When three neighbours unite
Pakistan shares borders with four nations, of whom, three have unequivocally accused Pakistan of direct sponsorship of terrorism and becoming, the 'haven for terrorists'. Pakistan has restive borders of 3323 km with India in the East, 2430 km with Afghanistan in the North and 909 km with Iran in the West – each of whom has accused Islamabad of harbouring and encouraging elements that are inimical to the interest of these three countries.
India's grudge against the Pakistani complicity in terror has been historical and consistent for many years. But the more recent stand-off and a diatribe by President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, chorusing the common frustration against Pakistan, has now been mirrored in blunt terms by Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the chairman of the Iran's Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS). "We expect Pakistani officials to control the borders, arrest the terrorists and shut down their bases," Bagheri said. "If the terrorist attacks continue, we will hit their safe havens and cells, wherever they are." This is a unveiled threat, eerily reminiscent of the 'surgical strikes' that were forced upon Pakistan by its continuing insincerity, duplicitousness and patronisation of 'terror nurseries' (an expression that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had used while inaugurating the new Afghan Parliament building in Kabul in 2015).
Ironically, the now-irate political leadership in all three neighbouring nations had started on a clean slate, around the same time. In May 2014, Prime Minister Modi's decision to invite his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony was hailed as the 'right decision at the right time' to soothe the frayed nerves on the Line of Control. Later in September 2014, the incoming President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani attempted a complete U-turn in the established ground rules by trying to bury the hatchet and change the tenor of open hostility and accusations that defined the Af-Pak relationship during the 13-year tenure of the outgoing Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. Earlier still in 2013, Tehran had seen a change of guard from the hawkish hardline stand of Ahmadinejad to the more moderate, liberal (read, less sectarian) and pragmatic Hassan Rouhani. Pakistan had reciprocated then by refusing to send troops to Yemen as part of the 'Sunni Coalition', funded by Iran's traditional nemesis, Saudi Arabia.
Since then, the initially thawing narrative vis-à-vis Pakistan has regressed into the familiar cold freeze with all three i.e. India, Afghanistan and now Iran, accusing Pakistan of the same thing – i.e. aiding, abetting and harboring terror groups that are 'neighbour facing' (e.g. Lashkar-e-Taiba for India, Taliban for Afghanistan and Jaish al-Adl for Iran), inaction on known operatives and facilitating the border 'shoot-and-scoot' wherewithal for these terror groups. India faces the daily risk of terrorists slipping across the LoC with Pakistani 'cover fire'. Meanwhile, the imperious concept of 'strategic depth' for Pakistan in Afghanistan irks the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to lament, "One of the key figures in the Taliban movement recently said if they didn't have a sanctuary in Pakistan, they wouldn't last a month".
The Iranians are also facing similar Balochi and Ahwazi insurgencies that have its benefactors in the Pakistani establishment. The Iranian Military chief Maj Gen Mohammad Hossein Bagheri was earlier the Deputy of Iran's intelligence and operations, which makes him familiar with the asymmetric and devious track-record of the Pakistani machinations. Expectations from the Iranian Military Chief sworn in last year was alluded to in the decree from Ayatollah Khamenei. "You are expected to oversee an upgrade to [Iran's] military and security capabilities and the readiness of its armed forces and the popular Basij, and to improve their ability to respond in a timely fashion to any threat against the Islamic Republic at any level, using revolutionary determination," the Ayatollah wrote. It was an implied nudge to Bagheri, a veteran of extraterritorial operations and the supposed theoretician of the Iranian 'threat for threat' tactic, manifested in the unprecedented outburst aimed at the Pakistanis, recently. The incident that triggered the Iranian Chief's ire was the cross-border terror attack by the Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl ('Army of Justice'), which left 10 Iranian soldiers dead in its wake. Iran accuses Pakistan of supporting this terror group – who had earlier claimed responsibility for terror attacks in 2015 that killed eight Iranian Border Guards and fourteen in 2013. The Iranian police investigating the latest incident stated that the terrorists had used long-range weaponry and that, "Pakistan bears the ultimate responsibility for the attack".
Pakistan's rote refugee accompanying any cross-border terror attack of blaming 'non-state-actors' has lost its moral currency and credibility, globally. Recently Pakistan aggravated its ongoing disharmony with Afghanistan when it claimed to have killed 50 Afghan border troops and destroyed five posts across the Af-Pak border – no amount of platitudes and homilies like "sadness" at having to attack Afghans, "as they are our Muslims brothers", cuts ice in either Kabul or Tehran. Islamabad's sole investment in its 'all-weather-friendship' with Beijing, is fraught with increasing risks from all other sides, as the remaining three border nations contiguous to its geography are in an unusually aggressive mood. Ashraf Ghani had virtually closed doors on Pakistan and turned down an invitation to visit, Modi has made his mind known, and now the Iranians have converged to add that Iran, "cannot accept the continuation of this situation".
Tehran issued a cutting statement against the Janus-face of Islamabad, after Pakistan joined the sectarian grouping of 39 Sunni countries ('Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism'), under the operational leadership of former Pakistani Chief of Staff, General Raheel Sharif, and Iran stated incredulously, "Countries which seek to join anti-terrorist coalitions must answer how they are incapable of countering armed bandits and terrorist groups on their own soil" – echoing a very familiar sentiment that Kabul and Delhi routinely posit at the Pakistanis. Unsurprisingly, Iran, India and Afghanistan are strategically converging on various geopolitical, economic and security domains that willy-nilly tighten the strategic noose around Pakistan. The common grouse amongst the three surrounding neighbours is one of Islamabad consistently falling shorts of its commitments. The cold optics of the reciprocal summoning of the Ambassadors posted at both Tehran and Islamabad was symbolic of the regional isolation of Pakistan, and the emerging grouping of the three anti-Pakistan nations.