Pakistan calls for tighter security on Iran border following fatal attack

While Iran and Pakistan have made significant progress on improving border security and stopping smugglers, a recent attack on Pakistani soldiers shows that much remains to be done.

al-monitor Soldiers wearing face masks stand guard on the road leading to a quarantine facility (R) for people returning from Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan to prevent the spread the novel coronavirus, in Sukkur, southern Sindh province, March 17, 2020. Photo by SHAHID ALI/AFP via Getty Images.

May 21, 2020

Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, has called on his Iranian counterpart, Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, to take immediate action to enhance border security and curb the attacks on Pakistani security forces by militants operating from the Iranian side.  

In the May 13 phone call, Bajwa stressed that Pakistan wants “regional peace and stability on the basis of mutual respect, non-interference and equality,” according to a statement issued the Pakistan army’s public relations office.

The urgent call for action followed an attack on Pakistan’s side of the border on a reconnaissance vehicle carrying troops from the Frontier Corps. Five Pakistani soldiers and one officer were killed.

The troops were reportedly checking “possible routes used by terrorists in the mountainous and extremely treacherous terrain of Mekran” when an improvised explosive device went off about nine miles from the border with Iran. The banned separatist group the Baluchistan Liberation Army later  claimed responsibility for the attack.

Bajwa emphasized that fencing of the Pakistan-Iran border must be completed as soon as possible. Smuggling and illegal trade on the border must be checked as well, as these activities are being “used by terrorists and narco-traffickers for covering their movement,” according to the statement.

The Iranian official newswire Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Bajwa “urged the exchange of expert delegations to maintain border security and prevent terrorist moves on common borders” and that improvements for border terminals on both sides of the border to manage the ongoing pandemic were suggested.

Security ties have deteriorated at the Pakistani-Iranian border as cross-border terror attacks have long caused friction between the neighbors. Nevertheless, there has been considerable improvement in bilateral ties as Islamabad and Tehran have worked on these issues over the last year.

After visits to Iran by Bajwa and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and, a joint task force was set up to fight terrorism and guard the common border. Military links were enhanced and Islamabad started sharing intelligence with Tehran regarding the bases of separatists and militants in Iran, along with their activities. Thanks to these proactive measures, the stream of attacks and counter-attacks in border areas ceased with the last terror incident in at Ormara, Baluchistan, in April 2019.

However, the respite is over. Iran has been in a state of turmoil due to the coronavirus pandemic for the last several months, and the ensuing chaos has had a very negative impact on Pakistan.

First, there has been a lot of infiltration recently by criminal elements — including oil mafias and drug cartels — in the border areas. Smuggling and illegal trade operations are worth millions and a narcotics racket is also in full swing.

With illicit goods flowing from both sides of the border, no taxes are being paid, with heavy implications for the provincial government’s authority. A sustainable local economy based on agriculture or industry is sorely needed in these remote areas.

These criminal groups are actively opposing the fencing of the Pakistan-Iran border so that they can carry on their activities.

Second, hopes for Pakistan’s economic revival are pinned on the border province of Baluchistan, where the main land route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through. This trade project could generate massive revenues, but it cannot really take off until the province is stabilized.

Unfortunately, the region has become a neglected space where militancy is easily nurtured. When they are pursued in Pakistan, militants from various banned outfits escape into Iran and establish hideouts from where they continue attacks inside Baluchistan.

Beginning at the Koh-i-Malik Salih mountains and ending at Gwadar Bay in the Gulf of Oman, the 600-mile (970-kilometer) Pakistan-Iran border is porous, underdeveloped and sparsely populated on both sides.

Third, Iran’s health crisis spread to Pakistan like wildfire due to carelessness and insufficient checks on the movement of Pakistani citizens returning home. As a result, there was pandemonium at the Torkham post on the Pakistan-Iran border. Despite repeated requests from Islamabad, border stations did not wait to admit citizens until adequate screening protocols could be arranged.

With the spread of COVID-19 across the country, the recurrent lockdowns have caused economic losses in the billions for Pakistan.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quraishi recently stated, “I spoke with the Iranian foreign minister and requested a time to make arrangements [for the pilgrims], but they couldn’t do it due to economic sanctions.” He informed the parliament that Iranian officials had forced 5,000 Pakistani nationals across the border while quarantine facilities were not available.

Finally, recurring attacks from across the border have damaged trust even though military ties have improved between both countries. Bilateral border mechanisms like the joint Rapid Action Force were put in place last year, but there seems to have been some laxity that permitted the regrouping of separatist elements even though actionable intelligence is regularly provided to the Iranian side.

Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan is large and sparsely populated. According to Pakistani defense analyst Amjad Shoaib, “Fencing the Pakistan-Iran border is very important as it is very difficult to patrol such a long stretch. [And patrolling] will only prove successful in curbing smuggling, narcotics and terrorist infiltration if Iran reciprocates the efforts.”

Discussing plans to fence the border with Iran, Khusro Bakhtiyar, Pakistan's former minister for planning and development, has said, "We will not have 100% control over Pakistan’s security situation as long as our borders remain porous.” Pakistan’s Economic Co-ordination Committee recently approved $18.6 million in additional funds toward efforts to seal the border.

Meanwhile, since the conversation between the two army chiefs, two more attacks have taken place in Baluchistan province and seven soldiers have been killed in two separate incidents, one an IED blast near Quetta and the second an exchange of gunfire near the border. 

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