Two attacks in as many weeks in Pakistan’s troubled province of Balochistan shatter hopes that the country has gained the upper hand in efforts to reduce political violence. The attacks also raise questions about Pakistan’s ability to walk a geopolitical tightrope.
Coming days before Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan embarked on a two-day visit to Iran, the attacks highlight the fallout of the debilitating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Pakistan’s mixed success in insulating China’s massive US$45 billion plus Belt and Road-related investment from the dispute as well as Baloch nationalist aspirations.
An April 12 bombing targeted a predominantly Hazara market, not because of the group’s ethnicity but because they were Shiites who have been under siege for years as a result of their religious beliefs. Nineteen people were killed in the bombing and dozens of others wounded.
Six days later, Baloch nationalists killed 14 members of Pakistan’s security forces on a coastal highway, raising renewed concern in Beijing about the safety of Chinese nationals and investment in Balochistan, a crown jewel of the Belt and Road.
Mr. Khan hopes that his talks in Tehran will help end mounting tensions in Balochistan and along the-960-kilometre-long Baloch-Iran border. He needs a lowering of tension in advance of meetings later this week with top Chinese officials on the side lines of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.
The heightened tension and Mr. Khan’s Tehran and Beijing talks come against the backdrop of heightened suspicion of US and Saudi intentions.
Many analysts saw this month’s Saudi-backed US designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as an escalation of tensions that risked military confrontation and would likely complicate any effort to steer parties towards the negotiating table.
Some Pakistani officials as well as Baloch activists suggested that the killing of the security forces was the result of predominantly Shiite Iran loosening its grip on the operations of Baloch nationalist groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) who are believed to have a presence in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan on the Iranian side of the Pakistani border.
Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Pakistan had evidence the “terrorist outfits” that carried out the attack had “training and logistic camps inside Iranian areas bordering Pakistan”.
The Iranian move was believed to be a response to attacks by allegedly Saudi-backed Sunni militants based in Pakistani Balochistan. The attacks include a suicide bombing in Chabahar in December that targeted a Revolutionary Guards headquarters, killing two people and wounding 40.
Chabahar is home to an Indian-backed port a mere 70 kilometres up the Arabian Sea coast from the Chinese-funded, Pakistani Baloch port of Gwadar.
Iran asserts that Jaish ul-Adel (Army of Justice), an allegedly Saudi-backed group, operates from Pakistani Balochistan. The group claimed responsibility in February for the killing of 27 Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Iranian intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi vowed at the time to take revenge for the killings on “the masterminds, perpetrators and their sponsors”.
Iran has watched with growing concern what it perceives to be an increasing tilt towards Saudi Arabia helped pull financially strapped Pakistan back from the brink with at least US$6 billion in financial aid and promises of another US$10 billion in investment in Balochistan.
It will not have gone unnoticed in Tehran that authorities two days before the Hazara bombing released from prison Ramzan Mengal, a top leader of a banned sectarian group and alleged conduit of funds originating in Saudi Arabia that have been flowing in recent years to anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian militants in Balochistan.
Mr. Mengal, a bearded militant Islamic scholar, had been detained for three months suspected of public order offences, said Quetta police chief Abdul Razzaq Cheema.
Mr. Mengal is believed to head the Balochistan chapter of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ), a banned successor to Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) or The Army of the Companions of the Prophet, an outlawed group responsible for the death of a large number of Shiites in the past three decades that is believed to have long enjoyed Saudi financial backing.
He is also seen as a leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sipah offshoot that has ties to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and has claimed responsibility for the death of more than 200 Hazara Shiites in recent years.
Gulf nationals of Baloch heritage have funnelled funds originating in the kingdom to Mr. Mengal and other militant scholars, according to one of the founders of Sipah and other militant sources. They said the money had been transferred through hawala agents or money exchangers operating in the Middle East and South Asia.
“Ramzan gets whatever he needs from the Saudis,” the co-founder said.
Dressed in traditional white garb, a waistcoat and black turban, Mr. Mengal was known to often march on the streets of the Baloch capital of Quetta shouting sectarian slogans.
