Monday, February 19, 2007

Recent Events in Pakistan: A Brief Comment

It is very difficult to connect events occuring in the Pakistani context to macroscopic trends. It is something that one must do only sparingly.

I wish to comment in the most limited possible way on a few recent events which speak to one particular macroscopic issue. I am not rushing to call this a trend but merely a noticeable pattern.

First a few key historical notes about heroin trafficing routes into Pakistan. Per international estimates, there are three main routes for trafficing drugs from Afghanistan to Pakistan; Jalalabad-Parachinar, Kandahar-Quetta and Helmand-Balochistan. The details of these routes can be found in a number of publications but they are not particularly relevant here.

A separate route from Baluchistan takes narcotics via the Iran-Pakistan border to refineries in the Middle East. The Iran Pakistan border region has four-five major transit points and periodically reports surface of clashes between narcotics trafficers and the Iranian revolutionary guards units manning the border. You may have heard about recent clashes at one of these points that left a large number of casualties in the IRGC.

Another route takes narcotics from Pakistan via the international shipping lanes to various places in the world. The exit point of this is believed to be near Karachi. You may have heard about recent interdictions of large quantities of opiates by US led naval forces in the Arabian sea. The ships in each case came from Pakistanis ports. It is also believed by some that route travels by the sea from Karachi to India.

A third route allegedly leaves Pakistan via the India-Pakistan border and enters North India. North India is both a local market and a transhipment point to Europe, South East Asia and Africa. You all may also recall reading news items recently about the arrest of several NRIs in Punjab, these people were believed to be trafficing heroin and other narcotics to Canada. There were also reports of a route opening up via the Srinagar Muzzafarabad route that was opened recently. You may have heard of attacks on passengers on those buses.

To put not too fine a point on it, the Samjhauta express forms a vital link along this drug route. I am not saying that there is no transit at places like Barmer, Bikaner, Akhnoor etc... but the volume cross via the Samjhauta express is believed to be quite in excess of the other routes. The Samjhauta Express is also a way for large quantities of other smuggled goods, from commericial items like medicines to drug related intermediaries like Acetic Anhydride, to go from India to Pakistan. The flow of goods in the other direction in someway balances the flow of drugs from Pakistan to India. As you probably expect the trade along this route is often underwritten with fake Indian rupees printed in ISI controlled presses in Pakistan.

The poor muslims who travel on this line are often used as couriers in this illegal trade and whoever dominates this trade effectively dominates a number of local economies in Pakistan especially in vital things like medicines. This trade plays a crucial role in stablising India Pakistan relations, and India has only closed the Samjhauta express down in periods of extremely high India-Pakistan tension. This gesture on the Indian side has almost always been accompanied by public and private threats from Indians to Pakistan to completely shut down the flow of acetic anhydride from India to Pakistan. A move that never seems to fail to rattle people inside Pakistan. Pakistani submissive gestures follow almost instantaneously and not long after this any residual rebelliousness on their side ebbs.

The consequences of a blast on the Samjhauta express are obvious. There are going to be increased security checks and that means any smuggled goods are going to face greater risks of discovery. Also a number of potential couriers are going to be discouraged from travelling on the train. The result will be a disruption in the trade route. A similar disruption can also be assumed to occuring on the Pak-Iran border after the latest round of clashes there. So in sum, the last two weeks we have seen major disruptions along key drug trafficing routes out of Pakistan.

It is too early to comment on the impact of this and while it is certainly plausible that any number of groups inside Pakistan might see potential extortion opportunities from disrupting these trafficing routes, it is by no means certain. A detailed examination of the modus operandi is necessary without which the topic remains too sensitive to survive commentary.

Needless to say that any loss of life in acts of terrorism is extremely regretable and instantly becomes a personal burden on the leadership of India and Pakistan, but it is especially disheartening to see people travelling from India to Pakistan, get hurt.

It is painful to see traders, even illegal ones, going from India to Pakistan, without doubt people we were supposed to protect, get hurt in this way. In that sense, though the dead are predominantly Pakistanis, this event wounds us more than it wounds the Pakistanis, after all these were Pakistanis who had a extremely vested interest in India-Pakistan peace!

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