The World Today for January 31, 2024

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Target Practice


Iran and Pakistan fired missiles and drones at each other this month ostensibly to kill separatists in Baluchistan, a region that straddles the two countries as well as Afghanistan. Iran aimed at bases used by Jaish al Adl, a Baluchi militant group. Pakistan targeted members of the Baluch Liberation Front.

Pakistan said the Iranians killed at least two children. Iranian officials claimed that Pakistan killed at least nine people, including four children. After the tit-for-tat strikes, the two countries made nice, saying the ambassadors that each side pulled from the other country would return to their respective embassies, while the Iranian foreign minister would travel to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in early February for high-level talks, reported the Christian Science Monitor.

And on Monday, Pakistan and Iran agreed to work together to improve security cooperation, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, all of this violence and talk of peace-making doesn’t mean much to residents of Baluchistan like Gulseema, the mother of Jahanzaib Muhammad Hassani, a tailor who was abducted from his home in Quetta, the capital of the region, in 2016, the Diplomat reported. The men who took him, men who activists say were military, told Gulseema he was being taken for interrogation for an hour. She hasn’t seen him since.

“It has been eight years now – haven’t they asked their questions,” she asked, sitting in a camp set up by activists to document the thousands of disappearances in Baluchistan. “Our entire family is destroyed after Jahanzaib’s abduction … What was his crime? He was a tailor. I don’t understand what my son did. I don’t know what to do anymore. No one listens to us.”

Baluchis have long maintained that the Pakistani and Iranian central governments have exploited the poor and sparsely populated region’s ample natural resources, while neglecting its economic development, the BBC wrote. Pakistani leaders have cracked down on Baluchi civil society, too, added the left-wing magazine Jacobin, which has fomented resentment. But the most serious allegations are those of torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, as detailed in reports and the stories of some of the families and from organizations attempting to document the cases.

For example, activists estimate about 7,000 people remain missing from the region in Pakistan, according to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), which staged a protest on behalf of the families in December and supported another in January, Al Jazeera reported.

Pakistani officials deny abducting, torturing or disappearing people in the region. But they do admit to being concerned about insurgent groups that have fought for an independent Baluchistan for ethnic Baluch areas in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and have targeted Iranian and Pakistani security officials for years, frustrating the latter countries. These groups have also repeatedly aimed at Chinese contractors working in the region, for example in August, when separatists targeted Chinese engineers, but who were unharmed, CNN reported.

Many Chinese companies operate in the region as part of the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $60 billion project that links China’s western Xinjiang region to Pakistan’s strategic Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea in Baluchistan with a network of roads, railways, pipelines and power plants.

It’s a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature global infrastructure program.

Regardless of those attacks, the violence in the region and the issue between Pakistan and Iran has remained mostly localized. Iran and Pakistan are generally on good terms, but both have blamed the insurgencies in the lawless border region as being fueled from abroad. For example, Pakistan has accused Iran of ignoring militants operating in its territory, while Iran has said militants in Pakistan have been receiving Israeli support, while Pakistan looks away.

Even so, the reasons for the strikes remain opaque.

Pakistan has border disputes with India and Afghanistan, but none with Iran. Yet Iran has made incursions into Pakistani territory in the past to suppress militants, to which Pakistan has not retaliated. That de-escalatory policy appears to have come to an end. The question is, why?

First, Iran also attacked sites in Iraq and Syria at the same time. Perhaps Pakistan, nuclear-armed and the second-largest Muslim country, did not want to be categorized with those two arguably failed states.

Second, Iran today appears weak internally and externally. Mass protests have been roiling the country since 2022 after a woman jailed for allegedly improperly covering her head died in the custody of the country’s “religious morality police.” Iranian authorities recently executed – by hanging – a 23-year-old leader of those protests, noted Time. Israeli cyberattacks have also crippled vital infrastructure in recent months, Al Jazeera reported. Late last year, an Israeli air strike killed a top commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards in the Syrian capital of Damascus, added the Guardian.

Analysts at Geopolitical Monitor argued that Iranian officials sought a conflict with Pakistan in order to bolster popular support for the government and shore up its image. However, picking a fight with Pakistan wasn’t the best way to accomplish a goal, a National Post op-ed argued. Iran is attacking its neighbors, supporting Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, militants in Jordan who recently attacked US military personnel and Houthi rebels disrupting trade off the coast of Yemen for similar reasons. Pakistan previously had been a neutral player in this drama. Now, analysts say, that might be changing.

Baluchis, meanwhile, say nothing is likely to change for them.


The Best Defense …


Israeli ministers and lawmakers attended a conference this week that called for the reestablishment of Israeli settlements and the relocation of the Palestinian population from the Gaza Strip, igniting condemnation and concerns from Israel’s international allies amid its ongoing war with Hamas, the Times of Israel reported.

Thousands of people attended Sunday’s conference in Jerusalem, called “Victory of Israel Conference: Settlement Brings Security.” The event saw speeches from far-right leaders, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir who called for “encouraging voluntary emigration” of Palestinians from Gaza.

Another minister, Shlomo Karhi, countered that the emigration need not be voluntary during wartime – referring to Israel’s current conflict with Hamas in the Palestinian enclave.

