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Pakistan, Geopolitics And Radical Religious Groups – Analysis


Ever since its emergence, Pakistan has perceived threats to its core interests and in the perception of many hawkish elements an existential threat from the powerful neighbor – India which only became more pronounced following Pakistan’s partition in 1971 with active Indian involvement in Bangladesh independence movement.

These threat perceptions have been getting stronger in recent years by the rhetoric of ‘Hindutva’ and Akhand Bharat’ from different fringe groups in India and this also raises the possibility of these developments being manipulated by the hawkish elements within Pakistan. This will also feed a perception that is gaining ground that a process of mainstreaming these groups is underway after the government under Modi’s leadership came to power.

India’s concerns, on the other hand, stem from Pakistan’s ability to raise the costs of Indian engagement and inflict serious damage to its interests by indulging in asymmetric war tactics in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Within a lapse of a few days of Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan, the terror attacks on Indian air base in Pathankot, Punjab, has given rise to suspicions over alleged involvement of Pakistan-based terror groups in the attacks. It has also raised doubts within the Indian strategic community whether the Pakistani government could break free from the hawkish elements and make peace with India.

Nevertheless, people-to-people contacts and bilateral talks must continue to expand the constituency of peace. If France and Germany despite their history of wars could become close trade partners and the Southeast Asian countries could show success in forging close trade ties despite bilateral territorial conflicts, improvement of Indo-Pak ties in socio-economic and cultural areas despite the persistence of contentious politico-security issues should not be an impractical pursuit.

However, if history is any guide, Modi’s economic diplomacy is not likely to convince Pakistan, as things stand now, of its benefits given deep-rooted mistrust of each other’s intentions and geopolitical designs driven by the factors like power asymmetry and fixed and rigid territorial conceptions. The primary concerns are geopolitical which very often give rise to notions of ideological irreconcilability between the two countries.

Historically, Pakistan’s military and the intelligence wing believed radical religious groups could be an asset in addressing its security dilemma posed by India – a much bigger power in terms of size, population and conventional army by making Pakistan more relevant to the American objectives, first, by pushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan and subsequently by bringing closer alignment between its interests and those of Americans in Central Asia. Radical groups were also considered instrumental in waging asymmetrical warfare in Kashmir – the jugular vein of Pakistan – given Indian superiority in conventional warfare.

By describing Kashmir as the jugular vein of Pakistan, a few prominent Pakistani leaders and army officials have underlined the geopolitical importance of Kashmir for Pakistan although they commit themselves to the cause of the freedom struggle in Kashmir. Moreover, Pakistan’s success in offsetting its power imbalance with India is measured in terms of its success in maintaining predominance in Afghanistan and the Central Asian regions.

Following its emergence as a homeland for Indian Muslims to the west of India, Pakistan was privileged to spread its influence towards its north and west at the expense of India due to religious commonality and the removal of the geographical bridge between India and Afghanistan. However, given all the leverages, Pakistan ran into problems with Afghanistan just after its emergence. Pakistan’s strategic concerns began to be defined by its expressed apprehensions on the issue of Pashtunistan and non-recognition of the Durand Line as an international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan by various Afghan rulers.

By strengthening radical Islamism, Pakistan believed that it would not only overcome the demand for Pashtunistan, it could achieve other objectives like keeping Afghanistan and the Central Asian region dependent on its territory for trade and strengthening insurgency in Kashmir. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan provided Pakistan with the required security environment to pursue for a friendly and amenable regime in Afghanistan so that Pashtunistan issue was never raised and got subsumed within the large banner of Islamic identity. Pakistan directed Pashtun hostility to fighting against the Soviet Army under the rubric of political Islam. Because of the cultural affinities of the Sunni Muslim Pashtuns on the either side of the border, and through the influence of Pashtuns in the upper echelons of Pakistan’s army and bureaucracy, Pakistan’s Afghan policy tilted in favour of mujahedeen parties.

It is argued that to defuse Pashtun nationalism and exercise control over Pashtun mujahedeen, Zia discouraged the Afghan nationalists in exile to convene a loya jirga in Pakistan and form a unified command through which weapons could be channelled to fight the Jihad. Moreover, in order to spread its influence into the Soviet Republics of the Central Asian region, Pakistan trained Afghan groups and sent copies of the Koran across the border through them. An organisation named ‘Islamic Union of the Northern Peoples of Afghanistan’ was created in 1988 with purpose of infusing Pakistani influence into the Central Asian landmass more effectively.

