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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.