Balochistan trapped in geopolitical flames of Pakistan, Iran

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Balochistan trapped in geopolitical flames of Pakistan, Iran

Sunday, 28 January 2024 | Makhan Saikia

Balochistan trapped in geopolitical flames of Pakistan, Iran

The Baloch crisis has recently gained global attention due to cross-border military strikes between Pakistan and Iran. The Baloch people’s identity is rooted in the Baloch tribe, with a history of resistance. Amid geopolitical complexities, the Baloch people’s desire for justice remains a significant challenge in the region

The Baloch crisis once again came to the limelight this month. It all happened because of cross-border military strikes by Pakistan and Iran in each other’s territories. However, the military intervention in their neighbours’ boundaries is largely termed as simply targeting Baloch terror targets. What surprises the international community is that, with a bloody war between the state of Israel and Hamas entering more than three months since October 7 last year, the emerging conflicts between Iran and Pakistan might trigger a new zone of tension in Asia.

Iran launched a missile attack on Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan on January 16. Iran attacked the alleged strongholds of the militant group called Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) in Baluchistan. Precisely, a wider war in West Asia does not guarantee security to Iran. However, it may happen that Tehran gets some temporary outlets to flex its military muscles and warn its counterparts at the same time. The day before the strikes on Pakistan, Iran also launched ballistic missiles at Syria and Iraq. Sources confirmed that Iran was only targeting anti-Iran groups and active spy bases for Israeli forces in these countries.

Meanwhile, Washington is trying to prevent Iran-backed Houthi attacks on ships passing through the Red Sea. This occurred shortly after the Israel-Hamas war started, with the aim of stopping ships heading towards the ports in Israel. The Houthi rebels, who now control more than half of Yemen and the capital city of Sanaa, are a Shia Muslim group fighting against the Saudi-UAE sponsored Hadi Government in exile since 2011, at the onset of the historic Arab Spring. Their conflict with the Saudi-backed Yemeni Government has brought them closer to Iran. However, it is not entirely accurate to say that the Houthis are direct proxies of Iran, as they are largely dominated and guided by locally defined interests. The Houthis are attacking ships in the Red Sea as retaliation against Israel’s ongoing war against the Palestinians.

Pakistan’s retaliatory military strike inside Iranian territory has heightened regional tension in West and Central Asia. Pakistan states that it conducted military strikes in Sistan and Baluchistan provinces of Iran solely to target the bases of two Baloch terror groups and their camps. The separatist groups that the Pakistan Army focused on were the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) based in these areas. According to reports from Iranian media houses, the Pakistani operation resulted in the deaths of nine people, including women and children. However, Islamabad claims that it targeted and killed a few Baloch terrorists.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry officials have asserted that they have already informed Iran about the presence of Baloch separatists and their activities in the country, but no actions have been taken against the rebels so far. Consequently, Pakistan justifies its military actions in Sistan and Baluchistan provinces of Iran.

What do these separatists want? The main aim of the Baloch separatist groups is to break their province away from Pakistan. This separatist insurgency has been ongoing for more than 75 years since 1948. To them, the central government based in Islamabad exploits their resources, and in return, the Baloch people are not adequately rewarded. Initially, BLF cadres targeted gas projects, infrastructural projects, and central security agencies, but now they have expanded their operations beyond Baluchistan. They also attack Chinese projects and their workers in the province, despite the security guarantee offered to China by the Pakistan military.

Baluchistan has a long history of resistance and is not aligned with what Islamabad and Rawalpindi do. It is the largest province of Pakistan located in the western part, possessing significant resources both in reserve and in use. Unfortunately, it is the least developed area of the country, comprising almost 44 per cent of the total landmass of Pakistan. However, the reality is that most of its lands are arid and largely uninhabited. It has a distinct cultural and historical identity within and outside Pakistan. Its people are spread across three sovereign nations today — Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Thus, the problem lies in the coordination and realisation of these three nations about the future of the Baloch people and their continued struggle to maintain their distinct regional identity.

