By Rahimullah Yusufzai
May 23, 2020
A few days after the May 8 attack by Baloch separatists near the Pak-Iran border that caused the death of six Pakistani security personnel in the southwestern province, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa called his Iranian counterpart General Mohammed Bagheri and asked him to tighten his country’s borders.
The phone call was made before two more attacks on Pakistan’s security forces in Balochistan on May 19 in which seven soldiers lost their lives.
This would lend urgency to the contacts between the two neighboring Islamic countries for coping with the situation before it further strains their relations.
Bajwa in his phone-call expressed concern over the earlier attack and highlighted Pakistan’s desire for “regional peace and stability on the basis of mutual respect, non-interference and equality.” He told General Bagheri that Pakistan had started fencing the border but would require mutual bilateral cooperation to ensure border security and stem smuggling activities used by militants and narco-traffickers.
Reports in Pakistani media said Bajwa urged Bagheri to take action against the Pakistani Baloch separatists, who have allegedly set up bases in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province bordering Pakistan. The reports noted that Pakistan’s security agencies believe that Iranian intelligence services over the past few years have established contacts with Baloch separatists to counter Iranian militants, who allegedly have sanctuaries in Balochistan.
These developments have widened the trust deficit between the two countries. Each cross border attack is followed by fresh contacts as Islamabad and Tehran seek to highlight their concerns and demand action against the attackers.
Though Bajwa and Bagheri resolved to enhance security measures on their side of the border, this wasn’t the first time such a pledge was made. In the past too, the two neighbours agreed to put in place a number of border mechanisms, but despite improvements in the border security situation, the attacks have continued much to the discomfort of the two governments.
The ethnic Baloch insurgencies on both sides of the 909 km Pakistan-Iran border are benefiting from the mistrust between the two neighbours by exploiting the tension on the largely unchecked border.
For its part, Pakistan has raised a new paramilitary corps to effectively control the border with Iran. It is also erecting a border fence to check the movement of militants, smugglers and other criminals across parts of the Pakistan-Iran frontier. Additional funds of Rs3bn ($18.6m) were allocated in April for the construction of the fence despite Pakistan’s economic problems as the project is considered essential for the country’s security.
The May 8 attack claimed by the outlawed Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) took place in Buleda in Kech district in Balochistan’s Makran region– at a distance of about 14 km from the Iranian border. A vehicle of the paramilitary frontier corps patrolling the militant-infested area was blown up with a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) killing the six soldiers, including a major.
One of the subsequent militant strikes on May 19 claimed the life of another soldier in an exchange of fire with militants in Mand along the border with Iran in the same Kech district.
In the other attack, six soldiers lost their lives when an IED targeted a vehicle patrolling the Pir Ghaib area in Bolan district. The attack was claimed by the United Baloch Army, one of several banned militant groups seeking an independent Balochistan.
The militants have been attacking security and law-enforcement agencies in the low-intensity insurgency, more so since August 2006 when the elderly Baloch nationalist politician Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed in a military operation.
The militants are also targeting Chinese workers executing projects in Balochistan under the $60bn China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), including Gwadar port. They accuse China of helping the Pakistani state grab the resources of mineral-rich Balochistan, which is the largest but least populous province of Pakistan.
In the past, Tehran used to allege that militant groups Jundullah and Jaish al-Adl, made up of Iranian Sunni Baloch fighters, used Pakistani territory to launch attacks in Iran. On occasions, it fired into border areas in Balochistan to claim attacks against the insurgents and built a wall to partially secure its border. In April 2019, Pakistan forcefully protested to Iran that its soil was being used by the newly formed alliance of Pakistani Baloch separatists, Raji Aajoi Sangar, to undertake attacks in Balochistan after a militant assault in which about 20 gunmen waylaid buses on the Makran coastal highway and shot 14 security personnel dead.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi claimed Pakistan had evidence that the attackers had training and logistics camps inside Iranian border areas.
There are indeed other irritants in Pakistan-Iran relations as well, including Tehran’s complaint about Islamabad’s failure to complete work on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.
Most recently, there is friction caused by the coronavirus pandemic, when Pakistan alleged that Iran pushed nearly 5,000 Pakistani pilgrims across the border despite Islamabad’s request to wait until it was able to establish quarantine centres for them– further widening the trust deficit between the two countries.