A frequent suspect in the killings of Hazara Shiites, he led crowds chanting “Kafir, kafir, Shia kafir (Infidels, infidels, Shiites are infidels),” but has recently become more cautious not to violate Pakistani laws on hate speech.
Mr. Mengal’s release on the eve of Mr. Khan’s visit to Iran hardly sends the right signal.
Mr. Qureishi, the foreign minister, phoned his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, on the eve of Mr. Khan’s visit to express the “anger of the Pakistani nation” at the attack on the Pakistani guards.
Mr. Qureshi further said that Pakistan had decided to build a fence along its border with Iran. “The work has already started from the points that are frequently misused,” Mr. Qureshi said.
The fence may enhance security on the porous border, but is unlikely to quell violence in Balochistan that, although exploited by Iran, is primarily driven by long-standing sectarian strife fuelled by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry; neglect of Baloch social and economic demands and political aspirations; and Baloch fears of becoming victims rather than beneficiaries of Chinese and Saudi investment.
Said columnist Naazir Mahmood: “Democracy means ensuring the rights to life, safety and security, the right to earn livelihood and the right to get an education without fear… A complete ban on, and disarming of, sectarian outfits, coupled with strengthening of democracy with all its rights respected by the state, may result in a curbing of violence in Balochistan.”
Kabul: Old Problems are New Challenges
It has been some three months since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, precipitously and without large-scale bloodshed. This came as a complete surprise for the global community—but for the Taliban just as well, although this was what they had long been striving for. Perhaps, this could explain the contradictory situation in the country as of today.
On the one hand, the Taliban leadership is supremely confident in their ultimate victory, and they are determined to keep the power at any cost. The Taliban proceed from the premise that the way the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) existed throughout 1996 to 2001 never ceased to exist, with the last two decades marked by the fight against foreign military intervention and a puppet regime. Accordingly, this is the basis for the Taliban to consolidate their power through rigid theocratic institutions. There is hardly reason to believe they would take a different approach, which means foreign actors could only advocate a certain “liberalization” of these institutions, accounting for the current trends in international development.
On the other hand, the Taliban’s activities tend to ignore the economic aspects, which are still of fundamental significance as they are instrumental to resolve the pressing problems that the Afghani face, while having an impact on the country’s domestic stability and the long-term viability of the regime. So far, the Taliban have mostly been “patching up the holes” welcoming relief efforts from abroad. The recently announced “food for work” programme requires material support rather than mere slogans.
This can be explained by the following reasoning. Caught in the grip of conservative religious, ideological and political views, the Taliban lack any meaningful experience in modern state-building. As for the subjective circumstances that need be accounted for, these include the Taliban’s heterogeneity, contradictions between orthodox believers and pragmatists in the movement’s leadership, and close to none of sufficient control over the Taliban’s “rank-and-file”. The confrontation between the conservatives holding key offices in the government and the pragmatists continues, and it may even grow worse. Further changes in the government’s configuration will testify to the dynamics of Afghanistan’s overall domestic evolution amid the new circumstances.
Persisting historical contradictions between the Taliban (mostly ethnic Pashtuns) and the many ethnic minorities (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras) are potentially dangerous for the new regime in Kabul. With the Taliban being reluctant to form a truly inclusive government rather relying on one that only purports to be such and with ethnic minorities willing to establish something like a front of resistance to the new authorities, these contradictions are becoming ever more visible.
Both the new government in Kabul and the global and regional communities are increasingly concerned with the spike in subversive activities in the country perpetrated by militants of various ethnic backgrounds affiliated with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. All this negatively affects the domestic situation, with a potential to undermine the Taliban regime itself, while posing additional risks for regional stability. The situation is gravely exacerbated by the deplorable state of Afghanistan’s economy, which could lead to famine in the very near future. Taken together, these circumstances demand that the Taliban take decisive steps to normalize the situation. As Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, recently noted, events in Afghanistan may lead to a catastrophe if the Taliban do not act in a timely manner.
