Can Iran and Pakistan avoid the trap of falling into a deadly cycle of tit-for-tat that will cause great harm to both countries? Following the January 16 missile and drone strikes by Iran at the bases of the terrorist outfit, Jaysh al-Adl in Panjgur, Balochistan, Pakistan retaliated with an air strike in Saravan, Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province on January 18.
Tehran says the terrorist outfit of Iranian Balochis has carried out a series of deadly attacks against Iranian forces in Sistan-Baluchistan province. Pakistan said Iran’s missile and drone strikes killed two children and injured three girls.
Following Pakistan’s retaliatory air strikes in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, Islamabad claimed it had targeted terrorists belonging to the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF). It claimed a number of terrorists were killed. The Iranian media reported, quoting official sources, that the Pakistani air strike killed two men, three women and four children, all of them non-Iranians.
After these tit-for-tat attacks, officials of both countries issued conciliatory statements saying they did not want escalation. They also referred to the other as a “brotherly country”. The Iranians were more conciliatory using softer language both officially as well as in the media.
The two countries’ ambassadors also returned to their post on January 26. The Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian visited Islamabad on January 29 for talks with his Pakistani counterpart.
While Pakistan’s official statements were diplomatic, this was not the case with the media. The Pakistani media, especially the electronic media, is dominated by people who are on the payroll of the intelligence agency, the ISI. They simply parrot the line given to them by their paymasters.
Since Pakistan is under de facto martial law, the media dogs bark on orders from the army. Why the army would adopt such a harsh tone against Iran? It has become extremely unpopular as a result of the manner in which it ousted Imran Khan as prime minister on orders from the Americans. In order to recover its position, the army is acting belligerently in an attempt to appeal to the jingoistic sentiment of the people. Its media dogs are working overtime to promote this line but there appears little appetite among the masses for such a policy.
They are more focussed on how their mandate was stolen when the army overthrew Imran Khan’s government that had done quite well during its time in office. The army is now actively involved in denying the Pakistan Tehreek-i Insaf (PTI)—Imran Khan’s party—a fair chance in the February 8 polls. Despite a vicious anti-Imran Khan campaign to tarnish his image, the masses have not bought into this canard. Further, the cases against him are crumbling as prosecution witnesses either retract their statements or are unable to explain them when questioned by defence lawyers.
There are some 180 cases against Imran Khan, all of them bogus. The aim is to keep him tied down in these cases. He has already been barred from contesting the elections.
It is also interesting to note that while Pakistan’s strikes were carried out by the air force, it was the army chief Asim Munir who took credit. The media tirelessly promote him as a great warrior general a la Mahmood Ghaznavi or Salahuddin Ayubi. Munir is seen as a deviant character earning the epithet, “the deceiver”.
Both Iran and Pakistan have a laundry list of complaints accusing the other of supporting terrorist groups. In an interesting article in Dawn newspaper on January 19, Kiyya Baloch presented a detailed account of the terrorist groups’ activities as well as highlighted the plight of ordinary Baloch on either side of the border. She concluded her article by stating that both Iran and Pakistan need to address the development needs of their respective Baloch populations. Their grievances cannot be dismissed as propaganda, especially the plight of Baloch residing in Pakistan.
Hundreds of Baloch girls, mothers and men who had camped outside the Islamabad press club demanding information about their loved ones who have been missing for years, ended their sit-in on January 23. Announcing the end of their sit-in, Dr Mahrang Baloch, one of the organizers said: “We are not against the state, the state is against us,” adding that Baloch protesters had been trying to communicate with the authorities to find a solution to the issue of missing persons. She also blasted the political parties, saying that while election campaign was underway, no party had spoken out about the case of “missing persons”. They were picked up by Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
Some were murdered and their bodies dumped on the road side. Others are still missing yet successive governments have refused to provide any information. They simply parrot the army’s allegation that the missing persons are “terrorists”.
The Baloch protesters said if their loved ones have committed any crime, they should be charged and presented in a court of law to determine their guilt or innocence. The army—or more precisely the intelligence agency—refuses to countenance any such idea aware that the “missing persons” are not guilty of any crime. Their only crime is to ask for their basic rights.
In terms of the larger picture, while Iran and Pakistan have walked back from the brink, there are issues that may keep the crisis alive. Iran’s fundamental policy is to flush US forces out of the region. It sees US presence as the major source of instability. Tehran has reached out to neighbouring countries for joint security that will usher in peace and bring prosperity to the people.
The Pakistan army wants to bring more American troops into the region because it sees its institutional interests being served by the US military presence, regardless of how much damage this may cause to Pakistan.
The poor people of Balochistan on both sides of the border continue to pay the price of neglect. This is much more severe on the Pakistani side. That is the reason why so many Pakistani Baloch have gone to Iran in search of employment opportunities.
It is not unreasonable to expect that both Iran and Pakistan should pay attention to the development needs of their Baloch populations. Economic prosperity will help assuage their grievances and there will be less opportunity for outside powers to exploit them.