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Pakistan-Iran Relations Under Imran Khan

 
 

The latest terror attacks that took place in Pakistan were in close proximity to the country’s Iranian and Afghan borders. This has raised questions in Pakistan’s policymaking circles about the unfolding security situation in the region, which may have consequences for the country if the border regions with Iran and Afghanistan remain vulnerable to incursions.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to Iran came in the wake of a terrorist attack in Balochistan that killed around 14 security personnel. Pakistan’s foreign office, in a scathing letter issued before Khan’s visit, told the Iranian embassy in the country that militants involved in the Balochistan attack came from Iran, where they have developed a permanent base. The dossier, which Pakistan issued to Iran’s embassy before Khan’s visit, showed that Islamabad takes the issue of cross-border terrorism, particularly in Balochistan, very seriously.

For Islamabad, the expansion of militant groups such as the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and a number of Baloch insurgent groups in Iran and Afghanistan is a clear threat to the country’s security. Authorities in Pakistan are very sensitive to the issue of Baloch dissenters finding sanctuaries anywhere in the region, which for Islamabad amounts to coordinated efforts at undermining Pakistan’s economic and security interests. For the past few years, Pakistan has been trying to fence its border along Afghanistan to contain cross border attacks. Reportedly, Pakistan also plans to fence its border with Iran as well. During Khan’s recent visit to Iran, Islamabad and Tehran agreed to raise a quick reaction force to prevent cross-border infiltrations. By all means, this is an encouraging development given that both countries bilateral relationship has remained tense for the past few years.

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However, arguably, this doesn’t address Pakistan’s security challenge in the medium- to long-run. Afghanistan is likely to remain Pakistan’s biggest security challenge in the coming months and years. With the United States’ impending withdrawal, the security situation in Afghanistan is expected to deteriorate further. Recently, Marvin G. Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute and myself discussed in the same space that the Taliban have no major incentive in making an agreement with the U.S. or the Afghan government. In this context, a number of insurgent groups such as the TTP, are also going to be the beneficiaries of the worsening security situation in Afghanistan. Moreover, the expansion of the Islamic State in Afghanistan is another challenge that Pakistan should be concerned about. Over the last few years, the Islamic State has made significant gains in Afghanistan and the group’s violent ideology, which is inspiring attacks worldwide, is not only a threat for Pakistan but also for the entire region.

Instability in Afghanistan will additionally have costs for Pakistan’s plans to revive its economy via  economic ventures with China. This worries policymakers in Islamabad: a volatile Afghanistan doesn’t sit well for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which requires stability and security in the region, particularly in Afghanistan.

The looming instability in the region has led Pakistan to give reconciliation with India another chance. Beyond February’s military theatrics and the ongoing information warfare between India and Pakistan, there appears some willingness on both sides to open serious negotiations. Its simplistic to argue that Pakistan has not done anything to contain extremist networks of all forms. With all existing political and communal constraints, Pakistan has come a long way when it comes to tackling radical groups that stand to gain from the ongoing predicaments in the region.

In the coming months and years, there will be more action coming out of Pakistan concerning tackling groups that are undermining the state’s interests and policies. In Islamabad, the understanding in this regard is very simple: If Pakistan as a state wants to make peace with any country or change an existing policy, no religious or political group should be able to dictate policies to the state. However, for Pakistan, a challenge still exists with convincing the international community that the country has made strides in combating terrorism and, furthermore, that it has genuinely integrated the terrorist threat into its foreign and security policy.

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