Pakistan

Discordant Borders

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On November 4, 2022, a Pakistan Army soldier was killed in a cross-border attack from Afghanistan on troops in the Kharlachi area of Kurram District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). According to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), terrorists from inside Afghanistan opened fire on Pakistani troops in Kharlachi.

On October 23, 2022, a Pakistan Army soldier was killed during an exchange of fire with terrorists from across the border in Afghanistan, in the Hassan Khel Sector of North Waziristan District in KP. ISPR confirmed the incident.

On September 29, 2022, a Pakistan Army soldier was killed in an exchange of fire with terrorists, at the Kharlachi border crossing in the Kurram District of KP. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ‘spokesperson’ Muhammad Khorasani claimed responsibility for the attack.

In the worst cross-border attack by militants in 2022, on February 6, at least five soldiers were killed after terrorists launched an attack from Afghanistan on Army troops stationed in the Kurram District of KP. An ISPR statement asserted that Pakistani troops responded ‘befittingly’, and added that, according to intelligence reports, the “terrorists suffered heavy causalities”. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 10 incidents (including the three mentioned above) of cross-border firing by militants, resulting in 17 deaths (16 Security Force, SF personnel and one militant) and five persons injured (all SF personnel), have been reported till November 20, 2022. Twelve such incidents resulting in 19 deaths (16 SF personnel and three militants) were reported in 2021. There were seven such incidents in 2020, resulting in 11 deaths (10 SF personnel and one militant); seven in 2019, with 22 fatalities (20 SF personnel and two militants).

Since September 15, 2013, when the first such attack was reported, there have been at least another 140 across the border, in which at least 263 Pakistani SF personnel and 75 civilians have been killed, while another 324 sustained injuries (data till November 20, 2022). 88 terrorists were also killed in retaliatory action by Pakistani SFs. The fatalities have increased senior officers of the Pakistan Armed Forces, such as the incident on September 15, 2013, when Major General, Sanaullah Khan and Lieutenant Colonel Tauseef were killed, along with another soldier, Irfan Sattar, in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the Upper Dir District of KP. The then TTP ‘spokesman’ Shahidullah Shahid had claimed responsibility for the attack.

The terrorists have been carrying out these attacks in opposition to Pakistani SFs’ fencing work along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The fencing has also led to clashes between the Armed Forces of the two countries. According to the SATP database, since April 2007, when the first such clash reportedly took place, there have been at least seven such incidents, in which 49 persons, including 33 SF personnel and 16 civilians, have been killed (data till November 20, 2022). In the most recent incident, on November 13, 2022, a Frontier Corps (FC) soldier was killed and another two sustained injuries in a cross-border attack by Afghan SFs, on the Pakistani side of the Bab-e-Dosti gate in the Chaman town of Kila Abdullah District in Balochistan. Bab-e-Dosti has been closed for all kinds of trade and pedestrian movement since.

The border fence and border check post along the Durand Line, the disputed Pakistan-Afghanistan border, has been a major bone of contention between the two neighbouring countries, as well for the militants on both side of the border. Though the conflict over the legitimacy  of the Durand Line – the border imposed by Imperial Britain – between Pakistan and Afghanistan is more than a century old, the recent clashes linked to border-fencing started in September 2005, when Pakistan first announced that it had plans to build a 2,611-kilometre fence (1,230 kilometres in KP and 1,381 kilometres in Balochistan) along its border with Afghanistan, purportedly to check armed militants and drug smugglers moving between the two countries. But Afghanistan raised objections on the grounds that this was an attempt to make the disputed border permanent. After Kabul’s objections, Pakistani authorities temporarily put the plan on hold.

Over a year later, on December 26, 2006, Pakistan again declared its plans for mining and fencing the border, but was again opposed by the Afghanistan Government. The then Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated, on December 28, 2006, that the move would only hurt the people living in the region and would not stem cross-border terrorism.

