In an unprecedented escalation of hostilities amid rising tensions in the Middle East, neighbouring nations Pakistan and Iran engaged in reciprocal airstrikes. On January 18, Pakistan launched a series of “highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes” against alleged terrorist hideouts in the Sistan and Baluchistan province of Iran. Several terrorists were reportedly killed in the operation codenamed “Marg Bar Sarmachar”, the phrase loosely translates to ‘death to guerrilla fighters’.
The opening shot was made by Iran on January 16 when it conducted strikes on Pakistan’s Balochistan province, killing two children and wounding several others, according to Pakistani authorities.
Marg Bar is a Persian phrase which means “death to”–historically used in the anti-American slogan “Marg bar Amrika” during Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the Baloch language, “sarmachar” translates to guerrilla. The sarmachars or insurgents referred to here are militants belonging to the separatist groups Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).
The BLA and BLF are ethno-nationalist militant organisations that operate from within parts of ungoverned Iran against the interests of Pakistan. With a majority of their members being drawn from the Marri and Bugti tribes of the Balochistan plateau, the group has been spearheading insurgency against Pakistan since the 2000s, and has been behind several violent attacks in the country.
What is the border conflict?
The attacks this week mean that both countries have now taken up attacking militants on each other’s soil along its 900-kilometre border. The Baloch people are the indigenous inhabitants of the land where three countries–Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran–meet. The Baloch people have historically resisted being ruled by both Islamabad and Tehran, with insurgencies bubbling across the porous border for decades.
The Sistan and Baluchistan province of Iran is characterised by its significant poverty and deprivation. In recent years, it has faced severe challenges such as droughts and extreme weather conditions. This province exhibits Iran’s lowest statistics in key areas, including life expectancy, adult literacy, primary school enrollment, access to clean water and sanitation, and infant mortality. But the region is also rich in natural resources and Baloch separatists complain that their people, some of the region’s poorest, have benefited little from its resources.
How is Pakistan responding to the Balochistan insurgency?
The Baloch insurgency in Pakistan has implications for stability across South Asia. Aside from the historical grievances of political and economic subjugation, the construction of the Gwadar mega port, expanded natural gas exploration, the war in Afghanistan, and the military’s harsh response to nationalist demands have fueled the insurgency.
On August 13, 2023, two BLA militants attacked a convoy of Chinese engineers in Gwadar. A spokesman for the BLA claimed four Chinese nationals and nine Pakistani soldiers were killed in the attack. This led to security restrictions being placed in Gwadar.
Pakistan on January 18 said that in recent years, it had expressed concern to Iran about the “safe havens and sanctuaries” of Pakistan separatist fighters in the country. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said that it had shared evidence of the presence and activities of these militants, but “because of a lack of action on our serious concerns, these so-called sarmachars continued to spill the blood of innocent Pakistanis with impunity.
This morning’s action was taken in light of credible intelligence of impending large-scale terrorist activities”.
Pakistan said it “fully respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and that the sole objective of this strike was “in pursuit of Pakistan’s own security and national interest which is paramount and cannot be compromised”.
Who are the Baloch militants operating in Iran?
The Baloch militants in Pakistan operating against the interests of Iran are members of three different groups: Jundullah, Jaish-ul Adl, and Harakat Ansar Iran. Their stated goals include the independence of Sistan and Baluchistan.
Jaish-ul Adl, which means “Army of Justice”, attacked a police station in Rask on December 15, 2023, killing 11 police officers. Iran called the January 16 attack on the Jaish al-Adl group’s headquarters in Pakistan “another decisive step taken by Iran in response to the aggression against the security of our country”.
How have the countries responded to the cross-border attacks?
Iranian security forces have launched numerous rocket attacks at the Pakistani towns of Panjgur and Mashkil in Balochistan over the years. Iranian border forces, in some instances, targeted civilians with mortars and direct gunfire in districts like Kech, Panjgur, Musakhel, and Washuk.
Pakistani authorities confirmed multiple instances of Iranian border violations, with reports of rockets being fired around 11 to 12 times a month. Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch expressed his frustration over these cross-border attacks and called on the Pakistan government to address the issue.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said his country only targeted Iranian “terrorists” on Pakistan soil and that “none of the nationals of the friendly country of Pakistan were targeted by missiles and drones of Iran.”
Pakistan Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani firmly underscored that “the attack conducted by Iran inside Pakistani territory, on January 16, 2024, was not only a serious breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty but was also an egregious violation of international law and the spirit of bilateral relations between Pakistan and Iran.”
Why are Iran and its allies continuing to attack neighbours?
The January 16 strikes came after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched ballistic missiles allegedly targeting a Mossad base in Erbil, Iraq, and “anti-Iran terror groups” in Syria. Iran said this was in retaliation to Israeli attacks that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders. It also claimed that the targets in Syria were involved in the recent dual bombings in the city of Kerman during a memorial for the slain Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani that left scores dead and wounded. The international terror group ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on the Soleimani memorial.
Iran’s proxies in the region have also launched attacks on Israeli forces and its allies. Houthi rebels have launched a series of attacks on commercial ships and Western military vessels in the Red Sea, a major artery for international trade. And Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria have launched dozens of attacks aimed at US military positions in those countries.
Following the Israeli offensive in Gaza, the militant group Hezbollah has engaged in daily confrontations with Israeli forces on the Lebanon-Israel border. On January 17, Israel’s military chief said the likelihood of war on the country’s northern border was now “much higher” and Israel was increasing its readiness for “fighting in Lebanon.”
Iran’s strikes on Pakistan sparked a diplomatic spat, with the latter recalling its ambassador and suspending all high-level visits from its neighbour. After Pakistan’s strikes, Iran demanded “an immediate explanation” from its neighbour.
Nearby nations have weighed in, with India saying it has “zero tolerance towards terrorism,” and that the attack was “a matter between Iran and Pakistan”. China urged both nations to exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions further. US State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said Washington DC was working to prevent the Middle East from erupting into full-scale conflict.
It is not clear if either Iran or Pakistan want to engage in full-blown hostilities over separatist groups that they both regard as an enemy. Both sides issued statements that hinted at a desire not to see things escalate.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry called Iran a “brotherly country” and emphasised the need to “find joint solutions.” This echoed the Iranian foreign minister, who called Pakistan a “friendly country” earlier this week and said their strikes were proportionate and only aimed at militants.”
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