In the middle of December last year, Jaish ul-Adl (also known as Jaish al-Zolm, translated to “Army of Justice” in English and formerly known as ‘Jundullah’), a Sunni militant group operating around the Baluch insurgency across Pakistan’s Balochistan region and Iran’s Sistan and Balucchestan province, attacked a police post in the small Iranian city of Rusk. 12 Iranian police personnel were killed in a gun battle that lasted hours. The attack on Rusk was one of many attributed to Jaish ul-Adl over the years.
Yesterday’s Iranian missile strikes inside Pakistan brought to the forefront long standing differences between the two countries over Baluch militancy and the ethnic tensions that revolve around it. The missile attacks come at a moment of fragility in not just a regional but also the global security order. Pakistan responded by condemning Iranian actions and summoning their charge d’affaires. According to Iranian press, Jaish ul-Adl have confirmed the strikes on their positions in Balochistan’s remote mountains.
Interestingly, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar Ul Haq Kakar had met hours before at the Davos economic summit in Switzerland while Iran’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Hassan Kazemo Qami, visited Pakistan for consultations. During his visit, Qami was quoted by the Afghan press as saying that “Islamabad and Tehran have reached an agreement on interaction with Kabul”. This has spurred a wave of rumors on whether Tehran sounded out Islamabad about the strike against Jaish ul-Adl before it took place. With Pakistan already facing serious security challenges from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State Khorasan (ISKP) and its deteriorating relationship with the Afghan Taliban – a group it sheltered for decades – direct aggression by Iran is another frontPakistani military may be unable to afford.
The tri-nexus between Iran, Pakistan and the Taliban on Baloch militancy is very complicated. The Afghan Taliban is often blamed for both privately supporting and more publicly decrying groups such as Jaish ul-Adl. The complexities do not stop within these impoverished geographies. The founding leader of Jaish, Salahuddin Farooqui, has also previously opposed Iranian support for Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad. Tensions between Pakistan and Iran over Jaish’s activities around their borders go back to 2011-12. Iran, since then, has blamed Pakistan for being soft regarding its concerns over these entities, and has blamed its other foes such as Israel, US and even Saudi Arabia and the UAE for offering their support.
While some analysts are looking at the Iranian action in Pakistan from the lens of its ongoing strategic play in the Middle East, this hypothesis may be a bit of a stretch. The issue of groups such as Jaish and tensions between Iran and Pakistan over Baluch militancy pre-date the ongoing war in Gaza or the deteriorating security situation in the Red Sea. Iran has often reiterated that it would target Jaish safe spaces inside Pakistan over the years, and the exchange of fire between troops at the border between the two countries has been a regular occurrence. This incident is uniquely a bilateral and border management matter between the two countries, which is today further complicated with the Afghan Taliban seizing power in Kabul in 2021. The ideological nature of Jaish makes it difficult for the likes of the Taliban to shun them or their cause, in exchange for political and geopolitical upmanship, considering they are an Islamist ideological movement first, and a political entity later (as showcased by the continuing logjam within the Taliban regarding girls’ education in the country).
For Pakistan, this new theatre is another gash on a rapid disintegration of its now institutionally failed policies of promoting state-sponsored extremism and terrorism. As the country’s economy collapses further and it fails to control its own strategic assets from turning against its rule, other countries and interests seem to be looking at this time in history as the most opportune to target these ecosystems unilaterally as well. With only caretakers managing the madhouse, political will seems limited, and the military has been too busy undermining its parallel civilian challenges from figures such as Imran Khan who got too big for the military’s comfort level.
A significantly disconcerting fact around events such as the Iranian missile strike is that Pakistan, in fact, is a nuclear power. Nuclear deterrence was clearly not in play as Tehran planned its targeting of Jaish ecosystems in Baluchistan, which begs the question on what kind of strategic thinking, if at all, is taking hold in the corridors of power when it comes to its position as one of the very few nuclear powers in the world. The fact that Pakistan’s all-powerful army chief reportedly requested American help to take on the TTP threat as part of a counter-terrorism narrative went unsold in Washington. The only other good use Pakistan could make of its nukes today is to create a fear of the weapons landing in hands of militants. As noted scholar Stephen P Cohen had once said, Pakistan negotiates with the world by pointing a gun to its own head.
Finally, this event has brought to the forefront for the international community the fact that the Afghanistan – Pakistan theatre has not disappeared and cannot be ignored. For Iran, despite strong disagreements with the Taliban, it is working with the regime towards a longer goal, to make sure the West, and particularly the US military power, never returns that close to its borders again
Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation. He is the author of ‘The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia’ (Penguin Viking, 2019)