The assault this week on Mehran Naval Air Base in Karachi that left at least a dozen soldiers dead and destroyed anti-submarine/ marine surveillance aircraft is the strongest evidence to date that Pakistan is losing the battle against home-grown militants. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani described this latest attack by the Pakistani Taliban as a “cowardly act of terror”. While I certainly don’t condone the militants’ actions, as someone with 23 years military experience, I can say without reservation that last night’s raid was hardly cowardly. Unlike previous attacks, the Pakistani Taliban did not detonate a vehicle borne explosive device or take a few pot shots and run away. They staged a direct ground assault on a secure military installation. An operation of that nature takes supreme confidence, good organization and a healthy dose of fearlessness.
This is an extremely alarming development, especially given that Pakistan’s military installations have been on high alert since the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad earlier this month. Because, if the country’s security forces can’t stop insurgents from penetrating a well-fortified military base, why should anyone believe they can defend the nation’s nuclear assets against terrorists? It is more important than ever now that we examine the goals and motives of Pakistan’s insurgent groups and how the pursuit and/or realization of those goals would impact western interests in the region.
Islamabad is currently battling two significant home grown insurgent groups, both of which are trying to overthrow the state; the Pakistani Taliban and Baluch rebels in Baluchistan province (Pakistan’s largest and most resource rich). Though born in different eras and political climates, both insurgencies are, at their heart, ethnic rebellions against a central government and army dominated by ethnic Punjabis and Sindhis.
In my capacity as a security advisor in the region, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many ethnic Pashtun from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt; the breeding, recruiting and training ground for the Pakistani Taliban. The overwhelming majority of Pashtun I’ve encountered have felt hard done by the Durand line; the 1893 British drawn border which currently separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. The Durand line divided the Pashtun tribes between the two countries and it has long been a Pashtun dream to see it abolished and their homeland reunited as a nation in its own right—Pashtunistan. The Baluch rebels also desire to create their own nation by ending what they see as the illegal occupation of native Baluch lands by Pakistan and neighbouring Iran.
How could Pashtun and Baluch nationalist agendas impact western interests in the region and beyond? The answer pivots greatly on geo-political loyalties. There are currently two superpowers vying for hegemonic influence over Pakistan; China and the United States. While Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has been steadily declining, Beijing’s has been on the up, thanks to military cooperation and China’s development of an energy corridor through Pakistan. At present, China is Islamabad’s closest ally. Indeed some of the hostages taken during last night’s siege on Mehran Naval Air Base were Chinese “maintenance” workers (at least, that’s how Pakistan’s Interior Minister described them).
The jewel in the crown of China’s energy conduit through Pakistan is the deep water port in Gwadar, Baluchistan (which some analysts believe may double as a Chinese naval base). The development of this port has done little to benefit ethnic Baluch in the province and has even dispossessed many of their ancestral lands. Baluch rebels have plenty of reasons not to like Beijing. So should they get their longed-for homeland, it is entirely possible they’ll turn West toward their future, not East.
You only need to look at an atlas to see the potential benefits of a western-friendly Baluchistan. It would cement western hegemony in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf by moving Gwadar firmly into western-friendly hands, and help physically contain Iran (which has arms and energy deals with Beijing).
The potential benefits of Pashtun nationalism to the West are more difficult to gauge. On the downside, an independent Pashtunistan could become a haven for al-Qaeda foreign fighters and its formation would undoubtedly escalate the decades-long civil war in Afghanistan (the southern and eastern Afghan provinces are ethnically Pashtun). Furthermore, there’s a possibility that an independent Pashtunistan would fall into Beijing’s orbit given that China has already made significant economic inroads into Pashtun parts of Afghanistan.
Even so, many Pakistani and Afghan Pashtun warlords hunger for an independent homeland and western support of Pashtun nationalist ambitions could very well set the stage for a peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban; a necessary pre-condition for the full withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan; a development the United States, Britain and other coalition forces would welcome with open arms.
While there are certainly plenty of geo-political scenarios to ponder, the fate of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal eclipses all other considerations. After last night’s attack, anyone who doesn’t believe that the country is heading for a Yugoslavia-style, ethnic civil war is burying their head in the sand. The global community can no longer take Islamabad’s word for it that Pakistan’s nukes are one hundred percent secured, especially the tactical nuclear weapons that were test-fired last month. Not only is it in the West’s interest to do everything possible to force Pakistan to open its nuclear facilities to outside inspection, it is in China’s interests as well. Because though Washington and Beijing may have competing agendas in Pakistan, if the country’s nukes fall into rogue hands, East and West could end up paying a terrible price.