This article explores the implications of the recent (October 18, 2009) suicide attacks in the Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran, which, the country alleges, were carried out by the Sunni Salafi Baluch jihadist group, the Jundallah; it is suspected that the groups leader, Malik Abdollah Regi, is hiding in Pakistan.
There were 42 casualties, including senior commanders of the Iran’s Elite Revolutionary Guard (IGRC). Iran subsequently accused the US, the UK and Pakistan of supporting Jundallah and generally of trying to destabilize the country. Pakistan has since replied that it has information regarding Regi’s location in Afghanistan, but that it cannot permit Iran to conduct operations on its side of the Iran-Pakistan border, as Iran has requested.
Other regional powers are engaged in finger-pointing:
- India maintains that Pakistan is attempting to undermine it by supporting the Kashmir-related Jihadis. It also blames the Pakistanis for complicity in the Mumbai incident, arguing that even if non-state actors were involved, Pakistan’s territory had been used.
- Afghanistan blames Pakistan for providing a safe haven for the Taliban. The country wants US forces to adopt a “boots on the ground” scenario,” that is, to cross the Durand Line in order to eliminate the safe havens and terrorists there.
- The Pakistan government officially blames India and Afghanistan for destabilizing the tribal areas and Baluchistan. Informally, Pakistan increasingly believes that the US and NATO, with their presence in Afghanistan, are also destabilizing the region.
So the question becomes: who is destabilizing who?
As is so often the case, in order to make sense of what is going on at the regional level one has to look at current tussles between global players. The chief global rivals are the US, Russia and China. The global powers use the regional ones to further their interests, calling on them to choose sides. To exert pressure on the lesser powers, the international ones employ economic and military means, that is, soft and hard power. On the other hand, the regional powers might refuse to choose sides and attempt to use the global players to further their own goals.
In an effort to please Russia and obtain reciprocity on the issue of Iran, the US recently compromised regarding its defense missile shield plans. Russia’s initial reaction suggests that it is reluctant to meet America halfway, especially on the issue of a united front against Iran’s nuclear program. Russia recently stated that imposition of sanctions against Iran could backfire – definitely not the response the US was hoping for.
If we look at the regional situation from NATO’s perspective, China would be seen as the main adversary, with Russia occupying second place. While Russia has expressed resentment over NATO’s interference with its “Near Abroad,” China has not defined its sphere of influence in the South and Central Asian region, although its recent statements have shown escalating alarm regarding the growing American military presence in the region. Moreover, both the US and China appear to be upping the ante for influence in Pakistan.
In this context, China has the most to lose. A decision by the US to increase troop levels in Afghanistan by 40,000 is bound to have repercussions for China’s security calculus. It cannot sit idly by as one by one its regional allies falter. This might already be happening, as China appears to be adopting a more aggressive stance towards India and to be taking action matching Pakistan’s stand on the Kashmir dispute. Reportedly, Chinese incursions into India’s northern borders have doubled to 300 from 2007 to 2008. Furthermore, the Indian/ China rivalry over spheres of influence is heating up in the Indian Ocean region as well. The two powers, however, are united on issues relating to global warming, in opposition to the stance of developed countries.
By destabilizing Iran and Pakistan, China’s two allies and trade partners are themselves weakened in the region. This negatively impacts China and Russia loses its Iran leverage vis-a-vis the United States and NATO. Similarly, if Afghanistan remains in a chaotic state, Pakistan is menaced and the trouble must spill over into Iran sooner or later. Thus, if the other regional powers wane, India is bound to emerge in a stronger position with regards to China. Furthermore, the US and India’s improved strategic relationship is already a major concern for China and Pakistan.
Iran-Pakistani relations are better, mostly due to their cooperation on the Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline Project. This in turn has led to a deteriorating relationship between Pakistan and the Saudis, who are entangled in Shiite-Sunni rivalries in the Islamic world. Thus, the Jundallah attacks can be seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between Iran and Pakistan and to isolate the latter. It also reinforces the perception that Pakistan is attempting to destabilize the regional countries. And, perceptions are very important in developing a perspective. The tribal areas (FATA) and Balochistan are increasingly out of Pakistan’s full control, and this creates an opportunity and possibility for non state and other adversarial actors, to use Pakistani territory for launching attacks on other countries. When Pakistan’s territory is used for attacking others, it creates mistrust regarding its role, as the country is often seen as unwilling to act against the perpetrators.
Of course, politics and extremism have never been separate entities, adding greatly to the complexity of the situation. The Jihadis were originally used by the US and Pakistan to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan and end the Cold War decisively. Learning from experience, Pakistan itself subsequently used the Jihadis as proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan in order to create a sphere of influence. Then came 911 and everything changed; since then, Pakistan has been on the back foot and its sphere of influence has declined to the point that its own territory is now at risk in tribal areas and Balochistan.
From the US perspective, Pakistan must stop wavering between it and China and definitely ally itself with one or the other. It is this confusion over Pakistan’s intent which complicates relations with Iran and its other allies. These are some of the current interpretations of Pakistan’s behavior:
- Pakistan is working with extremists against India and NATO in Afghanistan;
- Pakistan-based extremists are involved in destabilizing China’s Uighur region;
- Pakistan is allied with the US, NATO and the UK against Iran;
- Pakistan has joined Saudi Arabia and Sunni extremists against Iran;
- Pakistan has teamed up with China against the US and India.
Based on its policies, the US appears to believe that if Pakistan decides on America as an ally, it must accept Indian dominance in the region, by virtue of which Kashmir would cease to be an issue. At the same time, in the aftermath of suspicions engendered by the provisions of the Kerry-Lugar bill and the news of strict terms accompanying forthcoming US military aid (reportedly the result of pressure from the Indian Lobby), esteem for the US in Pakistan has declined steeply.
On its part, Pakistan believes that in exchange for helping to tame the terrorist threat, it should receive assistance from the US in settling its issues with India. The US has, on the contrary, been working to strengthen its ties with India. Given all the circumstances – especially America’s bafflement as to what to do about the muddle in Afghanistan and the continued mystification regarding the intentions of the international players – it is most likely that everyone will simply assume the worst, resulting in escalating rivalries.
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