The soldiers were from a group of 12 IRGC soldiers who had been kidnapped on 16 October 2018 from Iranian territory and held in Pakistan. After the kidnapping of IRGC soldiers a joint committee had been formed between the two countries to help in the rescue of Iranian soldiers. Five of the soldiers were released on Nov. 15, 2018, and four Iranian soldiers were rescued by the Pakistani army on March 21, 2019. One soldier remains untraced so far.
Jaish-ul-Adl, the outfit holding IRGC soldiers is a Selafi militant outfit and traces its origins to another militant organisation, Jundalla, meaning Soldiers of God, who had been waging militancy in Sistan-Baluchistan region of Islamic republic since 2000. Strength of Jundallah had been almost diminished after Iran executed its leader Abdolmalek Rigi in 2010. He was earlier apprehended in a dramatic operation involving Iranian Air Force, when its jets forced a civilian flight in which Rigi had been travelling from Dubai to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to change course, forcing it to land in Bandar Abbas before arresting him.
Jaish ul-Adl was founded in 2012 by Salahuddin Farooqui. The outfit amalgamated into itself most of the cadres from the defunct Jundalla. Within two years Jaish ul Adl split into two factions leading to the birth of Jaish al Nasr under the leadership of Moulvi Abdulrauf Rigi, brother of Abdolmalek Rigi who had founded Jundallah. Disputes between Jaish ul Adl and Jaish al Nasr finally led to a mysterious killing of Abdulrauf Rigi in Quetta in 2014.
Since its formation, Jaish ul Adl has been waging a relentless fight against Iranian security forces that have included a number of bombings, attacks and kidnapping of Iranian soldiers and ambushes on security convoys. The outfit has also claimed responsibility for dozens of deadly bombings on security convoys and killing of Iranian officials in Sistan Baluchistan region of Iran.
A few prominent actions of Jaish ul-Adl have been the killing of 14 Iranian soldiers in October 2013 near the border with Pakistan and abduction of five Iranian soldiers in February 2014, who were later taken across the border into Pakistan but later rescued by Iranians.
However, the most potent attack on Iranian security forces, attributed to Jaish ul-Adl, was carried out on 13 February 2019 using a suicide car bomb, killing 27 members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) while they were travelling between the cities of Zahedan and Khash in Sistan-Baluchistan Province. This suicide bombing was incidentally carried out one day prior to the Pulwama attack in India’s Jammu and Kashmir and both attacks have an uncanny similarity in their modus operandi of triggering blasts.
Jaish ul Adl, like its predecessor Jundullah is known to operate from bases in the South Eastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan which is home to a large community of minority Sunni Muslims who complain of discrimination in Shiite-dominated Iran. Iranian security forces have launched relentless operations to apprehend and execute the cadres of the outfit. But it is neighbouring Pakistan, where the outfit, proscribed by Iran, gets support from ethnic Baloch tribes and sanctuary from Pakistan security forces. Iran also repeatedly points fingers at Saudi Arabia for arming and equipping the outfit.
Pakistan’s security forces, more prominently its long arm, the ISI, has been using Jaish ul Adl for their nefarious designs. As is widely believed, Kulbhushan Jadhav was kidnapped and handed over to Pakistan by Jaish ul Adl from Chabahar where he was on a routine business trip. Similarly, Pakistan has been using Jaish ul Adl against Iran interests. Iranian officials have spoken of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist activities along the Iran-Pakistan border.
The animosity between Iran and Pakistan has been a regular feature with attacks on Iranian interests from Pakistani soil having been reported frequently, more so after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran too has responded in kind and carried out operations deep inside Pakistan targeting inimical outfits, firstly Jundulla and subsequently Jaish ul Adl with the last one being towards the end of last year leading to the death of five Pakistani soldiers.
The attacks and the frequent tensions reflect the changing geopolitical realities and cultural construct in the two countries that have undergone a change over the decades. Once considered close allies, Iran and Pakistan have drifted apart due to hardening cultural narratives propounded by sectarian differences between the two regimes which have been influenced by Pakistan’s desire to benefit from Saudi largesse and economic aid.
But more importantly, the fundamental reason for Pakistan’s deteriorating relations with its neighbours; Iran, Afghanistan and most importantly India, is its transgressions in relation to nurturing and cultivating armed groups to function with impunity from its soil. It is Pakistan’s false belief that these groups provide it with some kind of strength and leverage to influence the course of events in its immediate neighbourhood.
The rescue of soldiers by Iran in a unilateral action shows underlying instability in Iran Pakistan relations. Notwithstanding the common religious bond, major ideological differences remain between the two countries compounded by Pakistan’s continued support to anti-Shia militant outfits. The border between the two countries runs through Balochistan which is facing volatility due to local insurgency against Pakistan security forces. The future of the relationship in the near future appears unstable until Pakistan stops supporting anti-Iran groups from its soil.
(The author is Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)