The bloody border between Iran and Pakistan
On May 7, six soldiers including an officer of the Frontier Constabulary were killed by an improvised explosive device planted along the Buledia area of Balochistan, just 14 km away from Iranian territory.
This is not the first incident of its kind resulting in the death of security personnel. For years, Baloch separatists have targeted civilians from other provinces of Pakistan working on development projects in this remote and sparsely populated region, including security personnel.
Meanwhile, Pakistani forces are engaged in low intensity counter-insurgency operations when and where needed in the pursuit of militants hiding in these desert-like mountain ranges.
Technology and the Pakistan military’s advanced counter-insurgency skills have made it difficult for militants to operate from what used to be their safety zones. Many of them have found safe havens in Afghanistan with the connivance of Afghan intelligence agencies seeking revenge from Pakistan for its allegedly continued support for the Afghan Taliban.
With so much suspicion and the baggage of history between Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as between Iran and Pakistan, militant proxies remain a tool to protect and advance national security interests. It is a deadly game of balancing and counter-balancing.
They have played much of the modern and regional variety of the ‘great game’— a name taken from the rivalry between Russian and British empires— along their borders. Pakistan shares a 900 km of border with Iran. Its border with Afghanistan is much longer at about 2,430 km, with an even more complex history associated with the Durand Line signed in 1893 during the British empire.
Three years later, it signed a border agreement with Iran in 1896. Pakistan inherited the borders and maintains legality under the international law of succession. Among many, two reasons are structural in nature to explain the perpetuation of the ‘great game’ along Pakistan’s western border.
In recent years, the Iran-Pakistan border has witnessed the persistence of cross-border attacks by militants. Pakistan has taken multiple steps to increase the security of the borders. Chief among them are persistent overtures to win the trust of the two neighbors and remove a climate of mutual suspicion, which has proven very hard to do.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
First is the tragedy of Baloch and Pashtun tribes; these borders have been cut in halves, leaving majorities in Pakistan and lesser but very significant numbers on the other side. Second, the borders are geographically remote from the centers of power of the three countries which has generated a sentiment of periphery and neglect, producing ethnic nationalism and alienation. Foreign and local interests have exploited such feelings to use militants as pawns in regional rivalries.
For more than a century, Pakistan’s western borders have remained porous. Even today, there are historic agreements according to which the tribesmen from across the border can visit kinsmen and trade without much constraint or visa requirements. For generations, smugglers, drug-traffickers and militants have transited these borders at will. Smuggling and drug trade are multi-billion dollars businesses in this region, and there are many stakeholders from all sides making huge profits. Militants that have taken up arms against their national state fit well into this murky world of arms, drugs and the illegal trade of goods.
In recent years, the Iran-Pakistan border has witnessed the persistence of cross-border attacks by militants. Pakistan has taken multiple steps to increase the security of the borders. Chief among them are persistent overtures to win the trust of the two neighbors and remove a climate of mutual suspicion, which has proven very hard to do. Even the high level visits, exchanges of diplomats and top leaders have failed to turn this border into “a border of peace and friendship,” a declaration made when Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff visited Iran in April 2019.
In the wake of the most recent incident earlier this month, Pakistan has pressed on the Iranians to take action against suspected Baloch separatists hiding across the border. In response, the Iranians have expressed a “readiness for cooperation and enhancement of security measures against the common enemies.” This type of diplomatic language hides more than it reveals the hidden tensions between Iran and Pakistan. There is growing suspicion in Pakistan that Iranian and Afghan intelligence agencies have struck a deal with Baloch separatists, turning a blind eye to their deadly attacks against security personnel.
Iran for its part blames Pakistan for sheltering Jaish ul-Adl and other Iranian militant groups, which it accuses of being involved in terrorist activities. According to Iranian authorities, this group is holding three Iranian guards captive, and they demand Pakistan to get them released. Pakistan has helped Iran secure the freedom of twelve of its guards during the past two years.
Regional security cooperation being a far cry, Pakistan has gone for harder options— fencing borders and enhancing security. One can only be cautiously optimistic about normalizing borders when so much is abnormal inside, around and in relation to each other in this region rife with insurgencies, interventions and proxies.
*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).