The Pakistan Army has been relatively restrained along its borders with India, ever since the attack on the Pathankot air base. This is certainly not out of sudden love for its neighbour, but because the army finds itself drawn into a quagmire on its western borders. Over 80,000 Pakistani troops have been deployed along its borders with Afghanistan, in a conflict, which was started by the army, to root out Pashtun tribals responsible for killings of schoolchildren in Kabul and attack on the Badshah Khan University in Charsadda. Tensions have escalated primarily because the Pakistani Taliban insurgents responsible for these attacks have found shelter across the border in Afghanistan, just as Pakistan provides shelter and safe haven to the Afghan Taliban on its territory.
More importantly, Pakistan is in deep trouble because of the support it provides to the deadly Haqqani Network, which it uses to fight the Afghan government and to eventually take over Afghanistan. The group has thousands of well-armed and trained cadres on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Backed by the ISI, it has launched deadly attacks inside Afghanistan, not only on Afghans, but also American-led NATO forces. The Americans describe the Haqqani Network as a veritable “arm of the ISI” and have designated it as an ‘International Terrorist’ group. To fill the leadership vacuum after the death of Mullah Omar, the ISI arranged for the head of the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, to be appointed as the deputy head of the Taliban, which is nominally headed by another ISI Protégé, Mullah Mansour.
The situation has seriously escalated after the Network launched an attack on Kabul last month, killing 64 people. The usually soft-spoken Afghan President Ashraf Ghani went ballistic, cancelling Pakistan-sponsored talks with the Taliban, in which the Americans and Chinese are present. Predictably, China has supported Pakistan’s call for continuing the dialogue.The US, however, realises that ISI’s aim is to enable the Haqqani Network to gain control of large parts of southern Afghanistan as a prelude to seizing power, once their forces leave. As a first step, the US Congress has revoked financial aid for purchase of F-16s by Pakistan. Moreover, after a long time, the pro-Pakistan State Department has been critical of Pakistan and has been joined by pro-establishment mouthpieces, like the New York Times.
Tensions have escalated across the Af-Pak border along the Durand Line, which Afghanistan does not recognise. Haqqani had earlier reminded Taliban cadres that their enemy is the “foreign (American) infidel”, while urging them to “be of service to our religion”. Pakistan, meanwhile, closed the border with Afghanistan. Afghan and Pakistani border forces exchanged fire in the Nangarhar province late last month. These tensions were triggered when Pakistani forces started shelling Afghan border posts. This led to an unprecedented face-off, with both sides deploying heavy weaponry, including tanks. There is little doubt that with continuing border tensions, the likelihood of terrorist strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, across the Durand Line, will increase. People, who play with fire, should be prepared to get their fingers burnt.
There is also the danger of US forces in Afghanistan being targeted by the Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban. Given the anti-Pakistani sentiments across the US during the Presidential election campaign, sane voices in Pakistan are urging its military to pull back and negotiate peace with Afghanistan. General Raheel Sharif, now hell bent on discrediting and undermining the elected PM, appears unlikely to pay heed to voices of reason. What India should be prepared for is shrill Pakistani propaganda that it is “interfering” in developments on the country’s western borders. Pakistan, however, has only itself to blame for escalating tensions on its borders with both Afghanistan and India, even as its relations with other neighbour Iran remain under a cloud.
Parthasarathy is a former diplomat