At the same time, it is obvious that such an Afghanistan would not survive without external aid and assistance. Internationally, the situation is rather favorable for the new Afghanistan regime, particularly with the Taliban engaging in dynamic international activities. It is crucial for today’s Kabul to handle three principal tasks:
- establishing working relations with the neighbouring states as well as regional and global powers with a view to having the Taliban struck from UN sanctions lists and obtaining official international recognition for the new authorities;
- securing a positive international image of Kabul under the Taliban;
- receiving large-scale foreign humanitarian aid.
The Taliban miss no opportunity to make statements at all levels, claiming they are ready to engage with the global community in comprehensive cooperation, abandoning support for international terrorism and extremism and willing to attract foreign investment from a wide range of countries into Afghanistan’s economy.
If we explore the stances taken by various members of the international community as regards the new regime in Afghanistan, we will notice that their positions have several points in common, all of which are important for a peaceful and stable situation in the region. These principles include preventing instability in Afghanistan from exacerbating, the need to form an inclusive government that represents the interests of all ethnic and political forces, building a state on the foundations of respect for contemporary human rights, putting an end to terrorism and extremism proliferating outward from Afghanistan, etc.
At the same time, countries demonstrate significantly different approaches to the Afghanistan profile. The United States and the European Union have taken the toughest stance with regard to the Taliban, although both are ready to launch relief efforts to avoid a humanitarian disaster that is fraught, among other things, with new waves of refugees. Unlike Europe, Washington regards the Taliban issue as more complex and complicated. First, the United States needs to “come to grips,” both politically and psychologically, with the shock and humiliation brought by the inglorious end to the Afghanistan escapade, which delivered a huge blow to the image and reputation of the U.S., both among its allies and worldwide. Washington also needs to resolve the issue of Afghanistan’s assets being relieved as quickly as possible—something that the Taliban, as well as many members of the international community, including Russia, insist on.
As far as Moscow and a number of other countries are concerned, the United States should be the one to provide a significant amount, if not the bulk, of foreign financial aid to Afghanistan moving forward. We should keep in mind that the practical steps taken by the United States concerning Afghanistan will largely serve as a model for the entire collective West. Everyone in Washington is aware of this. However, the United States is still pondering as to the best modes of interaction with the Taliban, exploring the possibility to participate in humanitarian and other programmes in Afghanistan. This is evidenced by the contacts that have already taken place.
Unlike the leading Western nations, many countries in the region, primarily Afghanistan’s neighbours, have de facto begun to foster active and dynamic links with the Taliban. Pakistan has become the main lobbyist for the recognition of the new regime in Kabul, as Islamabad hopes to ensure its place as the primary external influence on the new government in Afghanistan. Beijing has taken a similar stance. Many experts argue that China may come to be the leading external force in Afghanistan, seeing as it is ready to develop economic ties with Kabul provided the latter prevents anti-Chinese Uyghur Islamist militants from penetrating into China from Afghanistan. A stable Afghanistan accords with Beijing’s long-term interest in actively involving the country in implementing its strategic Belt and Road Initiative.
Turkey is now eyeing the opportunities for bolstering its standing in Afghanistan. Central Asian nations, particularly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are visibly active in the area as well. Tajikistan is sounding something of a discordant note, openly proclaiming that it does not recognize Afghanistan’s regime in its current iteration. Dushanbe’s concerns are easy to understand especially if one recalls its negative experiences from the 1990s. However, the OSCE and the SCO cannot help but be concerned over the aggravation in Tajikistan–Taliban relations. India is also wary of the new regime in Kabul. Iran, like Pakistan, has long-standing historical ties with Afghanistan, and it is taking a “favourable pause” while striving to assist in advancing international cooperation in Afghanistan affairs. In the Islamic Middle East, the regime change in Kabul has been met with an equivocal response, ranging from enthusiasm of radical Islamists to restraint and certain wariness.