The attempt to build the fence provoked the first skirmish in April 2007 in the then South Waziristan Agency. Pakistani SFs operating in region made a three-tier security deployment on April 11, 2007, to stop cross-border infiltration by terrorists into Afghanistan and fenced 12-kilometers of the border stretch with Afghanistan. However, Afghan troops tore down the fence on April 19, leading to a gun-battle, though there were no casualties. Another attempt was made in May 2007, when Pakistan erected the first section of a fence in the Lowara Mandi area of the then North Waziristan Agency on May 10, 2007, which led to cross-border firing between Pakistani and Afghan forces, in which at least seven Afghan soldiers were killed. The border fencing programme, meanwhile, was halted between 2007 and 2013, due to intense pressure from terrorists active along the border areas.

Later, Pakistan started excavation work on a several-hundred-kilometres-long trench along the Balochistan border in April 2013. The work has progressed rapidly since.

On January 5, 2022, at a press conference, ISPR Director General Major General Babar Iftikhar disclosed that the fencing work along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was almost complete, while over 71 per cent of the work on fencing along the Pakistan-Iran border had also been completed. Significantly, contrary to Islamabad’s expectations given its long history of support to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime has attempted to block Pakistan’s efforts to finish the border fence, from the very moment of its accession to power in August 2021. Indeed, this is consistent with the Taliban’s position during its first regime – 1996-2001 – when it refused to accept the Durand Line as the permanent border between the two countries, despite tremendous pressure from Islamabad.

This time around, the Pakistan military establishment was hopeful that they would at least to secure the Taliban’s support to control TTP cadres who, according to Pakistan, were operating out of the bordering areas of Afghanistan. However, developments since have established that both the Afghan Taliban and TTP were two sides of the same coin, and Islamabad’s hopes were misplaced. TTP attacks continue from across the border, despite a Taliban-mediated ‘peace process’ between TTP and the Pakistan Government.

On April 17, 2022, Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson Asim Iftikhar claimed that terrorist elements, including the TTP, were using Afghan soil ‘with impunity’ to attack Pakistan’s border security posts, resulting in the death of several Pakistani troops. He added, further, that these attacks were detrimental to maintaining peace and stability along the border.

A United Nations (UN) report, released on May 27, 2022, highlighted the threat to Pakistan by the Afghanistan-based TTP, the terrorist group which has conducted numerous deadly “cross-border” operations. The report asserted that TTP remained focused on a long-term campaign against the Pakistani state, with several thousand of its fighters based in Afghanistan. According to another UN report, TTP has about 6,000 trained fighters on the Afghan side of the border.

The Taliban Government, however, has continuously denied the presence of TTP on its soil.

Pakistani Forces have retaliated across the border as well. On April 16, 2022, Pakistani Forces conducted air strikes in the Khost and Kunar Provinces of Afghanistan, killing of dozens of people. Local officials in Khost confirmed that the airstrikes were conducted by the Pakistani Forces, but did not provide any further details. According to eyewitnesses more than 40 people were killed or wounded in the attacks.

As expected, after the attack, the Taliban-led interim Government in Kabul started taking steps to shift terrorist groups away from Pakistan-Afghanistan border, deeper into the country. “Some of the groups have already been moved out of our border regions,” an unnamed senior Pakistani official claimed. Pakistan, the official added, though it rejected the approach, did accept the Taliban’s apparent decision to at least hold back the TTP from executing cross-border terrorist attacks. Clearly, however, while there was a temporary dip in such attacks after talks were initiated between the TTP and the Pakistan Government on May 9, 2022, the ‘peace process’ is now evidently dead in the water. According to the SATP database, TTP linked fatalities dropped to 24 in May 2022, in the wake of the peace agreement, in comparison to 54 in April. However, despite the announcement of an indefinite ceasefire by the TTP on June 2, the TTP’s campaign never entirely stopped, with 34 fatalities in June, 35 fatalities in July, 28 in August, 39 in September, 32 in October and 20 in November so far (Data till November 20). 

The volatility at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border can only intensify, as the ongoing Afghan Taliban-initiated talks between the TTP and the Pakistan Government crumble in the face of rising attacks. With TTP cadres filtering back into the tribal areas, Pakistan’s troubles are likely to deepen even further.

