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Pakistan and Iran Escalate Balochistan Conundrum with Tit-for-Tat Strikes

Pakistan has conducted a series of military strikes targeting “separatist hideouts” inside Iran, according to a statement from Pakistan’s foreign ministry on Thursday, 18 January 2024. The strikes, carried out in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province, come amid rising hostilities between the two neighboring nations.

The attack follows Iran’s announcement of using precision missile and drone strikes a day earlier, targeting two strongholds of the Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl in Pakistan’s southwest Balochistan province. The strikes, which Iran described as targeting “terrorists,” resulted in casualties, including 2 children, according to Pakistan.

The vengeful strikes have strained diplomatic relations between the two nations. Pakistan condemned Iran’s actions as an “unprovoked violation” of its airspace, leading to the recall of the Pakistani ambassador from Iran and the suspension of high-level visits. Iran, in turn, defended its strikes as a precise and targeted operation against security threats.

Pakistan and Iran Exchange Military Strikes Across Shared Border

Pakistan, under the operation named “Marg Bar Sarmachar” (translated as “death to the guerrilla fighters”), claimed to have executed highly coordinated and precision military strikes, resulting in the death of a “number” of militants. In response, Iran reported explosions in a border village and near the city of Saravan, with at least 7 casualties, including 3 women and 4 children identified as foreign citizens.

The incident marks a significant escalation in the longstanding conflict in the restive Baloch region along their 900-kilometer shared border. Both countries have a history of combating militants in the region, but the recent strikes represent a remarkable and unusual development.

Pakistan asserted that it had previously expressed concerns to Iran about the presence of separatist fighters, known as Sarmachar, inside Iranian territory. The foreign ministry cited a lack of action on these concerns, leading to the decision to launch the recent military operation based on credible intelligence indicating impending large-scale terrorist activities.

Balochistan Yearns for Self-determination

The recent events in Balochistan serve as a stark reminder of the fragile peace in the region. The interplay of historical grievances, regional competition, and unresolved political aspirations continues to cast a long shadow over the future.

For decades, the Baloch people, inhabiting parts of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, have grappled with aspirations for greater autonomy or even independence. This sentiment, particularly strong in Iranian Balochistan, fuels the decades-long Baloch insurgency. The Baloch people, bound by a shared identity but divided by national lines, seek a greater say in their fate.

In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, the embers of this desire have flared into armed struggle, with separatist groups clashing with security forces. Across the border in Iran, whispers of self-rule also stir unease, prompting suspicion and accusations of Pakistani support for the insurgency. Pakistan sees the Baloch movement as a specter on the horizon, a potential fracture in its territorial unity and a ghost of separatism haunting its control on Baloch population.

The accusation of harboring insurgents further strains relations with Iran, creating a volatile dance of mistrust and tension. For Iran, the Baloch question is a domestic nightmare with international implications. Its own Baloch minority stirs with a similar yearning for autonomy, but Pakistani influence across the border chills the air. Each attack within Pakistan’s Balochistan echoes in Iran, a stark reminder of the potential fire at their own doorstep.

Caught in the crossfire are the Baloch people themselves. Their aspirations for a self-determined future collide with the iron grip of national security concerns. Civilian casualties mount, a tragic cost of a conflict fueled by historical grievances and unresolved political struggles.

Not a Rare Occurrence

Against this backdrop of mistrust, skirmishes between Iranian border forces and Baloch separatist groups are not uncommon. Reports of such clashes surface periodically, adding to the volatile atmosphere. The latest escalation began in December 2023, thought the exact date is disputed. Reportedly, it involved the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and Iranian border forces near the Pakistan-Iran border. The specific details of the incident and casualties remain unclear.

Both sides have been accused of human rights abuses against Baloch civilians, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and restrictions on freedom of movement and expression. These actions have understandably created anger and resentment among the Baloch population.

Clashes between security forces and separatist groups, as well as cross-border incidents between Iranian and Pakistani forces, have led to civilian casualties. The recent January 2024 escalation exemplifies this danger. However, the situation in Balochistan is further complicated by internal dynamics within the region, with various separatist groups holding different goals and agendas. Attributing blame solely to Pakistan and Iran without acknowledging these internal complexities would be an oversimplification.

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