The fact that Pashtunistan dominated Afghan foreign policy in the early 1960s despite the little support it enjoyed among the Pashtuns of Pakistan points to its geopolitical character. The demand for Pashtunistan, if conceded, would grant Afghanistan the most desired route to the Indian Ocean. Afghanistan for long has been in the look out of routes to reach out to the world market. However, Pakistan’s policy is to make Afghanistan overly dependent on it for market so that its influence there does not get diluted.

Accordingly, Pakistan has lent support to various radical religious groups to create an overarching Islamic identity displacing ethnic nationalism. Pakistani governments tried to undercut Pashtun nationalism even before the jihad in the 1980s. For example, it was in 1973 that the then Prime Minister Zulifikar Ali Bhutto provided sanctuary to Islamist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with a view to undermining the established government in Kabul. Pakistan also tried to create such an identity by propping up the Taliban during the Civil War period in Afghanistan. Later, Al Qaeda’s presence in its territory implicitly offered the Pakistanis the leeway to subsume the ethnic issue of Pashtunistan under the banner of Islamic jihad. It also raised the prospect of spreading jihad into the Central Asian states and that of enhancing the capability of Kashmiri insurgents. The ISI believed that it could effectively manage this new actor on the Afghan scene and maintain its dominant influence over the Taliban. Osama bin Laden’s presence and his eventual death in an American attack in Pakistan confirmed this fact.

The Taliban’s emergence needs to be put within the larger context of changed geopolitics in the Eurasian landmass. Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s and gave way to the emergence of six Central Asian states which were landlocked but rich with natural resources. With the perceived loosening of Indian ties and influence in the region after the dismantlement of its closest partner, Pakistan was eager to extend both trade and political ties to the region. This required stability in Afghanistan ripped apart by Civil War and local rule of the warlords.

Pakistan’s favourite Hekmetyar failed to subdue other ethnic forces in Afghanistan despite making repeated attempts and under these circumstances, the second democratically elected government of Benazir Bhutto, under its Interior Minister General Naseerullah Babur prepared the ground work to utilise the Taliban to bring stability to southern and eastern Afghanistan. He foresaw greater alignment between the American and Pakistani geopolitical interests in Afghanistan in terms of opening of trade routes and forging links with different resource-rich Central Asian states. The fact that the Taliban consisted of many members drawn from the Central Asian states rather than representing exclusively the Pashtun Afghans of the refugee camps in Pakistan point to its fabricated structure to suit Pakistan’s geopolitical interests.

Pakistan’s aspiration for an economic depth against India is palpable in its reluctance to allow its territory being used as a conduit for Indo-Afghan or Indo-Central Asian trade. Pakistan opposed Afghanistan’s membership in SAARC and has always taken advantage of its geo-strategic position in blocking the transfer of goods to its south-east. It has directed its policies to ensure Afghanistan’s dependence on a single entry point into the world through the port of Karachi. Maniappan Kutty, a driver working with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) project of building the Zaranj-Delaram highway was abducted and subsequently killed in 2005 and Kasula Suryanarayana, an Indian telecommunications engineer in the Zabul Province was killed in April 2006 by the Taliban are some of the examples of Pakistan’s covert designs in nullifying India’s objective of making Afghanistan a land bridge connecting South Asia with Central Asia.

The idea of economic integration of the South and Central Asian regions remains farfetched. Even the success of the Chinese mega initiative ‘One Road One Belt’ in this direction looks murky given continued instability in the Af-Pak region including the Chinese province of Xinjiang and Kashmir. Pakistan has shown enough interest in the Chinese initiative and raised a special security force for the protection of Chinese infrastructure and workers working in Pakistan. It is not surprising that Pakistan sees enormous gains from the project. However, the irony remains that the continuing instability in Pakistan has largely been of its own creation for promotion of its geopolitical interests and address the power asymmetry with India.

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Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously, he worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India. He taught Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and M.Phil. students.

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