The war broke out following a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups that killed more than 1,200 people and saw the kidnapping of more than 240 people.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the conference’s agenda is not part of the government’s policy, he did not condemn the attendance of the cabinet members which raised eyebrows within Israel and abroad.

But ministers in the National Unity party – the center-right group that is part of Israel’s emergency war cabinet – condemned the conference as divisive and harmful to the country’s war effort.

Criticism also came from the United States, France and the United Kingdom over specific statements made by the senior officials involving the resettlement of Palestinians, and the countries urged the Israeli government to reprimand them.

Analysts said the involvement of government officials in the conference appears to contradict the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice over Israel’s actions in Gaza, according to the Guardian.

Last week, the court mandated Israel to “take all measures within its power” to avoid acts of genocide in its war in Gaza, including the “prevention and punishment of genocidal rhetoric,” World Politics Review added.

Unlocking Power


Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party agreed to end a long-running boycott that left the region without a power-sharing government for two years and raised fears about stability in the once-restive territory, the Associated Press reported.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson announced Tuesday that the party’s executives supported proposals to return to a power-sharing administration with the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein.

The move could potentially pave the way for the restoration of the Belfast government within days.

DUP walked out of the government in February 2022 amid disputes over new trade rules following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union in 2020. Those rules imposed customs checks and other hurdles on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The checks were meant to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open – a crucial aspect of the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence in the region. However, the DUP said the new customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK threatened its status within the union.

The boycott left the region without a functioning administration, creating challenges for decision-making amidst rising living costs and strained public services.

The decision to end the boycott follows months of inconclusive negotiations, as well as an ultimatum by the British central government to restore Northern Ireland’s legislature and local government or face new elections.

In his announcement, Donaldson said the DUP reached a series of agreements with the government in London, including measures to “remove checks for goods moving within the UK and remaining in Northern Ireland and will end Northern Ireland automatically following future EU laws.”

Even so, the DUP’s decision faced opposition from some hard-line unionists who fear compromising Northern Ireland’s status within the UK.

Meanwhile, the recent development comes amid changes in Northern Ireland’s political landscape following the 2022 legislative elections that saw Sinn Fein win most seats in the region’s legislature.

Sinn Fein’s President Mary Lou McDonald is set to become the region’s first minister, while the DUP will fill the post of deputy.

McDonald called the potential appointment of Northern Ireland’s first nationalist leader “a moment of great significance” that will bring a united Ireland closer to being.

Yet Not Crushed


Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi were jailed for 14 years on Wednesday having been convicted of corruption, the second sentence handed to the former prime minister in two days, the BBC reported.

A court had already sentenced the cricket star-turned-politician to 10 years in prison Tuesday on charges of exposing official secrets, the latest setback for the popular candidate in the run-up to elections next week, the Washington Post reported.

The allegations revolved around Khan’s disclosure in early 2022 of a confidential diplomatic cable, in which the former prime minister claimed the United States was involved in attempts to remove him from power.

In April 2022, lawmakers passed a no-confidence motion that ousted Khan from office.

Even so, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party called the verdict a “sham” and said it would appeal it.

The party also accused Pakistani authorities and the powerful military of deliberately rushing the sentencing to coincide with the most intense phase of campaigning ahead of the Feb. 8 general election.

Before the ruling, Pakistan’s caretaker government implemented a series of measures restricting the PTI during its campaign, including a court order to remove the party’s recognizable cricket bat symbol from ballot papers.

The government has defended its actions as legal and necessary to maintain stability

Even so, analysts noted that efforts of the country’s ruling establishment have not dented Khan’s widespread popularity, warning that the recent conviction  “could stoke unpredictable tensions.”

With Khan barred from running, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appears most likely to become Pakistan’s next leader. Sharif was ousted in a military coup but returned in October from self-imposed exile in Britain after rebuilding trust with the army.


A Shark Check

Artistic depictions and recent popular culture have described the megalodon shark as a leviathan-sized predator that terrorized Earth’s oceans tens of millions of years ago.

But a new study suggested it was nothing like the great white shark on steroids portrayed in the recent “The Meg” movie franchise, New Atlas reported.

Co-author Mikael Siversson and his team highlighted discrepancies between the commonly accepted portrayal of megalodons and the actual evidence gleaned from fossilized remains.

Because the ancient predator’s skeletal remains are made of cartilage there are scarcely any fossilized parts – except for a few vertebrae and their teeth – the latter about the size of an adult human hand.

The only way scientists could estimate the creature’s size and shape is based on comparisons with living sharks, such as the great white, the team explained.

For their research, they focused on a fossilized vertebral column discovered in Belgium, which provided valuable insights into the ancient shark’s anatomy.

Using measurements from the spinal column and comparing them with data from great white sharks, researchers proposed that the megalodon’s size was around a little more than 30 feet. However, the actual length of the spinal column, measuring more than 36 feet, suggested that the extinct animal was likely longer and slenderer than the stockier great whites.

Still, Siversson cautioned that the findings don’t reveal anything about other anatomical parts, such as the fins or tail.

“Going forward, any meaningful discussion on the anatomy of this shark other than the size and robustness of the jaws would require the discovery of more-or-less complete skeletons,” he added.

Correction: In Monday’s DISCOVERIES section, we said in our “State of Tun” item that scientists exposed tardigrades to high levels of oxygen peroxide. It is in fact hydrogen peroxide. We apologize for the error.

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