By Rustam Shah Mohmand
November 12, 2020
With Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif in Islamabad for talks on regional issues, one important subject that dominated talks between Islamabad and Tehran has no doubt been border control.
It is unlikely that the menace of an ever growing threat to peace in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province can be dealt effectively without Iran coming down hard on militants operating from its territory on the other side of the shared border. Without Iran coming on board completely, it is impossible to eliminate the threat of militancy in Balochistan.
The fact is, the Baloch insurgency has become more potent and more dangerous. This year has seen a sharp rise in the number of attacks launched by a host of militant outfits. Mostly, the targets are the security forces but civilians have also been killed in large numbers.
Balochistan has a long history of resistance against the government of Pakistan. One particular segment of disgruntled Baloch nationalists has been demanding complete independence, though this demand has not found much public support. Others have been clamoring for complete autonomy.
Despite being the largest province in terms of size, Balochistan is the country’s most underdeveloped. It is endowed with huge mineral resources including gas, oil, cobalt, copper etc., but a lingering economic backwardness has generated deep resentment against Islamabad and federal government institutions.
This sense of deprivation, of being regarded as unequal partners, has been a motivating factor in driving some of the youth to rise in rebellion against the prevailing order.
With the commencement of work on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor– which aims to connect Gwadar and Xinjiang province in China– the Baloch insurgency has received a boost, with many believing their province has not been given its share in the development of the port city, or in the contracts and services that CPEC has generated.
This creates an environment for the growth of anti-state feelings, and the separatists are tapping into this well of discontent.
Attacks on security forces and government installations have increased to tens of dozens in recent months. Some militant groups have joined hands in order to pool their resources—both manpower and equipment– to be able to launch lethal attacks particularly targeting security forces.
In the first six months of this year, as many as 67 attacks were launched against government forces. In more recent days there has been a spike. Those in the vanguard of this movement are organizations like Baloch liberation front, Baloch Republican army and some other groups.
As recently as Oct. 15, a deadly attack targeted a convoy of oil and gas staff being escorted by the security forces, where 13 members of the force and seven private guards died on a major highway. Similar deadly attacks have happened at regular intervals causing casualties of the frontier corps personnel as well as civilians.
This is alarming. Insecurity in parts of the province of Balochistan has become pervasive, and sooner or later, the government will have to address the root causes of Baloch grievances.
But the other dimension to this conflict, makes Zarif’s current visit crucial. Balochistan province shares a long border with Iran. Across the Pakistani border there are two million Baloch Iranians.
Militant groups like the Baloch liberation front and others have established their bases on the Iranian side of the border. After launching attacks, their volunteers cross over into Iran and enjoy the security of a safe haven.
On many occasions, Pakistan has raised the issue of Baloch separatists using Iranian soil for attacks on Pakistani security forces. No effective action has been taken by Iran to deny such safe havens to the militant groups. This failure to eliminate militant bases is either deliberate, or because of a lack of resources in the Iranian government.
This is a serious issue. One possible explanation for the inability of Iran to take decisive action against militants is the fear that any such action could cause problems with Iranian Baloch nationalists. In other words, in order not to cause annoyance to Baloch nationalists on its soil, the Iranian government is not able to take strong action against leaders of militant groups who use its soil to launch attacks against Pakistani installations and forces.
It is time Islamabad takes steps to prevail upon Tehran to rein in and stop the infiltration of militants– and to dismantle the bases of Baloch separatists. With the twin approaches of addressing the causes of mutiny on the one hand and seeking Iran’s help in destroying the cross border bases of militants, the security environment could be improved.
At stake is not only the security and peace of the area but also the viability and success of CPEC projects– a life-line for Pakistan.