The Forsaken Spies: View from Pakistan

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Safeguarding the secrecy of matters relevant to national interest and concealment of facts are altogether two different things; the first one is no doubt very sacred and very sublime but the second one is something which must be taken to task very rigidly and mercilessly. Recently the Qatari Government has arrested 8 so-called ‘retired’ Indian Navy Officers under charges of spying for the interest of Israel and India. These arrested spies were working in Qatar with a private firm and were providing training and other services to the Qatari Emiri Navy commonly known as QEN. The Qatari Emiri Naval Force is considered the strongest naval force of the region in terms of the size of its naval fleet. The said Indian officers were caught in the month of August 2022 for their involvement in spying, espionage and for planning, supporting and promoting international terrorist activities. One of these arrested officers was Commander Purnendu Tiwari who had been honoured with the ‘Pravasi Samman Award’ by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind in 2019. The Pravasi Samman is the Highest honored award usually bestowed upon the Overseas Indians for their services to the country. Tiwari played a key role in the whole story of espionage. The Qatri investigation agencies found him actively involved in transferring data of leading Gulf Muslim countries to Israel and India.

Reports say that while working with Qatar Defense, Security and other Government agencies; the arrested officers had access to classified data and taking benefit of it they started sharing the sensitive information to Qatar’s adversaries; Tiwari was their leader. The most interesting fact of the whole story is that the government of India remained in a state of denial throughout with reference to the arrest of the eight Indian navy officers; just as it remained silent in case of Kalbushan Yadav, the Indian spy arrested by the security forces of Pakistan on 3rd March, 2016. Reports say that the arrested ones are not retired officers; they are still in service and the government of India had sent them to Qatar under cover. The arrest of these eight officers might remain in dark but the wife of one of these officers shared the news of her husband’s arrest in Qatar on social media on 25th October 2022. The purpose of that sharing was to request the Indian authorities to get the arrested ones released.

The same pathetic condition of the Indian spies sent across the borders by the Indian intelligence agencies was highlighted by Anand Katakam in an article published on April 18, 2017 in the Hindustan Times. The writer said specifically with reference to the Indian spy Kalbushan arrested in Pakistan, “The Punjab border districts of Gurdaspur and Ferozepur are replete with examples of men who crossed the Indo-Pakistan border for tidbits of intelligence for their handlers. Most of these men are captured by Pakistani security forces and end up languishing in jail for years because most are disavowed by their government. Many are impoverished men who are recruited as low-level informants for multiple Indian intelligence agencies including the R&AW.” Same complaint of helplessness was lodged in 2005 by a former Indian spy Kishori Lal who said talking to the Tribune, “Even if you escape death and are sent back, in your country you die a slow death as nobody is there to own you.”

Shihani and Ibrahim also have the same story to tell as they are also among those countless who serve for the Indian Intelligence Agencies in foreign lands but are left unattended after their arrest. These two were arrested and convicted by the UAE government on charges of spying for India somewhere in 2014-2015. The Abu Dhabi court judgment against Ibrahim said that he was proven of handing over confidential defense information of the State to Ajay Kumar and Rudranath Juha, the two intelligence officers of the Indian embassy. Currently Ibrahim and Shihani are serving a 10-year jail term at Al-Wathba prison. They two belong to Kerala. Their families have been raising their voices since after their arrest that they were used by Indian embassy officials to supply sensitive information. On being arrested, they were denied legal, diplomatic support despite laws mandating assistance from the government of India. According to the Hindustan Times, the relatives of the jailed Indians say they have been made scapegoats. A relative of Ibrahim said talking to media, “There was a lot of pressure from the two embassy officials on Ibrahim to divulge details about the movement of ships at the port. Initially the embassy put pressure on him by delaying the renewal of his and his son’s passports. Later these officials befriended him to obtain details.”