The way the situation in Afghanistan will evolve is a matter of fundamental importance for Russia’s national interests, primarily when it comes to ensuring security in Central Asia, within the SCO as well as in the greater Eurasian context. Long-term stability in Afghanistan cannot be ensured without a truly inclusive government and without the Taliban taking on clear commitments to counteract instability, terrorism, extremism and drugs flows spreading outwards and to prevent mass migration into adjacent regions. Kabul and the entire regional community need a peaceful, stable, and neutral Afghanistan, a country that lives in peace and harmony with its neighbours and a nation that is actively involved in economic cooperation in the region.
The international community may benefit from Russia’s experience in promoting domestic consensus in Afghanistan. Several international formats have great importance in this regard, such as the Moscow Format, the extended “Troika” (Russia, the United States, China + Pakistan), which was particularly highlighted by President Vladimir Putin in his recent address at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is particularly important that these formats complement each other rather than compete in terms of their influence on the processes.
From our partner RIAC
Is Nepal an Indian colony?
In yet another dictation, India has told Nepal that nationals of other countries will not be allowed to use the new 35-km rail link between Jaynagar in Bihar and Kurtha in Nepal, due to “security reasons” (The Print, November 25, 2021). The 34.9-km narrow gauge section was converted into broad gauge by India and handed over to Nepal in October this year. Nepal protested India’s dictation resulting in operational delay. Ultimately India softened its “order” to the extent that “third country nationals can travel on the railway within Nepal, but they won’t be allowed to cross over to India,”
Nepal is perhaps the only country where the head of India’s premier intelligence, Research and Analysis wing is accorded a red carpet welcome as he calls on the Nepalese prime minister (amid popular protests). Not only the RAW’s chief but also the external affairs minister and army chief often visit Nepal with a handy list of les choses a faire (things to be done). For instance when the Indian army chief visited Nepal, he reminded the PM that there are 136,000 pensioners in Nepal whose pension bill is disbursed by India. The army chief freely intermingled with pensioners as if Nepal was a colony and he was viceroy.
There are about 32,000 Nepalese Gorkhas currently serving in the Indian Army’s seven Gorkha Rifle regiments (1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th and 11th), each of which has five to six battalions (around 800 soldiers each).
Nepal resents its image as a contributor of mercenary soldiers to India and Britain. So it wanted to stop sending Gurkhas for recruitment to the two countries by amending the tripartite In 1962, Sino Indian conflict, the Gorkhas stayed loyal to India though the Chinese used loudspeakers daily against the company of Major Dhan Singh Thapa, PVC, to withdraw as they were from Nepal. The Nepalese troops returning to their native villages were pooh-poohed on their journey back home.
The total pension bill for the 1, 27,000 pensioners (90,000 defence and 37,000 Central and State Government as well as paramilitary), and serving soldiers remitting home money is around Rs 4,600 crore. It works out to Nepalese Rs. 6400, which is larger than the NR 3601.80 crore defence budget of Nepal.
The Nepalese still resent India’s hand in assassinating Nepal’s king Birendra and his family (‘Indian hand in Nepal massacre’. The Statesman January 11, 2010).
Nepal is a landlocked country dependent on India in many ways. In the past India blocked supplies to Nepal at least four times forcing it to capitulate to India’s diktat to stave off starvation.
Nepal is contiguous to Tibet. So it has to balance its relation with both India and China. As China has influence on Nepalese communists so India can’t dare subdue Nepal fully. India always regarded Nepalese prime minister Oli a hard nut to crack. It was Oly who amended national map to re- exhibit areas annexed by India within Nepalese territory. India heaved a sigh of relief when Nepalese Supreme Court ousted Oli and appointed Sher Bahadur Deuba as the prime minister until the next general elections. Deuba remained listless to popular protests against the Supreme Court’s decision.
Conspiracies to oust Oli
To topple Oli’s government, the Indian embassy in Nepal had been bankrolling corrupt politicians and other members of Nepalese society. Aware of India’s underhand machinations, Oli
debunked India’s conspiracies during a ceremony to commemorate the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Party’s popular leader Madan Bandari. Oli “accused India of trying to destabilize his government” and alleged “Indian embassy in Nepal was conspiring about the same” He claimed, `Conspiracies were being plotted against him since the constitutional Nepali map amendment’. He further added, `There is an open race to remove me from the post. No-one thought that a prime minister would be removed from office for printing a map’.
