Even as Pakistan stands guard against India, it seems to be dropping it for Iran
The attack on Pakistan’s Frontier Corp soldiers who were patrolling the border at night on Friday, November 14, suggests that all is not well along Pakistan’s western borders. Six of the soldiers were killed while 14 others were injured.
The attack was reportedly conducted by terrorists who had crossed over from the Iranian side of the border. The incident took place when the security forces were participating in an intelligence-based operation which was targeting a militant hideout in Turbat which is close to the border. The attack seems to have been an attempt by the terrorists to send across a message — they killed patrolling troops just a day after Iran and Pakistan signed an agreement to curb trafficking that involved humans, drugs, arms, and petroleum products into Pakistan.
As the widespread trafficking operations suggest, the border has been in the grip of lawless elements for decades while the regions along the border have been the typical peripheries of the two states. Peripheries that are not confined to simply geographical terms but economic and social ones too.
Just like the Pashtuns who are divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the colonial restructuring of the states left the Baloch – an ethnic community that lives along the border -- prorated between Iran and Pakistan. Throughout history, the Baloch ethnicity, identity, and nationalism have drawn energy from regional geopolitics and an apparent backing of external powers. Generically speaking, some Baloch intellectuals and activists have retained strong nationalist aspirations that have often fanned the flames of militancy, terrorism, and troubling insurgencies.
Furthermore, the story of the Iran-Pakistan border cannot be complete without involving the Afghanistan angle. Bound by one of the longest wars in the history of the region, the conflict led to the formation of several militant groups — representing violent ideologies that thrive on sectarian and ethnic lines — linked to transnational networks in larger parts of Central Asia and the Middle East.
In order to understand the contemporary character of the societies, the state, and relationships on both sides of the border dividing Iran and Pakistan, we need to keep the general impact of the war in Afghanistan in mind.
The war next door brought into the region not only armies belonging to world powers, but it also created a gap that was filled by militants involved in different ideological pursuits from within the region and outside.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
The war next door brought into the region not only armies belonging to world powers, but it also created a gap that was filled by militants involved in different ideological pursuits from within the region and outside. Their finance, arms, and involvement in the trafficking of drugs have resulted in creating a nexus of mutual support and convenience with the tribesmen along the border. A basic understanding of a tribal society would help one gauge just how difficult it is for a non-tribesman to live among them without local consent and support.
There is another dimension to the security situation along the Iran-Pakistan border -- its porousness. Pakistan’s traditional security predicament has been along the eastern border with India, where a large concentration of troops, cantonments, tactical, and strategic attention has been the focus. It was not until a few years ago that Islamabad began paying greater attention to its western borderlands as it confronted and finally defeated terrorism. The fencing of more than 1,000 km along the border with Afghanistan is a remarkable feat – one that will reduce the infiltration of terrorists from across the border.
The question remains -- will Pakistan have to fence its border with Iran too? If the terrorists continue to operate like this, perhaps Pakistan will have to take that step, but it is not something that is on the government’s cards yet. On the other hand, Pakistan has been working with Iran to develop a robust border security regime, which includes taking responsibility for the terrorists attacking either of the two countries.
There is a long pattern of terrorist activity along this border. In October, Iranian guards were kidnapped which Pakistan helped free. It is hoped that Iran, too, will fulfill its responsibility and work against the terrorists who have killed Pakistani soldiers.
There are several militant groups — including criminal gangs operating in the lucrative drugs and petroleum trade — on either side of the border that have long impacted the security of the regions. In reality, the political economy of the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan border has become dominated by criminal gangs that have multi-layered connections with militants championing political and ideological agendas.
The fresh attack on Pakistan’s security forces is, therefore, a reminder that this problem can get worse if no action is taken against the terrorist networks.
— Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017).