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OPED: The Greater Game

Published Global Affairs / March 2017. Written in August 2016.

They say that ‘the Taliban are coming to Islamabad’ was a common refrain among some diplomatic circles. They cannot be faulted for having such a stark worldview. From 2007 onwards the region registered a dramatic spike in terror and the world feared for the integrity of a nuclear armed nation in the face of a rapidly deteriorating law and order situation.

Some might argue that now that Pakistan has finally taken the war to the enemy within, a modicum of peace seems to have descended. Zarb-e-Azb, classified as a full scale operation against terrorists of all shades and denominations enters its third year. And a prominent name linked to JuD is finally under arrest.

Tracking battlefront gains can be tricky since the operations are still ongoing. There have been rough patches along the way. And the nation suffered tragic setbacks with devastating attacks on police academies, shrines and hospitals.

Back home the military’s track record came into question every time a suicide bomber got through, while the world continued to gauge its performance from a special set of parameters.

The Afghan Taliban’s misuse of Pak territory had been cited as the reason for withholding $300 million reimbursements. The sight of radical groups (ASWJ) etc pottering about did not exactly inspire confidence and a selective targeting approach (alleged) naturally tipped the scale of global opinion adversely. The spotlight refused to shift from the strange categorization of terror syndicates that often led to a blurring of lines between good & bad Taliban.

Foreign media remained dismissive of any claims regarding Kabul’s role in stoking the fire within Pak borders even in its most balanced pieces like ‘Pakistani Militants and the State: Friends, Foes, and Frenemies’ (Jul 5, 2016) by Stephen Tankel, senior editor War on Rocks. Consequently, it failed to factor in imprints of RAW, NDS, or MOIS occasionally spotted in the mix.

Admittedly, the fear of blowback that prevented military strategists from confronting certain threats may have been real. Pakistanis in the crosshairs of terrorists however would have preferred that no such distinctions are made. Blind-spots regarding jihadist outfits and Haqqanis only served to muddy the waters, provide belligerent nations ammo to scapegoat Pakistan, forcing allies to question their loyalties. Besides, such gambits tend to misfire. But the other side of the picture that stays buried under the debris of distrust and accusations of duplicity leaves gaps in the narrative.

Like when the Swat operation Rah-e-Rast dislodged HVT’s (High Value Target) like Fazlullah, many who fled to Afghanistan, sought sanctuary later directing attacks against the Pakistani state. Two observations have been offered by Mr. Tankel to explain this phenomenon. One of them declares that “…after years in which Afghanistan was on the receiving end of attacks by Pakistan-supported militants, elements in the Afghan intelligence service (the National Directorate of Security or NDS) reportedly began enabling these cross-border attacks.”

The other insists that that the NDS involvement is unclear in this scenario. Again, both Iranian and NDS connections with possible ties to RAW (Indian spy agency) unearthed in a recent intelligence coup are left out. Instead, the new Afghan President appears making overtures to Pakistani people in the next passage. The casual remark that capacity strapped Afghan security forces would be more focused on fighting insurgency within its borders than facilitating terrorists using its soil to target Pakistan lets them off easy. Also, an NDS hand in destabilizing its neighbor seems to be mere payback for all that supposed meddling Pakistan did post Soviet withdrawal.

Since Pakistan’s Indian centric approach remains a key policy driver, it becomes an important point of reference. Stephen conceded that New Delhi aided abetted separatist movements in the past adding that there is no open source evidence of Indian support. The article written after the arrest of a high level Indian spy in Baluchistan probably means it discounts Pakistan’s case against Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav and his coteries of spies.

Finally, the military’s alleged fondness for harboring proxies generally attributed to the Indian bogie forever hovering in the background came up for review. And when the dreaded anti-Shia LeJ were shown enjoying political patronage, Pakistan’s crackdown on their lieutenants linked to ISIL was also considered thereby maintaining a fairly even tone. But there’s a sudden shift implying that “…..resurrecting JeM also had potential utility against India. In January 2016, a team of JeM militants attacked the Pathankot Air Force Station...” A key update where a joint team went to probe the incident and Indian investigators cleared Pakistan of involvement was not a part of this analysis.

Notwithstanding the fact that some of these elements may have been wielded as anti-Qaeda propaganda machines in the past, their presence jeopardized the ally’s position in leading the good fight and gave way to dangerous speculations. They also widened sectarian rifts, endangering the vision of a progressive nuclear state. No one cared about Taliban’s top leadership vacationing in Iran when his motorcade was targeted the second he entered Pakistani territory. Or that the road blocks to the peace were centered in Kabul and reportedly funded by New Delhi.

The Pak-Afghan border fencing initiatives proposed by Pakistan that sparked a fresh feud and led to casualties on both side was a case in point. At its core lies the hope that such a structure can curtail the insurgent’s ability to launch the cross border attacks. The cooperation and joint patrol squads probably needed for this to succeed have yet to see the light of day. The sight of banned organization members roaming the streets only added to the trust deficit.

At this stage taking control of the runaway narrative may look difficult. The implication that non-state actors have been used with state connivance inevitably shaped perceptions about Pak military and stoked suspicions about their motivations.

Consequently those hard won victories went unnoticed; as did the fallen soldiers and citizens in line of fire. The cloud that hung over the establishment followed them when they raised the plight of Kashmiri’s on international forums, attempted to resolve trivial border disputes or tried to get clearance for military hardware from the US Congress for fighting insurgency. And though the visiting dignitaries no longer envisage a Taliban invasion in the Capital, it continued to be seen as a dangerous destination – its leadership beset with scandals, setbacks and, possibly surrounded by saboteurs. Islamabad’s counter-narrative may take time to gain traction along with its efforts at elevating Pakistan’s global stature.


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