Earlier this month, Iran further escalated tensions in the Middle East and its surrounding regions. First, on Jan. 15, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fired missiles into Syria, targeting what it termed “anti-Iran terror groups,” as well as into northern Iraq, where it claimed it had located a Mossad base. A day later, Tehran looked east, eyeing the Pakistani province of Balochistan for another wave of missile strikes. The trio of aerial bombardments came at an increasingly precarious time in the region, as Israel’s war in Gaza surpasses 100 days and as the United States and Great Britain continue to take aim at another of Iran’s proxies, the Houthis in Yemen. For the Pakistani military, who swiftly retaliated by firing back at Iran, the strikes offered a brief respite from domestic concerns.
Iran had justified the attacks as an operation against the Baloch militant group Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni outfit fighting for an independent Balochistan. The Balochistan region stretches across Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, with fervent, but distinct separatist movements operating in and out of all three countries. Iran has long accused Pakistan of harboring Jaish al-Adl. In December 2023, the US-designated terrorist group claimed responsibility for an attack on a police station in Iran, killing 11 Iranians. Iran’s strikes were both an act of retaliation for the December attack and a means of sending a message to Islamabad.
Of course, this is not the first counterterrorism operation carried out on Pakistani soil by a foreign power. Aside from the obvious 2011 Abbottabad raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden, Pakistan’s other neighbor India has also conducted cross-border airstrikes as recently as 2019. In light of Iran’s missile strikes, and aware of Iran’s frustrations in dealing with an uncooperative counter-terrorism partner in Pakistan, India’s ministry of external affairs issued a less-than-subtle statement, expressing an understanding of the “actions that countries take in their self-defense” against terrorism.
Pakistan’s military response was not immediate. Islamabad first complained of Iran’s “egregious violation of international law and the spirit of bilateral relations between” the pair, before expelling Tehran’s ambassador. However, fearing military inaction would embolden not only Iran to carry out further attacks, but Afghan-based militant groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and arch-rivals India, the military fired back, launching airstrikes near Saravan in the Iranian Sistan-Baluchestan province. Much like the accusations leveled against the country by Iran, Pakistan also accuses its neighbor of supporting a Balochistan separatist group, this time the Baloch Liberation Front rather than Jaish al-Adl. The Baloch Liberation Front, along with the Balochistan Liberation Army, has crippled the Pakistani province and contributed to the wider collapse in security throughout the country since the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Many of the militant attacks in Balochistan have targeted Chinese interests and workers, whose presence as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is viewed as a symbol of the central state’s exploitation of the resource-rich and strategically important province. The centerpiece of China’s multi-billion dollar investment in Pakistan is the Gwadar Port in Balochistan. Connected to China’s Xinjiang province by over 3,000 kilometers (around 1,864 miles) of road, the port gives the Chinese Communist Party direct access to the Arabian Sea, bypassing the Malacca Strait — a potential choke point in the event of war with the United States.
Ironically, despite facing a barrage of attacks from the militant groups operating in the province, China will likely be displeased by Pakistan’s escalation. To Beijing, maintaining stability is of paramount importance and irrespective of terrorist activity, trading missiles with a neighboring state has the potential to be far more destructive than anything the region’s militias can conjure up.
The decline in law and order in Balochistan also enables drug traffickers who exploit the Iran-Pakistan border as a primary overland route for their operations. As Pakistani efforts to combat this rise in terrorism and crime have proven ineffective, Iran’s actions provided the Pakistani military with the opportunity to stoke nationalism and reaffirm its self-proclaimed position as the sole guardian of the state. Unsurprisingly, the military seized this opportunity, hoping to rally an otherwise discordant population around the flag.
There is no doubt that the military itself authorized the strikes against Iran, with the caretaker government in Islamabad lacking a mandate from the public or any serious authority — its leader Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, ironically from Balochistan, is widely believed to have been installed by the military last August.
Elections are now long overdue in Pakistan and have been scheduled for Feb. 8. The Pakistani public have reluctantly accepted the military’s overbearing presence in the domestic politics of the country, however, the hugely unpopular decision to depose, arrest, and imprison former prime minister Imran Khan in recent years threatened to tear this already vulnerable social fabric in half. The animosity between Imran Khan’s supporters and the military exploded into unprecedented scenes back in the first half of 2023. Demonstrations quickly turned into riots on the streets, military bases were mobbed, and senior officials’ homes were targeted in an attempt to force Khan’s release from custody.
Khan, whose own election victory had been facilitated by vital support from the military establishment, has continued to rail against the institution from his prison cell. Having already been barred from running in the upcoming elections at the end of last year, Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have continued to be the target of a military intent on preventing it from success at the polls. The latest move banning the PTI’s cricket bat symbol from appearing on ballot papers, has forced members of the party to run under different symbols, a move bound to cause confusion, especially in the more rural areas of the country where literacy rates are lower.
With this in mind, and fears of a repeat of the scenes from last May, the military was desperate to both distract from its questionable election maneuvers and improve its image in the eyes of ordinary Pakistanis. Iran’s surprise decision to launch missiles into Pakistan, killing two children, allowed the Pakistani military to do exactly that. But this brief respite is unlikely to endure through to polling day, especially as bilateral relations already appear on the mend, with China also offering to mediate the dispute between two of its closest allies. By the time Feb. 8 comes around, the military may well be dealing with a resurgent threat from within, as allegations of pre-poll rigging offer a bleak forecast of the fairness of upcoming elections.