Be it observed that Nepal amended its map when its objections fell flat on India. India’s defense minister Rajnath Singh, went ahead to inaugurate an 80-kilometer-long road connecting the Lipulekh Pass in Nepal with Darchula in Uttarkhand (India). The Indian army chief insinuated that Oli was being prodded by China against India.
India’s ongoing annexation
Besides annexing the three new territories, India had already annexed 14000 hectares (140 km square) of territories in Susta, Tribeni Susta, Lumbini Zone, near Nichlaul (Uttar Pradesh).
Nepal being no match for India could not stop India by the use of force. But, to express its dissatisfaction, it printed 4000 copies of the updated version of the new map and distributed it to India, United Nations, and also Google. Additional 25,000 copies of the map were distributed throughout Nepal.
Gorkhas fought well in India’s post-independence wars (Indo-Pak 1965, 1971 and 1999 Kargil War, besides 1962 Sino-Indian War and peace keeping mission in Sri Lanka. Their battle cry is jai maha kali, ayo gorkhali. Three Indian army chiefs (SHEJ Manekshaw, Dilbri Singh and Bipin Rawat) served with Gorkha Rifles.
Nepali citizens have a right to apply for recruitment in Indian armed forces or civil services. Yet, they hate India and find more comfort with China as an ally. Whenever India blockades transit trade to Nepal, the latter fall back upon China for its economic needs. India also forced Nepal to grant citizenship to Indians illegally residing in Nepal.
Despite its economic woes, Nepal is ferociously independent minded. When Oli enacted a new map of Nepal, he was vehemently supported by most politicians including the present prime minister. India is unlikely to compel Nepal to toe its dictates fully.
US and India in the Indo Pacific: Advancing a shared vision
The changing geopolitical dynamics with China’s emergence as a key player and the declining role of the US as a superpower have all shifted the focus towards the Asia Pacific region. This region has become home to numerous flashpoints as China is seeking to tilt the balance of power in its favor and the US being distrustful of Chinese intentions. Nevertheless, to mitigate this threat, the US under the Obama administration has already turned the foreign policy focus from the Middle Eastern region to the Asia Pacific with the policy of “Pivot to Asia”.
Along with this, former president of the US, Donald Trump came with a newfangled strategy of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in 2017, thus having the Indian Ocean part of the great game. Yet, this has largely been subject to multiple interpretations. Especially, China is perceiving it as a strategy by the US to contain China’s growing power in the region since the US has clearly stated in its National Security Strategy that China is a “strategic competitor”, and the US won’t let any single state dominate the whole region. Therefore, this policy is going to have multiple implications in terms of how the countries will approach and recce China’s rise in the region.
Apparently, the US stated its vision for Indo Pacific is to ensure peace, prosperity, security, and stability, yet if we analyze deeply then US intentions primarily is to counter the influence of China and to increase its footings in the region. That is why it has focused on projecting the harder image of its competitor China in the region and worldwide, while convincing others for taking the US as their well-wisher whose intention is to constructively engage economically, politically, and socially with regional states. Nevertheless, in reality, the US is trying to achieve its underlying objectives in the region and that is to increase its presence and relevance in the region while using the sugar-coated approach of presenting itself as a marvel for the development of other regional states.
If we go a little back into history then the US has always shown great interest in the Indo-Pacific region. Secretary of the state, Hilary Clinton used the term while defining the “Asia pacific rebalancing strategy” and the relationship of the US with India. Even Obama during a historic visit to India in January 2015 endorsed this concept to show how the two states have been cooperating to promote peace, prosperity, stability, and security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. Moreover, “Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor”, an initiative by John Kerry was introduced for the first time at the US-India Strategic Dialogue in June 2013. However, it is only now that the term is officially part of the US defense paper and the National Security Strategy documents.
