When will India decide to strike at Pakistan's weakest spot?

Over the years, Islamabad has exploited Pashtuns as cannon fodder, including its own citizens on this side of the Durand Line.

 |  7-minute read |   14-04-2017
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The legend of Achilles has it that his mother Thetis dipped him into the river Styx in order to make him invincible. The water, however, didn’t cover his heel and an arrow wound to his heel later killed him.

Pakistan, in comparison, has multitude vulnerabilities, primarily as a result of Pakistan fauj’s “strategic culture stemming from pathological geopolitics infused with a Salafi jihadist ideology, suffused by paranoia and neurosis” as recently observed by Col Robert Cassidy, PhD, US Army.

And while the vulnerabilities extend to include socio-ethno-religious spheres of public life, and wreak havoc to its national fabric - the Pakistan fauj with its control over governance, foreign-security policy, infusion of political Islam and NGO/media-bullying has skillfully managed the national narrative to its favour.

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation on the 70th Independence Day, for the first time in the history of India spoke about suppression and persecution of people in Balochistan by Pakistan.

And while there is great truth that the Pakistani government and its various agencies have treated ethnic Balochs unfairly and repressively, since the forceful annexation of Kalat by Pakistan in 1947, it continues to exploit the mineral rich region for the benefit of the rest of Pakistan and primarily Punjab - for example, in Saindak copper mine, the Pakistani and Chinese central governments will take 50 per cent and 48 per cent of the proceeds, leaving 2 per cent for the province.

Similarly, Balochistan is also gas-rich but only 17 per cent of the gas produced is consumed in the region while the rest is consumed in other parts of Pakistan, feeding into the alienation belief of ethnic Baloch (Reference: International Crisis Group, 2006) - but it is equally true that both Pakistan and India understand the limitation of the Baloch card.

Unlike Bangladesh, which had the advantage of a border with India and population, the Baloch on the other hand are merely 3.5 per cent of overall Pakistani ethnicities (about 6 million) and limited by their lack of border with India.

Even assuming the entire Baloch rise up in Balochistan against Pakistan, they are still only 55 per cent of the population share, and have been consistently decreasing with the influx of Afghans and migration from other provinces of Pakistan.

Therefore, despite genuine grievances and repression, the Baloch are unlikely to succeed in their quest for independence, even with assistance from India.

What then has PM Modi achieved by making a public statement on Balochistan, apart from ruffling a few feathers in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and in fact giving the Pakistani fauj legitimate ground to continue its ruthless suppression of Baloch right activists?

In my opinion, India has calculated the benefit of using the Baloch card, and would possibly continue to use it at various national and international forums, with the limited objective to embarrass Pakistan and remove the potency of the Kashmir card used by Pakistan.

And though using the Baloch card directly challenges Pakistan, and perhaps also delegitimises the Baloch struggle; the subtext of PM Modi’s Baloch card is unmistakable: get serious about terrorism; or expect a strike at Pakistan’s Achilles' heel - the Pashtuns.

Pashtuns are the second largest ethnic group after Punjabis, constituting approximately 16 per cent of the population (30 million) in Pakistan, and have a fraternal relationship with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, who account for another (about) 12 million.

The rulers of Pakistan have been always wary about the Pashtuns, since prior to independence the Pashtuns led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan aligned with the Congress as they considered the Muslim League pro-colonialists.

raheel-ebed_041417071403.jpg Pakistan's fauj led by former army chief General Raheel Sharif missed the opportunity to mend ties with Afghanistan - possibly making it their costliest mistake of the present decade. Photo: Reuters

Further, right after the formation of Pakistan, Afghan-Pakistan relations rapidly nosedived, after a military aircraft from the Pakistan air force bombed a village on the Afghan side of the Durand Line.

In response, the Afghan government declared that it recognised "neither the imaginary Durand nor any similar line" and that all previous Durand Line agreements were void.