Indian citizen Daniel is also one of the worst examples of those who worked for the Indian Intelligence Agencies but by end of day were discarded like a used tissue-paper and thrown into a dustbin. According to an Indian news channel Pro Punjab, Daniel claimed that he worked for his country’s spy agency RAW, on lucrative promises of money and a government job, and was smuggled into Pakistan in 1992 to carry out the dirty work. He was arrested in Pakistan and had to serve there a four-year sentence. On his release from Pakistani jail and after his return to India, he found no one to take care of him. Life simply became horribly miserable for him. Now he drives a rickshaw to earn some livelihood while his wife works as a maid washing dishes. Moreover, like others belonging to the minority strata of the Indian society, he also has to face a lot of humiliation on daily basis. Maltreatment with the spies who put their lives in danger for their country is something highly pathetic and at the same time India’s efforts of creating problems for the Muslim countries like UAE and Pakistan by interfering in their internal matters is also condemnable.

Views expressed are personal

Balochistan: Rise and Rise of Baloch Rebels

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On October 22, 2022, six Security Force (SF) personnel were killed and another four were injured when the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) targeted an Army convoy at the Zarghoon Ghat area of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. While claiming responsibility for the attack, BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch stated that an SF convoy consisting of 10 military vehicles was targeted by the group’s Special Tactical Operations Squad (STOS), adding that at least two enemy vehicles were destroyed. He warned that BLA would continue to target ‘occupying forces’ until their full withdrawal and the ‘liberation of the Baloch motherland’.

On October 21, 2022, four SF personnel were killed and another two injured, when BLA cadres targeted an Army vehicle with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in the Izbotki area of Johan tehsil (revenue unit) in the Kalat District. BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch claimed responsibility for the attack.

On October 21, 2022, Hafeezullah, a local agent of the Pakistani military intelligence, was killed by BLA cadres in the Zehri area of Khuzdar District. While claiming responsibility, BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch claimed that Hafeezullah was involved in the forcible disappearances of Baloch youth in Zehri and adjoining areas. He added that the BLA would ‘bring to justice’ all other local collaborators of ‘enemy forces’ as well.

On October 19, 2022, a soldier was killed and several were injured when BLA targeted an Army outpost in the Tigran area of Zamuran tehsil in Kech District. While claiming responsibility for the attack, BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch reiterated the attacks against the occupying forces would continue.

On October 7, 2022, one Army soldier was killed and two were injured when BLA cadres targeted an Army post with hand grenade near the Degree College in the Sariab Road area of Quetta. BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch claimed responsibility for the attack.

On October 7, 2022, one Army soldier was killed and several were injured when BLA cadres attacked an Army outpost in the Sheh Mardan area of Kalat District. BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch claimed responsibility for the attack.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), BLA-initiated attacks have led to 37 SF deaths in the current year (data till October 23, 2022). During the corresponding period of 2021, BLA had killed 11 SF personnel. The whole of 2021 recorded 20 SF deaths in BLA attacks.

Since August 1, 2004, when the first BLA attack recorded by SATP, five soldiers and a civilian were killed when BLA cadres targeted SF vehicles in the Khuzdar District, at least 171 SF personnel have been killed by the BLA (data till October 23, 2022). On year-on-year basis, fatalities recorded in 2022, with still over two months to go, is the highest in a year since then. The previous high of 31 was recorded way back in 2011. Significantly, BLA claimed that SF fatalities were on a steep and continuous rise since 2019. While no BLA-claimed SF fatality was reported in 2018, there was one such fatality in 2019, increasing to eight in 2020 and spiking to 20 in 2021.

Since August 1, 2004, BLA-linked violence has also led to 146 civilian deaths, including eight in the current year. The BLA claims that those killed were ‘state agents’.

Between August 1, 2004, and October 23, 2022, 147 BLA cadres have also been killed.

Meanwhile, BLA’s growing strength is reflected in the February 2, 2022, simultaneous attacks by BLA cadres on the Panjgur and Nuskhi Army camps in Balochistan. Though Pakistan Government sources claimed only four SF fatalities, Radio Zrumbesh, quoting BLA ‘spokesman’ Jeeyand Baloch, claimed that 45 SF personnel were killed when a ‘martyred’ fidayeen (suicide attacker) rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into the main gate of the Frontier Corps headquarters at Nushki, clearing the way for other fidayeen to enter.

More recently, on September 25, 2022, six Pakistan Army officials, including two majors, were killed after a helicopter ‘crashed’ during a rescue mission near Khost in the Harnai District of Balochistan. BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch claimed responsibility, asserting that the helicopter had been shot down by rocket launchers.

