The verdict by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague staying the execution of Kulbhushan Jadhav, the former Indian naval officer kidnapped by the Pakistan Army in Balochistan, is only the latest setback in Islamabad’s unhinged strategy against India.
For decades, Pakistan has sought “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. That policy is in danger of coming off the rails. Afghanistan is no longer willing to offer its real estate to a country, Pakistan, that its people and government detest.
Trouble on Pakistan’s western border with Iran has complicated matters. Last month Sunni terrorists based in Pakistan fired long-range guns to kill ten Iranian border guards. Tehran has warned Islamabad that it will strike at terror safe havens within Pakistan unless the terrorists are arrested and their bases shut down.
Iran’s army chief General Mohammad Baqeri specifically threatened “surgical strikes” on the Sunni terror group Jaish-al-Adi in Pakistan which has attacked Shia Iran with increasing frequency.
Simmering tension has meanwhile boiled over between Kabul and Islamabad. A series of terror attacks by Pakistan-sponsored groups on Afghanistan’s police and army camps last month killed over 200 Afghan officers and civilians. The most vicious attack took place on April 21 at an Afghan army command centre a few miles from Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province.
It could prove an inflection point in the fraught relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Last week Afghan troops killed ten Pakistani paramilitary and census officials near the Chaman border crossing in southwestern Balochistan. The Pakistani census team was escorted by the Frontier Corps (FC).
Afghan troops opened fire on the Pakistanis after the FC initiated the gun battle, according to General Abdul Raziq, police chief in Kandahar province. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has subsequently declined Islamabad’s invitation to visit Pakistan.
“I will not go to Pakistan,” he said. “until the perpetrators behind the attacks on Mazar-e-Sharif, the American University in Kabul, and Kandahar, are handed over to Afghanistan.”
An unrepentant Pakistan Army claimed to have killed 50 Afghan soldiers in retaliation for the attack on the Pakistani census team. Afghanistan denied the claim, saying it had lost two soldiers in the attack.
The border clashes on the Afghan-Pakistan border drew a worried response from China, concerned over the growing impact of terrorism on the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). “As a close neighbour of Afghanistan and Pakistan, China hopes that both sides can properly settle this incident and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability,” said Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.
Landlocked Afghanistan has been the target of the Great Powers for centuries. In the 19th century, Russia and Britain engaged in the Great Game, as it was dubbed, to gain influence in south and central Asia.
In 1979, the Soviet Union spent a fruitless decade to subvert Afghanistan during the Cold War. America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded, armed and trained Islamist terrorists to fight the occupying Soviet army. When the weary Soviets left after a decade in 1989, two unintended consequences flowed.
One, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev unravelled. Two, an armed, trained and hardened force of Islamist terrorists created by the CIA with Pakistani help was now available on hire.
Islamabad seized the opportunity. It poured the Islamist terrorists into the Kashmir Valley. Following the rigged 1987 Jammu and Kashmir election, anger was already rising in the Valley. Terror struck the land of the Sufis in 1989. The Islamisation of the Kashmir Valley had begun.
By 1990, 4,00,000 Kashmiri pandits, who had lived in peace with their Muslim neighbours for centuries, had been driven out of their homes and out of their land.
It was the biggest ethnic cleansing of a minority community since the exodus of Jews before, during and after the Second World War. The 1990s were among the Valley’s most traumatic and violent years.
After the terror attack by al-Qaeda on the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001, President George W Bush threatened then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that the US would bomb Pakistan “into the stone age” if it didn’t cooperate in America’s war on al-Qaeda.
With over 1,30,000 US and NATO troops stationed in Af-Pak for the next decade, violence in the Kashmir Valley moderated.
The venal ISI had other things on its mind, gaming the Americans as Pakistan chased with the US hounds and ran with the Taliban hares, extracting meanwhile $33 billion (Rs. 2.30 lakh crore) from the Americans.
After 2014, with US and NATO troop numbers in Afghanistan falling from 1,30,000 to 13,300, Pakistan again began strengthening the Taliban. The objective is to put a Taliban-friendly government in place in Kabul so that Afghanistan can once again provide Pakistan strategic depth in its jihad against India.
Islamabad has long tried to include the Taliban in “peace talks” to legitimise its role in a future government-sharing formula. That is akin to asking Dawood Ibrahim to tutor the Mumbai police (which ironically he did, metaphorically, for a while in the 1980s while Maharashtrian politicians looked benignly on).
The problem for Islamabad is that the Afghan people and the Ashraf Ghani government despise Pakistan as much as they despise the Taliban.
For India, the priority now must be to greatly increase its presence in and support of Afghanistan: infrastructure, diplomacy and covert operations. An Afghan-India axis will undermine Rawalpindi’s strategy in the region, including Kashmir, even as it struggles to pacify an angry Iranian government and battles multiple insurgencies within Pakistan.
With unrest simmering in Balochistan, protests rising in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), hostilities spiking with Afghanistan and tension growing with Iran, Pakistan’s strategic depth theory could fall apart.
China is watching these developments closely. Its two biggest allies are Pakistan and North Korea, both renegade nations with stolen nuclear technology. That is an indictment of all three countries, one the abettor, the other two the abetted.