Is Pakistan Being Dragged Into A Regional Sectarian War?

Army chief General Raheel Sharif meets with Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

Military operations against Taliban militants in North Waziristan give some hope for a much welcome change in direction in national security policy. Support for jihadi groups in Afghanistan, whether active or passive, resulted in blow back that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis. America learned the lesson on 9/11 of how the jihadi monster will turn on its patron, and now we too have suffered even more from the terrorists, but have we actually learned the lesson? While there may finally be action against Taliban militants in North Waziristan, there remains the question of support for jihadi groups in Kashmir. And now, there is increasing worry that the military is getting involved with a new regional war – one that threatens to be even more disastrous than we have ever witnessed.

Military action may have begun against Taliban militants in North Waziristan, but jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad continue to operate while security agencies turn a blind eye. This is often excused as a ‘necessary evil’ and the fault of India for being unrelenting and uncompromising in the face of the clear wishes of the Kashmiri people. In other words, as long as the jihadi groups goal is aligned with goals of the state, then they will be allowed free reign to carry out their activities. It is not Kashmir, however, but another facet of state security policy that should worry anyone hoping for peace in Pakistan.

Recent meetings between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been congratulated for bringing forth a new, stronger strategic security partnership between the two countries. While it is good for Pakistan to have security agreements with all countries, the timing and geo-political context of this new agreement is worrisome.

Reports that Saudi is seeking Pakistani weapons to supply to Syrian rebels presents quite a conundrum. On the one hand, the global community has more or less come to agree that Bashar al Assad’s regime is illegitimate. On the other hand, much like the war in Afghanistan, there are serious questions about whether arming rebel militants will actually make matter worse. Renowned Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote that ‘If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are’. Pakistan gains no advantage from involving itself in Syria, but it does risk a serious disadvantage.

While Assad may be a tyrant who deserves to be unceremoniously deposed, the fact is that the conflict in Syria has taken on a sectarian colour due to Assad’s belonging to the Alawite sect of Shi’ism in a majority Sunni country. A UN report found that the conflict has become ‘overtly sectarian‘ in nature.

The sectarian nature of the conflict is fueled in part by military support for the Assad regime on the part of Iran, who wishes to prevent the rise of another Sunni regime in the region. Ironically, by repressing the political will of the Sunni majority, Iran is actually fueling the very sectarian resentment it fears.

Saudi, for its part, has not suddenly come to unease with authoritarianism, but wishes to see the rise of a Sunni regime in Syria under its influence. This serves two purposes for Saudi – Most obviously to expand their influence in the region, but also, in doing so, to reduce the influence of Shia Iran who it sees as a challenge to Wahhabi hegemony. What is taking place in Syria can largely be understood as a sectarian proxy war. With a population of around 40 million Shia, Pakistan stands to gain nothing from involving itself in such a fight. We do, however, stand to lose much.

Pakistan already suffers from sectarian violence. Sectarian jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been carrying out what many believe amounts to a Shia genocide, killing thousands of innocents based only their sect. According to a report by Pak Institute for Peace Studies, sectarian violence increased last year, killing 658 and injuring 1,195. Till date, the problem of sectarianism has largely been viewed as an internal matter, but recent events point to a dangerous possibility that Pakistan is getting dragged into a new regional sectarian war.

Earlier this month, Jaish al-Adl released photos of five Iranian border guards they have captured and are trying to ransom for the release of 300 Sunni prisoners held in Iran and Syria. This is not the first time that Jaish al-Adl militants have attacked Iranian border guards, prompting Iran to threaten to carry out military actions inside Pakistan if necessary to maintain regional security.

Clearly, Iran is concerned that Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to address the growing problem of sectarian violence within its own borders threatens to become a regional concern. This fear will only be reinforced by the numerous reports of meetings between COAS Gen Raheel Sharif and Saudi Arabia’s military and political leadership. Meanwhile, Iran’s announcement that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is traveling to New Delhi to a ‘new chapter’ in relations with India is certain to be met with suspicion at GHQ.

Military operations in North Waziristan are necessary, but they are not sufficient to solve the problem of militancy in Pakistan. More to the point, they do nothing to address the growing problem of sectarian violence. That remains a critical national security issue that must be addressed internally. Meanwhile, it is crucial that Pakistan not allow itself to get dragged into a regional sectarian war – one that would result in violence unlike anything we have witnessed in recent years.

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