As with the changing geopolitical realities, the US has to look beyond the Middle Eastern region and must ensure its presence in the Indo-Pacific region which in future is going to define the world politics. Therefore, the US is engaging with regional powers and is trying to build them militarily and economically so that they can be used effectively as a “Threat multiplier” against China in the present and future. Besides, the Chinese actions including its extensive military modernization, the assertive pursuit of maritime territorial claims, artificial islands, and efforts to control international or disputed waters including the South China Sea, coercive diplomacy or economic measures, and its expanding global presence, including the military base at Djibouti, has all generated alarms for the US.
Apart from this, China is working on its far seas policy which is focused on extending Chinese naval capabilities and protection of its far Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). Henceforth, China’s presence in the Gulf of Aden, its investment in the Hambantota port, and the patrolling of its nuclear-powered submarines in the Indian Ocean in 2013, all shows China’s intention to dominate the region. That is why India has started using its satellites, P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and surface ships to eye the “unusual surge” in Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean,
Thus, keeping in view such dependence and importance of the Indo-pacific region for China and especially of the Indian Ocean. Trump came with the Indo pacific strategy which aims at regaining US lost hegemony and presence in the region. The department of defense also stated that the Indo-Pacific is “the single most consequential region for America’s future”. That is why the US is investing heavily in the region. Former secretary of the state, Mike Pompeo announced $113 million in funds allocation to expand economic engagement in the region and another $300 million for security cooperation. Former US president, Donald Trump signed the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development Act (BUILD Act), and Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA act) which doubles US development finance capacity to US$60 billion.
For trade, the US is investing around $1.9 trillion and is participating actively in regional platforms like ASEAN, QUAD, and APEC. It has lent $153 million to Mekong states and is working on 11 renewable projects. Moreover, it has given around $250 million for the security of sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific region. Today there are 375,000 U.S. military person in Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). Henceforth, Indo-Pacific could be a game-changer for the US considering the potential region has in terms of the population, resources, top militaries, economic powers, and most importantly the 60% sea trade. For the US, unhindered access to the region means accomplishing its broader strategic goals.
Nevertheless, in all of this, the role of India is significant as both states are in an attempt to advance the same vision. The US military developments, Pacific involvement, the stationing of 200 aircraft in the region, etc. are all targeted at enhancing its power position in the region. Nonetheless, being geographically apart from the region, the whole strategic bedrock for the US are the partners that give it an advantage over competitors. As far as India is concerned, it is a key strategic partner of the US as both states have signed numerous defense agreements. Importantly, US is fully aligned with India’s “Look East Policy” and as India is closer to the Indian Ocean that is why having stronger ties with India would help it gain control in the Indian Ocean which has 80% of trade passing through it.
For that reason, the US always calls India central to its Asian policy. Especially, with China’s emergence as a competitor, its increasing influence in the Indian Ocean region, and the South China Sea, the US deems it’s important to partner up with India which also looks at China as an aggressor state. The recent Ladakh incident which on one side has increased tensions between India and China has on the other side brought India and USA closer into the arms of each other. More importantly, India’s ambition to become a leading power while providing security to the Indian Ocean Region is in line with the US Indo-Pacific strategy. This is why Trump too has renamed the pacific command to Indo-Pacific command which includes India with which the USA has a $16 billion defense agreement. Likewise, India is stepping for an increasing influence in the Strait of Malacca and has deployed eight warships in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, today the increasing US-India partnership, logistic exchange, 2+2 deal, $50 billion arms sale, intelligence sharing, etc. are all pointing towards the importance India has for the US in its Indo Pacific strategy.
To cape it all, the US has long called itself a pacific state, and all its policies and strategies vis-à-vis Indo-Pacific are fashioned seeing itself as a major balancer in the region. But even if the US today appears peaceful in its pursuit it could take a 360-degree shift tomorrow as its history speaks. And in all of this, India like always will hold a key position in the US strategy to accomplish all underlying objectives in the region as cooperation exist where interests syndicate.
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