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June 19, 2017



The threat and the theatre

Pakistan is facing a clear and imminent danger to its border security and geographic sovereignty. Tragically, there isn’t any focus on or attention to this disturbing fact. In the last few weeks, our national security environment has undergone a precipitous aggravation all around.


The most known, and yet poorly debated, threat level that has gone up recently is from India. There is the usual lobbing off of heavy fire across the Line of Control to which Pakistan responds with multiplied ferocity, which makes it an even contest.

However, the state of Indian forces’ high alert now touches the brink of preparation for a coordinated air and ground attack. Some Western sources I have spoken to talk of a “new and worrying development of Indians attempting to take the border situation to the next level.” This ‘next level’ is not exactly rocket science: it can come in the shape of a so-called in-and-out attack on less covered flanks or posts (it is a long LoC) followed by the media hype of having “struck deep inside Pakistan”.

It is also easy to figure out how Pakistan would respond to this eventuality. It will hit back hard and, going by the recent trend of filming destruction caused on the other side, there will be evidence to support the counter-attack as well. Recent warnings from the military spokesperson and the visit of Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa to the LoC are indicative of the rising tensions in this crucial sector. The army has said it will leave nothing to imagination if India takes off the gloves and makes its LoC intrusions more adventurous.

This should ease national nerves in Pakistan – except that the next level of engagement with India brings the possibility of a showdown of grim (and even nuclear) nature closer to becoming reality. Pakistan’s resources will have to be deployed to ensure that the Indians do not make any miscalculation. War readiness is a tiring and expensive business. Slow-motion wars (those fought in an episodic and event-specific manner as is happening on the LoC) consume men and material. India would want Pakistan to top up its preparations on the LoC and even on the international border on the east. They would want to keep Pakistan engaged and ready (if not worried) about the possibility of an expanded Indian move on this front. This splits Pakistan’s attention and resources, the more so since this strategy coincides with genuinely troubling developments on the western and north-western fronts. The first sign of these developments relate to the dreadful attacks in Kabul which the Afghan government has blamed on groups inside Pakistan or, according to their allegations, being backed by Islamabad (read: the Haqqani Network).

Those familiar with the pattern of these concerns may shrug their shoulders and say ‘what’s new?’ That would be a fair reaction except that this time the nature of the attack in Kabul has struck a chord with many Western capitals. Kabul’s usual blame-game is resonating with the outside world much more powerfully than it has done so far.

The Kabul government of Ashraf Ghani has decided to retaliate by finalising the hanging of militant leaders associated with the Haqqani Network. The execution of these men will lead to a sure-shot reaction from the Haqqanis, who are frustrated because they have seen their denials of responsibility for these attacks fall on deaf ears. They will up the ante and open up new fronts inside Afghanistan. What is more, they will kill the hostages (besides Europeans, the hostages include some Americans as well).

Here it gets really tricky for Pakistan. Washington in its recent communications with Islamabad has been delivering blunt, Trump-like messages. What it is saying is: give up support to the Haqqanis; kill them all; and those in your custody, hand them over. Pakistan’s repeated assurances that we do not protect the Haqqanis nor do we have any influence on them cut no ice with Washington.

In this recent engagement with Pakistani representatives, US National Security Adviser H R McMaster has done extremely tough talking. He has warned of punitive measures in case the American hostages are killed or any US interest is threatened by the Haqqanis in the future.

We can guess what these threatened “punitive measures” can be. They can range from Salala-like incidents of heavy attacks on Pakistani posts or they can be aerial raids on designated ‘camps’ a la the OBL raid. Worse still, they can use the dirty bomb whose rehearsal has already taken place inside Afghanistan with devastating effects on the ground.

Of late, Pakistani airspace violations by US drones have increased manifolds. The Hangu drone attack is just one example. In Balochistan in the last few weeks drones have repeatedly hovered over and into Pakistani space. In at least one known incident, US drones had to be pushed back by Pakistani aircraft.

Anyone who understands the way the American system works is bound to refer to the US Administration’s declared policy on all such matters and then work out whether Washington is just bluffing or if is there is some method in its madness of the use of provocative threats and actions like enhanced drone activity. The problem, however, is that the Trump Administration does not do things within the framework of policy.

In case of Afghanistan particularly, Donald Trump, unlike all his recent predecessors, has decentralised all kinetic operations and policy on use of force to the Pentagon and the CIA. They decide and execute. He claims credit and applauds himself in self-admiration. He has already approved an increase in troop level (4,000 plus) which most Western diplomats see more as a reflection of his administration’s policy towards Pakistan than towards Afghanistan. These troops can become the back-up force or the firing squad of a possible intrusion in Pakistan. With growing US demands on Pakistan and increased level of hostility both in words and actions – unprecedented in recent times – the picture that emerges from the western and north-western fronts is not pretty at all.

This is combined with the new claims being made by the Islamic State of capturing areas right across Pakistan’s borders (in Tora Bora for instance). Going purely by the record of the IS in the Middle East, they use their territorial gains as staging grounds for further attacks that demolish borders and widen the space for the group for its extremely violent actions.

That’s not all. Pakistan’s involvement in the Saudi-led alliance has turned its relations with Iran into a hot potato as well. Here groups like the IS can use their sectarian outlook to create the same kind of complex situation for Islamabad as they have done so with Afghanistan. IS attacks inside Iran are the beginning of a long and bloody war whose tremors can shake whatever remains of the territorial stability of Pakistan.

The most undesirable (and very likely) possibility is if all these border situations are to explode (or are made to explode) at once. Pakistan can be in real danger then. Even a single strike by the US or a large-scale attack in Iran that could be blamed on elements operating from our soil can cause a major national disruption. India, Afghanistan, Iran and US related actions can be totally threatening.

Events that point to these dangerous horizons are happening fast, almost on a daily basis. We are a country whose borders are facing precarious threats of imminent nature. But we are also a country whose internal developments have made the entire system hostage and dysfunctional. This is a country where the big debate is not about the core security challenges but about the JIT’s sensitivities, about the media’s crystal ball gazing, about the establishment’s tilts, about the judiciary’s moods and remarks, about Imran Khan’s ambitions, about Nawaz Sharif’s survival, and about Asif Ali Zardari’s political chessboard.

Here the focus is not on what matters to the national future but on peddling and securing agendas that are petty, frivolous and in certain cases even clownish. We can’t find any parallel in modern history of a country so badly besieged as ours is and whose leadership is so totally consumed by trivia as we see in our midst.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12