What was behind the Balochistan strikes?

A Baloch man points to where the Iranian army carried out an airstrike against alleged separatists in Pakistan
Tehran and Islamabad have long accused each other of not taking strict enough action against the separatist Balochs in their own country. The Iranian attack was likely in retaliation for a January 3 bombing that killed 80 in the southern Iranian city of Kerman (image: Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

Tit-for-tat attacks between neighbours Iran and Pakistan are linked to separatists fighting for independence of the mineral-rich Balochistan region that spans their borders

By Thomas Latschan

Iran's airstrike on the Pakistani border town of Panjgur on January 16 was aimed at the terrorist militia Jaish al-Adl. Tehran holds the group responsible for several attacks on civilians and soldiers in Iran.

Two days later, Pakistan's army retaliated with an attack on an Iranian village near the city of Sarawan. Their aim was to eliminate fighters of the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF). Islamabad cited credible intelligence about imminent large-scale terrorist activities by the group.

Both Jaysh al-Adl and the BLF are militant separatist groups fighting for the independence of a region called Balochistan. The Baloch are an ethnic group who live on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border and into parts of southern Afghanistan. In total, this area is roughly the size of France. 

The Pakistani province of Balochistan forms the largest part, followed by the province of Sistan and Balochistan on the Iranian side. Mountainous with a dry desert climate, it is sparsely populated by some nine million Balochs who are organised into tribes rather than feeling that they belong to a state.

Commuters ride along a street at Panjgur district in Balochistan province
Pakistan recalled its ambassador from Iran on 17 January and blocked Tehran's envoy from returning to Islamabad after an Iranian air strike killed two children in the west of the country on 16 January (image: Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

Baloch attempts at autonomy violently suppressed

Efforts for autonomy or independence have been violently suppressed on both sides of the border for decades. On the Pakistani side, such efforts are seen as an attempt to divide the country; on the Iranian side, things are complicated by the fact that the Baloch are a Sunni minority in an otherwise predominantly Shia country.

Both states have taken correspondingly harsh action against the ethnic group. In Pakistan, up to 20,000 Balochs have disappeared in recent decades, presumably abducted, tortured or even murdered by Pakistani security forces, according to Amnesty International. 

As the tensions drag on, Balochs have become increasingly radicalised, accusing both governments of systematic discrimination and plundering their region. Several groups of militant insurgents have carried out attacks on both sides of the border, afterwards retreating into the neighbouring country across the 900-kilometre border, which is difficult to navigate and control.

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Rich resources, poor population

Balochistan is also rich in natural resources such as gold, diamonds, silver, copper and other metals. Still, the population is among the poorest in Iran and Pakistan. In recent decades, there have been several uprisings on both sides of the border, which have been bloodily suppressed by both Islamabad and Tehran.

On the Pakistani side, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also causing tensions. It runs from the Chinese city of Kashgar across the country to the newly built deep-sea port of Gwadar, giving the People's Republic access to the Indian Ocean as part of the Chinese "New Silk Road" initiative.

While Gwadar is located in Balochistan, its residents hardly benefit from such trade, transportation and infrastructure developments. As a result, there have been an increasing number of attacks on Chinese convoys or teams of workers, and the Chinese consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi has also been targeted in a terrorist attack.

Risk of further escalation?

Tehran and Islamabad have long accused each other of not taking strict enough action against the separatist Balochs in their own country. The Iranian attack was likely in retaliation for a January 3 bombing that killed 80 in the southern Iranian city of Kerman. Tehran may have also wanted to signal strength and deterrence to Israel and the United States as the conflict in the Middle East grows. Tehran had also previously fired missiles at targets in Syria and northern Iraq.

Islamabad also could not leave an Iranian attack unanswered, though their version was relatively restrained. Its air strikes on Iranian soil did not target Iranian facilities or security forces, but Pakistani citizens. While the Pakistani army claims that terrorists were involved, civilians are also said to have been among the dead.

Relations between Islamabad and Tehran are tense, but given each of their current concerns, escalating the conflict would unlikely be in their interest. Iran is already involved in the Middle East conflict, supporting the anti-Israeli terrorist militias of Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

Pakistan has elections scheduled in three weeks, with the current government in power only on an interim basis. In terms of foreign policy, the country is at loggerheads with its arch-rival India, meanwhile relations with Afghanistan have also been strained since the government deported hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees a few weeks ago.

Thomas Latschan

© Deutsche Welle 2024