Kabul on its part until the late 1960s extended support to Pashtun nationalists inside Pakistan and flirted with the idea of “Pashtunistan”. After the loss of East Pakistan, the Punjabi dominated polity remaining in Pakistan, grappling with insecurities, resorted to use of political Islam against Sardar Daud’s government to pre-empt repeat of another Bangladesh.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government created the “Afghan Cell” and assigned it a policy to empower Islamists in exile in Pakistan, and establishing a Pakistan “friendly” government in Kabul.

Against this backdrop, even prior to arrival of the Soviets and initiation of US-funded Afghan jihad, Pakistan had principally and individually supported Islamists in its quest for elusive strategic depth.

Over the years, Pakistan, led by its Punjab-dominated fauj has treated and exploited Pashtuns as cannon fodder, including its own citizens on this side of the Durand Line.

The Pakistan fauj believes that Pashtuns are living on a geo-strategic fault-line and therefore takes a binary approach, which makes them insensible to the concerns of Pashtuns, something reflected in Human Development Index and literacy rates, where Pashtuns rank poorly compared to Punjabis.

What you pursue, will pursue you

Pakistan, fuelled by fear of being sandwiched between archrival India and an independent Afghanistan, has pursued the policy of injecting toxic political Islam in Pashtun society, at the cost of national anarchy. And despite the price that Pakistan continues to bear, there are no signs in let-down in the policy.

Viewing everything through the prism of security, Pakistan's fauj led by former army chief General Raheel Sharif missed the opportunity to mend ties with Afghanistan and scuttled President Ashraf Ghani’s peace overtures - possibly making it their costliest mistake of the present decade.

The Pakistan fauj continues to believe and invest in Taliban projects, and uses the population bordering Afghanistan to bring in a regime change in Kabul, in turn wreaking havoc within Pashtun society.

Since 2009, the Pakistan fauj has diligently orchestrated the expansion of the Haqqani network - the main actor of its Taliban project - in tribal Kurram Agency.

Kurram is a region of special strategic importance to the Taliban. In the past, it served as a launchpad for Afghan jihad. This expansion of the Haqqani network and like-minded terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and LeT is having troubling consequences for security and stability, not just in eastern Afghanistan but also in Pashtun-dominated Kurram.

Kurram has a mix of Shia-Sunni Pashtun population, with the upper Kurram, bordering Afghanistan, dominated by Shias. Backed by Pakistan's fauj, the Haqqanis, using violence, have masterfully created irreparable divisions between the two communities.

It is estimated that the violence has left over 2,000 dead and 3,500 wounded. But more importantly, giving Haqqani the leverage to mediate in peace talks between the communities has resulted in Shias agreeing to provide safe house/passage for the Haqqanis to operate inside Kurram.

In pursuit of the elusive strategic depth, Pakistan has alienated Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line, which is now open to manipulations by foreign powers, including India.

Modi gave an example of this possibility and potency very recently, when Pakistan witnessed its worst terrorist attacks of this year, starting from Parachinar (Kurram) to Lahore to Sehwan (Sindh).

While the attacks have been claimed by various factions and offshoots of the Taliban project, from a geo-politics observational standpoint, it is obvious the attacks were in response to General Raheel Sharif’s authorised rail network attacks in India.

What followed the attacks was along expected lines, especially for India - as the Pakistani state, sensing loss of control for the Haqqanis in Shia-dominated (Parachinar) Kurram, responded with a witch-hunt and stereotyping of Pashtuns, who essentially are both victims and pawns in this rivalry.

Pakistan's unimaginative and repressive approach to dealing with terrorism as well as continued pursuit of the Taliban project has ruptured and widened the Pashtun vs Punjabi divide.

Pakistan faces an existential crisis, internally, specifically because of its own policies and relatively because India is both able and now with Modi at helm, willing to pay back Pakistan in the same coin.

And with no visible change in Pakistan’s policy towards terrorism, the question therefore is not who and how, it is rather when - will India irrevocably decide to strike at Pakistan’s Achilles' heel.

Also read: How India can deal with Pakistan's 'deep state'

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