Pakistan Iran Conflict: Middle East Spillover Reaches South Asia

Pakistan’s Politics of Terror and Iran’s Airstrikes: Middle East Spillover Reaches South Asia

As Pakistan prepares for elections next month, it seems that the country is now in the crosshairs in its backyard, caught in crossfire with its absolute attention on its politico-security situation at home to get through the election season. Pakistan appears to be experiencing nightmares of terror affairs going awry.
First Published: Jan 18,2024 04:20PM
by Srijan Sharma
Pakistan Iran Conflict

Pakistan Iran Conflict
Pakistan-Iran conflict | Representative image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement 

Politics of Terror

Pakistan has a decades-old strategy of using terror as the state’s instrument—an unconventional weapon against India—and buying geopolitical rent from the US by using Afghanistan. 

The state-sponsored terrorism, giving operational control to terror proxies to cultivate good ground for unconventional warfare against India, and using the advantage of strategic depth to maintain the US in its court were the first few strategic impressions of Pakistan’s terror games. However, using “terror” as a strategy did not last long; in 2011, the US hunted down Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan’s Abbottabad, who was responsible for the deadly 9/11 terror attacks. Post this incident, mistrust began between the US and Pakistan.

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Similarly, in the case of Iran, who supported Pakistan in the 1971 war against India, developed mistrust and hostility against Pakistan because of two strong reasons: first, the developments post-Iranian revolutions; second, Iran believes that Pakistan is sponsoring Baluch Jihadists to please the West and Saudi Arabia. Except for temporary geopolitical rent, the politics of terror have cost Pakistan heavily on the geopolitical front.

Even in the neighbourhood, Pakistan saw the Afghan Taliban coming back to power as a renewal package of its politics of terror and buying geopolitical rent power from the West. However, soon, the strategic impressions of Pakistan’s politics of terror in its backyard started to fade. The reasons are the Afghan Taliban’s assertiveness, Pakistan’s targeting of Tehreek-Taliban, and Pakistan’s approach against Afghanistan’s Supreme Council Quetta Shura as terror criss crossings have increased in the Middle East post-Israel’s operation Iron Swords.

Pakistan seems to be negotiating its politics of terror (supporting outfits, bait and bleed) with a few terror proxies and allegedly with ISIS currently for two reasons: 1) to de-escalate the terror attacks in Pakistan and deter TTP, even supporting TTP against ISIS; 2) to seek some openings for incentives from the West. Pakistan’s recent engagement with the US, which saw Pakistan’s Army Chief Asim Munir, along with Pakistan’s ISI chief, go to the US to seek security and strategic cooperation to fight the increasing terror threat. Still, the US didn’t show any signs of interest in engaging with Pakistan, and the reasons are obvious: the US is already locked in multiple fronts from Ukraine to Israel; this gets topped by the US’s own assessment of security in the region, which it believes that TTP is weakening the ISIS threat. However, the recent ISIS attacks in Iran project a worrisome picture of regional security in South Asia’s backyard.

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The Boomerang 

Pakistan’s politics of terror have often ended on a sour note, troubling Pakistan’s extraction of geopolitical rent in the long term. The reason for this is perhaps Pakistan’s failure to realise that the politics of terror always plays under the overhang of “radical ideas.” Terror proxies have little space for strategic benefits. For them, jihadism is supreme, leaving no room for long-term negotiations. 

The mention of Frankenstein’s Monster in Mary Shelley’s classic horror titled “Frankenstein” explores various themes through its narrative, including the dangers of knowledge and ambition, and the dual nature of innovation. The novel uses a few symbolic impressions to explain the dangers of knowledge. Fire and light, Walton’s journey, and Adam are three symbols in “Frankenstein.” They represent the dangers of seeking knowledge too quickly and rashly. It has been said that lighting, like fire, can illuminate but, under the right circumstances, can destroy. It is a force of nature that cannot be controlled. Similarly, Pakistan also suffers from the same dilemma; terror proxies can be useful for some time, but under the right circumstances, they will be destroyed because they are radically driven. 

The thrust of Wahhabism and Islamic fundamentalism weakens the long-term incentive extraction. One can argue that the US, too, had relations with terror proxies, its famous CIA’s Operation Cyclone of providing arms and logistics to Jihadist groups in Afghanistan to drive out the Soviets. However, it was a “limited relationship,” unlike Pakistan, which “embraced” the terror proxies. The reason for this embracement perhaps flows from Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, where Zia established Sharia Benches in the High Court to align Pakistan’s legal statutes with Islamic doctrine. During Zia’s regime, he focused on increasing the influence of Ulama and Islamic parties. The second reason flows from the rise of radicalism in Pakistan during Zia’s regime. Zia’s Islamization policies brought in a new breed of officers and men who wanted to pursue an active Islamic agenda in military matters. A new breed of military thinkers and strategists also emerged who began to propound a merger of social jihadism with military plans. 

Zia’s Islamisation plan had far-reaching consequences, leading to the creation of non-state actors by Pakistan’s ISI to quell opposition to Zia’s pro-Sunni Islamisation measures—creating Jaish-e-Muhammad and Soviet Jihad, which are some notable examples. Zia’s radical Islamisation has penetrated deeply into the nerves of the Pakistan Army, making a few officers act against Islamic terror groups such as TTP. The only reason, perhaps, that they are forced to act against TTP and radical outfits is to secure their state’s survival. The virus of Zia’s Islamisation has today broken down Pakistan’s ability to think like a rational state/actor and has put it into a state of poly-crises that is consuming the whole state.

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New Flashpoints 

Pakistan recently witnessed new flashpoints, including recent Iranian strikes in Pakistan against the Baluch terror group Jaish Al-Adl, which has resulted in further deterioration of the Iran-Pakistan relationship. However, a strategic look suggests that the proxy warfare and heat of the Middle East crises have knocked on the doors of South Asia. 

However, for Pakistan, escalating the recent attacks beyond a certain limit looks untenable as the country is scheduled for elections next month under the overhang of terror threats and socio-economic crises. Pakistan does have the option to use excessive force against Iran, but circumstances would not allow Pakistan to exercise unrestrained force for three reasons: 1) Pakistan cannot afford to get locked in a long-drawn conflict with Iran. 2) Facing India on its east, Afghanistan on its west, and a third front would be a deadly blow. 3) Terror groups inside Pakistan would exploit Pakistan’s opening a third front. It is expected that Pakistan might increase its relationship with Iran’s rivals, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The threat of new flashpoints and increased risk of terror in South Asia’s backyard is worrisome. Serious attention must be given to ease the heightened security environment in the neighbourhood.

Srijan Sharma, a national security analyst with a focus on intelligence and security, serves as a Research Assistant at the United Service Institution of India (USI), a leading national security and foreign policy think tank. He has contributed extensively to various institutions, journals, and newspapers, including The Telegraph, ThePrint, Organiser, and Fair Observer, in areas of security and strategic affairs. Presently, he contributes as a guest to the JNU School of International Studies. 

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