using northeastern Pakistan as a launch-pad to stage attacks in India, an anti-Iran group is using the southwestern end of the country as a springboard for attacks in Iran. The Sunni-Islamist-Baluch nationalist group, Jaish al-Adl, is based in a remote area of Pakistan’s Balochistan province from where, over the years, it has staged numerous attacks across the border in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province. Although this situation is less intense than the one in Kashmir, the Iranians have long demanded that Pakistan act against Jaish al-Adl. On at least one occasion, Iranian forces took matters into their own hands and struck at the militants’ facilities on the Pakistani side of the border.

The Feb. 13 attack on Iranian forces comes at a time of tremendous pressure on Tehran. The incident was just the latest in a series of recent terrorist attacks that have taken place across the country. Far more critical for the Islamic Republic is, the U.S. decision to nix the nuclear deal in 2018 and re-impose sanctions amid unprecedented public discontent over poor economic conditions. Meanwhile, Israel has been increasingly striking at Iranian facilities in Syria, which represent the fulcrum in Tehran’s regional strategy.

Separately, Iran believes it archrival, Saudi Arabia, is supporting terrorist attacks within its borders. From the Iranian point of view, Riyadh and Islamabad are jointly behind the Jaish al-Adl attacks. Further reinforcing the Iranian perception of a Saudi-Pakistani tag-team is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Islamabad on Feb. 16-17. The extremely warm reception for the soon-to-be Saudi monarch in Pakistan indicated to the Iranians that Islamabad is now firmly on the Saudi side of the geosectarian struggle.

Finding themselves pushed against the wall, the Iranians will likely push back – the question is how and where. Pakistan is one of those places where Iran could act, given that it would not lead to any major escalation since Pakistan is already bracing for retaliatory action from India. Most likely, Iran will coordinate any future action with India. But with Saudi Arabia’s economic investments in India, the Indians will likely be cautious in working with the Iranians, especially on how to deal with Pakistan.

Iran desperately needs a way to influence the United States, and Pakistan represents an opportunity for leverage. India needs the United States to apply pressure on Pakistan but knows that Washington needs Islamabad’s cooperation regarding the Afghan Taliban peace negotiations. A Pakistan that is distracted – or worse, drained – due to simultaneous conflicts with India and Iran will adversely affect the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and in South Asia. Therefore, the Trump Administration needs to have a long-term strategy to deal with this increasingly complicated chessboard.

Washington and Growing Regional Disorder

Mediating between India and Pakistan was easier for the United States when Washington didn’t need Islamabad to ensure progress in the Afghan peace talks. This time, Washington will need a much more sophisticated approach than the usual pressure to engage in limited crackdowns on anti-India Islamist militants. The United States also has a broader interest in making sure that transnational jihadism does not spread any further than it already has. Afghanistan is already a challenge, and crises between India and Pakistan and between Pakistan and Iran work to the transnational jihadists’ advantage.

Therefore, the Trump administration must invest diplomatic energy into a comprehensive solution to the long-standing Kashmir dispute. First, Pakistan needs to be steered towards actively stopping the operations of anti-India jihadist entities on its side of the Line of Control. Second, the United States needs to get India to move towards addressing the decades-old grievances of its restive Kashmiri population. Third, Washington must nudge New Delhi and Islamabad to break their years-long impasse in negotiations on the Kashmir dispute. Leaving Kashmir unresolved would only create more ground for transnational jihadism. Moreover, it will contribute to the cycle in which far-right Hindu nationalism feeds off jihadism and vice-versa – destabilizing India, which in five years is expected to be the world’s most populous country.

Separately, Washington must treat geosectarianism as a serious threat, given its propensity to fuel transnational jihadism. After all, Daesh emerged as a major threat because it was able to exploit the broader Sunni-Shia conflict. While Iran’s ambitions represent a major challenge for the United States, Washington must not be tempted to ignore Islamist militant attacks against Tehran. Such attacks create space for Daesh; moreover, Iran has significant influence in Afghanistan and could upset U.S. peace efforts there.

The Trump administration, thus, has an interest in engaging Iran on a limited basis regarding Afghanistan – just as the Bush and Obama administrations did regarding Iraq. Isolating Iran at every level will risk opening the door for resurgent militant Islamist groups. Leaving Iran to its own devices will also push it to act in ways that further aggravate growing insecurity in the Middle East and South Asia. Therefore, the United States should not only press Pakistan on anti-India militancy but also urge it to block anti-Iranian terrorism.

Ultimately, the center of gravity is Pakistan, especially as the United States is struggling on a long-term strategy for ensuring that Afghanistan does not return to being a safe haven for transnational jihadist entities. A Taliban comeback in Afghanistan will contribute to the fragility in Pakistan. Conflicts between Pakistan and India and Pakistan and Iran will greatly exacerbate an already complicated regional battlespace. U.S. policy towards the Middle East and South Asia needs a serious rethink and fast.  

Dr. Kamran Bokhari is Director of Strategy & Programs at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Bokhari also is a national security & foreign policy specialist with the Professional Development Institute at the University of Ottawa. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.