Last month, an improvised explosive device in a vegetable market in Parachinar, Pakistan’s tribal city bordering three Afghan provinces, claimed at least 25 lives. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was in response to the killing of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) chief Asif Chotu and “to teach a lesson to Shiites for their support for Bashar al-Assad.”
This was not a first for Parachinar, in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region, which has seen sectarian violence earlier due to its sizeable Shiite population. It has also suffered due to its proximity to Afghan provinces known to be safe havens for the Afghan Taliban.
The Pakistani government has not been actively or even passively involved in the Syrian peace negotiations, or the battle going on inside the country. However, the Parachinar blast was a reminder that Syria has become a problem for Pakistan—a problem that needs to be addressed.
Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Interior, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, moved swiftly to order the National Counter Terrorism Authority chief to probe any security lapses that may have led to the blast. However, an aspect that has received little attention in the wake of the attack is how Iran and Saudi Arabia’s proxy war for influence in the region and their fight in Syria may be fueling sectarian violence in Pakistan.
The latest is that Iran is reportedly recruiting from Pakistan for its fight in Syria, particularly from Parachinar. Outfits like LeJ, who have been known to get funding from various sources in Saudi Arabia, have exported fighters from Pakistan to Syria in the past. Saudi Arabia and Iran are key players in Syria, and Pakistan, a Sunni-dominated country, has traditionally aligned itself with Saudi Arabia—a policy that has not gone down well with Pakistan’s Shiite population. Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran have tried to make space for themselves in Pakistan, with both Tehran and Riyadh funding religious seminaries to buy influence in the country. Islamabad has been caught in this tug of war between the two Middle East giants, and now the faceoff between the two states in Syria is having spillover effects in Pakistan.
It all started back in the 1980s when Pakistan teamed up with Saudi Arabia and the United States to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many analysts in Islamabad believe that Pakistan’s participation in the Afghan war in the 1980s and acting at the behest of Saudi Arabia has led Pakistan into this quagmire of sectarian strife and terrorist violence.
Two days before the Parachinar attack, pictures and videos of two fighters from Pakistan who were killed in the fighting in Syria were doing the rounds on social media. Their funeral was purportedly held in Iran. These photos and videos did not get any traction in the Pakistani media, but the fighters belonged to a group named Zeinabiyoun, reportedly controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Last year, the interior ministry of Pakistan outlawed another little-known organization Ansar-ul-Hussain which was doing similar recruitment work in the region.
A similar attack in the same market in Parachinar took place in December 2015, claiming 25 lives and injuring more than 60 others. That attack was claimed by the anti-Shiite LeJ, stating: “We warn … parents that if they don’t stop their children from ongoing (sic) conflict in Syria they should remain prepared for more such attacks.”
Pakistan has long borne the cost of its involvement in the Afghan war, both in dollar terms and human lives. It cannot afford to become embroiled in the Syrian war because it is simply too big a war. Fortunately, there has been a realization in Pakistani policymaking circles that the country cannot afford another Afghanistan-like situation, which was reflected in the parliament’s decision to stay away from the Yemen conflict. But Syria is very different in that it is not the Pakistani state that is facilitating recruitment of these fighters. It is, however, groups that have been overlooked in the past that are doing the recruitment. Parachinar and adjoining areas have become breeding grounds for fighters in Syria. Pakistan must act swiftly or it may become involved in another unending war.