South Asia correspondent
Balochistan is a region with a distinct cultural and historical identity that is now divided between three countries: Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. This week, Iran and Pakistan launched strikes across each other’s borders targeting militants in the Balochistan area.
The region takes its name from the Baloch tribe, who began inhabiting the area centuries ago, and has long been fought over and divided by rulers including the Persians and the British.
The largest portion of the region is in south-western Pakistan, which it joined in 1948 after independence. Though it is Pakistan’s largest province – comprising 44% of the total landmass – its arid, largely desert landscape is the country’s least inhabited and least economically developed region and has been blighted by problems for decades.
Balochistan has a long history of resistance against the government of Pakistan, and militant insurgencies by groups fighting for an independent state for the Baloch people began in 1948, emerging again in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and significantly post-2003. The people of Balochistan had long felt their region was neglected in terms of development and political representation, fueling resentment towards the ruling establishment.
In response to the militant insurgency, Pakistan’s military, paramilitary and intelligence forces have overseen a long-running and bloody counterinsurgency and crackdown on the region, with tens of thousands of people “disappeared”, tortured and killed with impunity.
The militant insurgency has also been a long-running source of tensions between Pakistan and its neighbour Iran, which have each accused the other of harbouring separatist terrorists. Cross-border attacks have killed scores of soldiers, police officers and civilians over the past five years.
Iran, in particular, has accused Pakistan of allowing militants from the Sunni separatist group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) to operate freely from Balochistan and carry out attacks on Iranian authorities. As recently as December 2023, 11 Iranian police officers were killed and several injured when Jaish al-Adl militants attacked a police station in Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan province.
In 2023, a total of 10 Pakistani soldiers and security personnel were killed in three separate attacks in Balochistan carried out by militants reportedly operating from the Iranian side.
While the two countries have exchanged barbs and Iran has taken low-level retaliatory action to such attacks, Tehran’s decision to carry out full-blown airstrikes against Pakistan on Tuesday, targeting alleged Jaish al-Adl militant bases in Balochistan, marked an unprecedented escalation of tensions.
Pakistan’s decision to respond on Thursday with drone and rocket strikes on Iranian territory was equally unprecedented, pushing relations between the two countries to their worst in years and increasing fears of further regional instability.