Moreover, BLA carried out an audacious attack on April 26, 2022, in which at least five persons, including three Chinese nationals, their Pakistani driver and a security guard, were killed when a women suicide bomber blew herself up near a van, transporting Chinese nationals from the Karachi University Hostel to the Confucius Institute in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh. A Karachi University spokesperson confirmed that three of the deceased were Chinese nationals. BLA claimed responsibility for the attack. The female suicide bomber, Shaari Baloch alias Bramsh, who belonged to BLA’s Majeed Brigade, was the first Baloch woman suicide bomber.

Indeed, among the major Baloch insurgent groups, such as the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), Balochistan Liberation Tigers (BLT) and United Baloch Army (UBA), BLA has been leading from the front in recent times. Since January 2022, different Baloch groups have carried out at least 68 attacks, out of which BLA alone was responsible for 36.

Comprised mostly of Marri and Bugti tribe members, BLA was formed in response to the growing resentment in Balochistan over the continuous Government exploitation of the province’s natural resources and the neglect of development and welfare. The group has about 6,000 cadre spread across Balochistan and in the bordering areas of Afghanistan. It is currently led by Hyrbyair Marri who is in exile in London. Bashir Zeb Baloch is the ‘commander-in-chief’ of the outfit.

BLA is the only Baloch groups with a dedicated suicide squad, the Majeed Brigade. The Majeed Brigade is named after two brothers, Majeed Langove Senior and Majeed Langove Junior, who carried out suicide attacks in August 1974 and March 2010, respectively. Majeed Senior tried to assassinate then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto when he was on an official visit to Quetta. He wanted to the Prime Minister for his dismissal of the National Awami Party’s government in Balochistan, but Majeed Senior lost his life during the operation. Majeed Junior ‘sacrificed’ himself to save his associates when SFs raided the house where they were staying in Quetta’s Wahdat Colony. Majeed Junior held back the SF raiders to give his associates time to escape. Following Majeed Junior’s death, a BLA leader, Aslam Achu, established the insurgent group’s suicide squad, and named it the Majeed Brigade, currently led by Hammal Rehan Baloch. The Brigade carried out its first vehicle-borne suicide attack on December 30, 2011, when Baaz Khan Marri targeted tribal elder Shafiq Mengal, son of former acting Chief Minister and Federal Minister Naseer Mengal, on the Arbab Karam Khan Road in Quetta. Shafeeq, who had run a ‘death squad’ targeting Baloch insurgents in different parts of the province, escaped unhurt, but 14 persons, including women and children, were killed, and 35 others were injuries.

Subsequently, the Majeed Brigade went into dormancy due to lack of funds and recruits, and it took the group seven years to carry out its second suicide attack, when a bus carrying Chinese engineers was targeted in Dalbadin in August 11, 2018. Aslam Achu’s 22-year-old son, Rehan Aslam Baloch, executed the attack. Majeed Brigade suicide bombers also hit the Chinese Consulate in Karachi (November 23, 2018); Gwadar’s Pearl Continental Hotel (May 11, 2019); and the Pakistan Stock Exchange (June 29, 2020).

Apart from Majeed Brigade, BLA has a formed STOS, which works directly under Bashir Zeb Baloch. and is tasked to monitor and eliminate Army officers and their local collaborators. Recently, on July 13, 2022, STOS abducted Lieutenant Colonel Laiq Baig Mirza along with his cousin Umer Javed, near the Warchoom area of Ziarat District. BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch claimed that Mirza was ‘arrested’ in an ‘intelligence-based operation’ for his direct involvement in the Baloch genocide, and grave human rights violations, including enforced disappearances of women and children, among other crimes. Mirza was later killed when an Army Quick Reaction Forces team tried to rescue him. Two days later, his cousin Umer Javed’s body was recovered.

One of the longest surviving Baloch insurgent groups, BLA has increased its operations against SFs and ‘state agents’. The outfit is likely to intensify its operations in days to come, justifying the escalation on the grounds that the Pakistani state has failed to meet the genuine demands of the Baloch people.

Views expressed are personal