Pakistan is still the epicentre of terror
Rifts in Islamabad’s domestic politics and military transgressions are affecting its neighbours
While attention over the past month has focused on the aftermath of United States President Donald Trump’s broadside, three separate issues loom over Pakistan: one domestic; and two external. Trump’s tweet, accusing Pakistan of lies and deceit, was followed by a suspension of security assistance, but evidently this is only the beginning of a process.
Since the dramatic presidential announcement of “no more”, Afghanistan, through January, witnessed a wave of violence. There were three major attacks in Kabul — on the Intercontinental hotel (January 21), an ambulance bomb (January 27) and the attack on an Afghan army base (January 29). These, at the very least, underline that whatever the ultimate prognosis of the US’ new Afghanistan-pakistan policy, the grind will remain a very hard one. These high-profile attacks get so much attention that there is a relative obscuring of the Afghan army’s fierce fighting with the Taliban also taking place in the provinces.
While it may be tempting to see this cluster of major attacks as a direct response to Trump’s tweet, the fact also is that in Afghanistan linear explanations are not always the only ones. This latest wave of terrorist violence begun before the tweet with the attack on a Shia education centre in Kabul on December 28 and on a funeral in Jalalabad three days later. The US president’s tweet itself was only the hardest of a series of US statements on Pakistan in 2017 as the security situation in Afghanistan steadily deteriorated.
How Pakistan will respond remains an open question, but one track which it is trying is to reduce the current levels of friction in the relationship with Afghanistan. This is through the negotiation of an Afghanistan-pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). This idea emerged with the current wave of attacks and following Afghanistan’s accusations that it was from bases in Pakistan where these attacks were planned and launched. The point evidently is of Pakistan’s keenness to engage with Afghanistan as a means of convincing the US of its bona fides. Predictably, two rounds of talks on the APAPPS have failed to make progress.
Internally, former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif continues on his path of defiance against the judiciary’s verdict that unseated him. His main point is reiterated constantly in public meetings and rallies: The higher judiciary in Pakistan has always played a partisan role against civilian politicians. The subtext is pointedly the interventions of the army in the domain of politics. This, of course, is hardly new given the history of military coups in Pakistan. What is also possibly being alluded to is that unlike in the past when a coup was followed by swift judicial vindication the army now acts more constitutionally with the growing convergence between it and the judiciary or through the mainstreaming of extremist groups to put up electoral challenges to more centrist parties.
Some of the Sharif’s supporters have spoken on this with even greater abandon. How sensitive the judiciary is to this is illustrated by the one-month imprisonment awarded to a senator from the ruling party for contempt of court. There are other ongoing contempt proceedings as well.
However, all this is accompanied by mounting evidence that Sharif is receiving a groundswell of support at the grassroots as he tours Pakistan, especially in the Punjab province. Notwithstanding the history of what is called Pakistan’s ‘20 year coup cycle’ (1958, 1977, 1999) the fact is that enough has changed to give the forthcoming general election great significance.
Finally, 2017 is increasingly being described as the year that saw the most intense clashes along the Line of Control (LOC) since the 2003 ceasefire was declared. The most obvious reason ascribed for this is that at a time when there is a diplomatic freeze, the situation along the LOC is no more than symptomatic of the state of bilateral ties. But there are other reasons also, the most prominent being the Pavlovian conditioned approach of the Pakistan army to do what it can to keep the situation in Kashmir ‘hot’.
These factors create an environment where ceasefire violations are inevitable and local and tactical considerations have a major role in explaining flare-ups. There is nevertheless a third regression that historically has underwritten flare-ups along the LOC over the past decade. Domestic turbulence in Pakistan, and in particular poor civil-military equations, have impacted the ceasefire and put it under severe strain — as is the situation today.
A villager holds mortar shells fired from across the border, at Pindi in Arnia district, Jammu and Kashmir, January 18