The very identity of Baluchistan stems from the Baloch tribe, which has inhabited the area for centuries. Nearly 10 million Baloch people reside in the region, encompassing lands in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The majority of them live in Baluchistan, with some residing in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Although clear data is not readily available, historically, areas traditionally claimed as indigenous lands by the Balochs were either occupied or under the control of the Persians and the British Empire.

The real tragedy is that the southeastern part of Iran and the western areas of Pakistan, where the Baloch people inhabit, are the most impoverished parts of both countries. Another potential threat on both sides of the border is that they live in a porous and dangerous territorial tract, which automatically facilitates unhindered movements of the ordinary Baloch people and especially their separatist groups. Of course, strict surveillance systems are installed by Iran and Pakistan in these borderlands.

The crucial question is whether the Baloch people will receive justice. A high-handed military, known as the “Deep State” of Pakistan and often referred to as a “state within a state”, is well aware of the intricacies of the issue. Politicians in that country will likely play a minimal role in resolving the Baloch crisis. For decades, it has been the all-powerful Rawalpindi that has dominated the Baloch dialogue.

The relationship between the Baloch people and the ruling military and political elite of Pakistan has been fraught for a long time. For over two decades, Pakistan has been engaged in fighting Baloch insurgents. Islamabad frequently blames Indian intelligence agencies for funding and monitoring terror groups and their activities in Baluchistan. The Government of Pakistan has even presented documents to the UN regarding India’s alleged support for Baloch separatists in Pakistan. However, Delhi vehemently denies any involvement in Baluchistan.

Clearly, Baluchistan and its people’s desire for a homeland are misunderstood by successive regimes in Islamabad. For the Pakistani military and the majority of its elites, Baluchistan is seen as a dark war zone. Mere Chinese investments in the province, under the banner of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as part of Xi Jinping’s vast Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will not be sufficient to quell the separatist tendencies among the Baloch insurgents.

Since 2022, the Baloch people living in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province have faced particular issues from Iranian authorities and security services. The main reason behind this is that many of its residents participated in a nationwide protest against the death of a young woman in police custody named Mahsa Amini. She became a victim of Iran’s religious police for not wearing the veil in public places. While the protest gained international attention, authorities cracked down heavily on the protesters and selectively targeted groups like the Baloch in Iran. According to Amnesty International’s report, security forces killed about 80 people on September 30, 2022, in the city of Zahedan in Sistan-Balochistan Province. This incident gained global recognition as Black Friday.

Currently, the Israel-Hamas war is taking a troubling turn. The reality is that Iran and its proxies must be stopped without any delay. Simultaneously, Israel must facilitate immediate dialogue to prevent further hostilities in Palestinian territories. As of now, more than 24,000 Palestinians have lost their lives since the offensive against Hamas began in October. It is time for Washington to convince Tel Aviv to draw a thin red line and come to the negotiating table. Otherwise, considering the ongoing unrest in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen involving major world powers, West Asia should not be pushed further into a wider war. Despite fears of the Iran-Pakistan conflict escalating into a new war zone and spreading to South Asia, both countries are currently maintaining a calibrated response.

Now, Iran has its hands full on many fronts — fighting ISIS at home, backing Hamas and the Houthis in two foreign lands, and, above all, sponsoring its proxies across West Asia to counter the US and its allies. On the other hand, Pakistan is in a dire economic situation. It is facing a significant threat from its homegrown Islamic jihadist factory and engaging in constant frontier battles with once-friendly Taliban forces. The ruling mullahs in Afghanistan are literally shaking its caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar until the new election results are out.

Hopefully, both nations will understand their limits and control their military might for now to avoid a larger regional catastrophe. In the midst of this, the genuine concerns of the Baloch people, spread across three neighbouring countries, should not be sidelined.

(The writer is a Senior Faculty at the Department of Political Science in the School of Liberal Education, Galgotias University, Greater Noida.)

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