Nov 5, 2014 | 10:15 GMT

6 mins read

Pakistan Fights Jihadists on Afghan, Iranian and Indian Borders

Pakistan Fights Jihadists On Afghan, Iranian and Indian Borders
(Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

The recent suicide bombing at the main border crossing between India and Pakistan does not portend any new jihadist threat to either country. The Nov. 2 attack — which follows attacks in Iran by Balochistan-based Pakistani jihadists — shows that jihadists, although weakened, are launching attacks across a wide area. Striking at the jihadists on Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan is necessary but insufficient; Islamabad will have to expand its campaign against the jihadists into the Pakistani core and into regions along its borders with India and Iran.

On Nov. 2, some 60 people were killed and 130 others wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up on the Pakistani side of the main Wagah border crossing with India during the daily flag-lowering ceremony held by Indian and Pakistani security forces. Multiple groups including Jundallah and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar — linked to both al Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan — have claimed responsibility for the attack.

Both Pakistani and Indian security agencies had intelligence on a possible attack on the crossing. India's foreign intelligence service, Research and Analysis Wing, reportedly issued a warning about an imminent threat to the flag-lowering ceremony on Oct. 15. This warning came after India's Border Security Force personnel spotted their Pakistani counterparts building new fortifications on roads leading up to the border, which they interpreted as a measure to pre-empt a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack. It is unclear whether or not India and Pakistan shared intelligence about the threat.

This attack occurred in a different atmosphere than the one that existed in late 2008, when India and Pakistan nearly went to war after Pakistan-based militants staged attacks in multiple locations in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, killing 164 people and wounding more than 300 others. Since April 2009, Pakistan has been on the offensive against jihadists based in its northwestern Pashtun areas, especially the tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan. Just this past spring, Islamabad sent its forces into the last remaining jihadist sanctuary of North Waziristan. In the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Stratfor explained how Pakistan-based jihadists and their supporters benefit from conflict between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan's Jihadists Weaken

Pakistan's military and intelligence offensive against jihadist forces on its soil has disrupted Pakistani jihadists and their transnational allies' plans to trigger an Indo-Pakistani conflict, which they could exploit in their efforts to weaken the Pakistani state and establish an emirate or caliphate in the southwest Asian nation. Despite the blows to the jihadists — including the Pakistani offensive and U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes — al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on Sept. 4 announced the formation of a new entity called al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Although India has been alarmed at the creation of a new jihadist structure committed to attacking its territory, a spokesperson for the group said its priority is striking in Pakistan. Moreover, the central al Qaeda leaders' U.S.-born spokesman Adam Gadahn released a video Oct. 21 in which he urged Pakistanis to redouble their fight to overthrow their government.

In his statement, al-Zawahiri said that it had taken al Qaeda's leaders two years to band together different jihadist factions into al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Already dealing with the successes of a competing transnational jihadist organization, the Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State, al Qaeda leaders hiding out in Pakistan have seen the Pakistani Taliban group called Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan fragment, in part because of internal rivalries, loss of leaders and the Pakistani offensive in North Waziristan. In response, al Qaeda sought to revitalize the South Asian jihadist base. However, the new group has not demonstrated any significant capabilities. A planned attack on the Karachi dockyards in September, in which the group tried to seize control of two Pakistani warships and strike at U.S. and Indian naval targets, failed.

The formation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has not reduced competition among jihadists in Pakistan. Moreover, the group has not helped the Pakistani jihadist system recover from disruptions caused by the Pakistani military's Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. Pakistani Taliban elements attempted an attack on two separate air bases in Balochistan province in August, but the attack failed. The last major attack the Pakistani Taliban carried out was on Karachi's international airport in June, when the North Waziristan offensive was already underway. The Nov. 2 suicide bombing at the Wagah border crossing is the first major attack since then.

That the jihadists have only been able to carry out one major attack in response to the operation in North Waziristan (now in its sixth month) underscores the weakness of the jihadist movement as a whole. That three separate Taliban splinter factions are claiming responsibility for the border crossing attack also highlights its internal divisions.

Jihadists Along Three Borders

The attack on the Indian border crossing came two weeks after Iranian forces conducted a cross-border operation against the Sunni Baloch rebel group Jaish al-Adl, which enjoys sanctuary in Pakistan's Balochistan province on the border with Iran and has attacked Iran security personnel. Similarly, it is well known that Afghan Taliban fighters have taken sanctuary farther north along Pakistan's western border — a situation that has been a sore point between Kabul and Islamabad. In recent years, as the Pakistanis have stepped up operations against their own Taliban, Pakistani Taliban members have taken sanctuary on the Afghan side of the border, from where they stage cross-border attacks. In essence, Pakistan's only border without a cross-border jihadist problem is its border with China, in Pakistan's extremely mountainous north — although anti-Beijing Uighur jihadists have taken sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal badlands before. 

These jihadist flare-ups on multiple borders at roughly the same time are not part of a coordinated effort among the various jihadist groups operating in Pakistan. Those striking at Iran have their own logic and timing related to the threat Tehran faces from the Islamic State on its western flank. Meanwhile, the Pakistani offensive against jihadists on its border with Afghanistan has led to their displacement across the country.

Pakistan must follow through on its offensive in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, which will not be easy. Border operations, however, will not be enough to seriously damage Pakistan's complex jihadist enterprise — a view shared by Lt. Gen. Khalid Rabbani, commander of the Peshawar-based 12th Corps of the Pakistani army who oversees the North Waziristan offensive. During a briefing on the operations, he said that intelligence-based operations throughout the country, particularly in Southern Punjab and Sindh (two provinces that border India and constitute the Pakistani core), would be necessary to eliminate terrorism.

The destruction of the jihadist facilities in Pakistan's tribal badlands, and the subsequent scattering of jihadists and their resources throughout the country, means that the next stage of Pakistan's fight against jihadists could take place in more densely populated areas. Many urban areas in the country's core between the Indian border and the Indus River could see more jihadist attacks at a time when Pakistani forces will be on alert on the country's three main borders.

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