For Pakistan watchers, the nadir of its policy vis-a-vis its neighbours was reached earlier this week when Iran’s army chief, Gen. Mohammed Baqeri, publicly warned Islamabad that if it failed to hunt down anti-Iran terrorists in their Pakistani safe havens, his army was ready to go after them.
The Iranian warning came on the heels of a deadly foray by Pakistan-based anti-Iran terrorists into Iran last week, in which ten Iranian security personnel were murdered.
This wasn’t the first time that the Pakistan-based murderers—calling themselves Jundallah (Army of God)—had feasted on Iranian blood. Iranians have been in Jundallah’s crosshairs for long. The Baloch outfit, professing blood identity with Iranians of Baloch descent, seeks to ‘exact revenge’ for Iran’s alleged maltreatment of their minorities. It has regularly faulted Iran for discrimination and human rights violations against its non-Shia minorities, of which Balochis are one.
But this time around, the Iranians felt so rattled by the blood-spilling spree of these Pakistan-based terrorists that Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif rushed to Islamabad on May 3 where in addition to calling on PM Nawaz Sharif, he also met with the Pakistan army chief. The Pakistani Balochistan, sharing a long border with Iran, has long been under the eyes of Pakistan’s army, which is trying to put down a separatist insurgency, which Pakistan claims is being fuelled by India.
The saga of Kulbhushan Jadhav—the Indian RAW agent allegedly caught spying for India from his base in Chabahar, the Iranian port city within hailing distance of Pakistan—has also been a factor, lately, in Pakistan’s relations with Iran. Pakistan’s all-powerful military had the gall to point the finger at Iran. It claimed Tehran was allowing its territory to be used by spies of ‘arch-enemy India’ and turning a blind eye to a master-sleuth like Jadhav.
A diplomatic disaster with Iran was averted—with a lot of toil and finesse by the mandarins of the Pakistan Foreign Office—last year when the Jadhav story broke during Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s visit to Islamabad. The then Pakistani military chief Gen. Raheel Sharif had taken up issue with Rouhani for not keeping an eye on enemies of Pakistan operating from Iranian soil and Rouhani had to trash the general’s nonsense in an angry rebuttal.
The same Raheel has just been anointed chief of an ‘Islamic Army’, a motley and yet-amorphous force of disparate Muslim states professing loyalty to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is yet to throw its hat formally into this Saudi-inspired ring but has allowed its retired army ace to don the mantle of its leadership—a perplexing thing, no doubt, to most observers.
Foreign policy pundits and gurus not in awe of Nawaz and the Saudis bemoan Pakistan’s myopic policy of going out on a limb for the Saudis against an old and trusted neighbour like Iran. It’s no secret that the Saudis, wagged by their Wahabi sectarian ideology of Islam, are out to corner the Shia Iran and obviously want to use Pakistan to pull their chestnut out of the fire. It’s foolhardy of Pakistan, pundits bewail, to make an adversary of a neighbour like Iran for the sake of a combative Saudi Arabia which is exploiting the pro-Wahabi sentiments of a majority of Pakistan’s population.
The latest twist in the Jadhav spy saga is set to roil Pakistan’s already deeply-strained relations with India a notch further. To Islamabad’s chagrin, the International Court of Justice has just given a ruling in favour of India and stayed the death penalty awarded to Jadhav last month by a Pakistani military court.
The dipping curve in Pakistan’s not-too-happy-and-sanguine relations with Iran comes close on the heels of a rapidly worsening equation with Afghanistan.
For more than a week now, the Pakistan–Afghanistan border has been sealed by Islamabad, thus virtually suffocating a land-locked Afghanistan heavily dependent on its transit trade via Pakistan. This harsh, punitive action has been followed ostensibly to punish Afghanistan for unleashing military fire against the Pakistani census workers operating close to the Afghan border. The tit-for-tat action has led to casualties on both sides of the historic border between the two countries.
Pakistan blames Afghan President Ashraf Ghani of toeing the Indian line on policy with its neighbours. It accuses the Afghan leadership of ungratefulness and insensitivity to the past four decades of Pakistani sacrifices for the sake of their Afghan brethren. Pakistan, of course, has a point in being unhappy with the Afghan leadership after having fed and sheltered over 4 million Afghan refugees over the past 40 years. More than a million Afghan refugees are still partaking of Pakistani hospitality. So Pakistan feels it has moral justification on its side for faulting the Afghan leadership for letting New Delhi use them to bait Islamabad and stir trouble at a time when Pakistan would want the world to take notice of India’s ‘punishing policy’ against the Muslim inhabitants of Kashmir.
To Pakistan’s utter annoyance and dismay, the Afghans have rekindled the issue of the Durand Line, the 19th century border drawn by the British colonialist power for its own interest. It’s no coincidence that many of Pakistan’s own Pakhtoon tribes loathe the arbitrary colonial demarcation dividing millennia-old tribal and blood affinities.
But the bewilderment of jaded Pakistani pundits, like this scribe, is anchored on the pivotal issue of Pakistani leaders being inexplicably insensitive to the age-old dictum: You can’t choose your neighbours; so you must learn to live with them in peace and harmony.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat