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Did Iran Carry Out a ‘Surgical Strike’ Inside Pakistan?

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Did Iran Carry Out a ‘Surgical Strike’ Inside Pakistan?

A recent news report is unlikely to be accurate, not the least because it goes against established patterns of behavior by both countries.

Did Iran Carry Out a ‘Surgical Strike’ Inside Pakistan?
Credit: Flickr/safwat sayed

Over the past week, media has been rife with reports of an Iranian operation inside Pakistan’s territory to free Iranian soldiers. The news, which was first reported by the Anadolu Agency (AA) and later picked up by Pakistani and Indian media, claimed that Iran freed two soldiers in an intelligence-led operation inside Pakistan’s territory.

“A successful operation was carried out last Tuesday night to rescue two kidnapped border guards who were taken as hostages by Jaish ul-Adl organization two and a half years ago,” AA said citing Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a source. The statement further noted that the freed soldiers were successfully transferred back to Iran.

India’s top news outlets, including Hindustan Times, India Today and Times of India, portrayed the said report as a “surgical strike” inside Pakistan. However, in Pakistan, not too many news outlets covered the story.

There are many reasons to believe that the reported military operation by Iran didn’t take place. For years, active communication channels between the two countries’ militaries and civilian authorities have ensured that such a situation does not eventuate.

To begin with, Iran’s government has not officially said anything about the reported military operation. Pakistan, on the other hand, has denied all such reports by terming them mere propaganda. On Monday, the spokesperson of Pakistan’s military categorically said: “The news regarding Iran [conducting a military operation in Pakistan] is absolutely false.”

“It could not have happened, it didn’t happen,” he emphasized.

Over the years, Pakistan and Iran have blamed each other for not doing enough to root out militants allegedly hiding across the border between the two countries. Iran on its part has usually conveyed  its frustration over militant groups, particularly Jaish al-Adl’s hideouts in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. In some cases, Pakistan’s military has freed Iranian soldiers in Balochistan. In 2019, for instance, Pakistan’s military recovered four Iranian soldiers who were abducted by Jaish al-Adl.

Over the years, Iran has warned of a military operation in Pakistan. However, these threats appear to be for domestic political consumption while also signaling Tehran’s concerns. Following the abduction of Iranian soldiers in 2014, Tehran warned that it could send troops to Pakistan to free its soldiers. Back then, Iran also summoned Pakistan’s charge d’affaires to demand Islamabad “act firmly against the leaders and members of the terrorist group who have fled into Pakistan.” In 2019, Iran warned that Pakistan would “pay a heavy price” for allegedly harboring militants who killed 27 of its elite Revolutionary Guards in a suicide bombing.

In Pakistan, these threats have drawn serious response, indicating that Islamabad is not going to accept them at any cost. Pakistan has condemned such statements from Iran and has made it clear that Iran cannot carry out military operations in Pakistan. In 2017, Pakistan’s foreign office summoned Iran’s ambassador after the head of the Iranian armed forces threatened to carry out raids inside Pakistan.

Apparently, efforts have been in place to contain the situation posed by militants on Pakistan-Iran border region and shield it from leaving an impact on the bilateral relationship. In 2019, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Iran in an attempt to find a solution for the lingering militancy problem on the border region. “We agreed to increase the security cooperation of the two countries, our border forces, our intelligence forces,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said after meeting Khan, adding the two sides will also “form a joint quick reaction force on the border of the two countries for fighting terrorism.”

Khan, in his remarks, said that “We trust that both countries will not have terrorist activities from their soil… We will not allow any damage to your country from our soil.”

“The most important reason why I’m here, Mr. President,” Khan said, addressing Rouhani, “is because I felt that the issue of terrorism was going to … increase differences between our countries.”

In June 2020, Pakistan carried out a massive military operation against terrorists near the country’s border with Iran. Pakistan is also fencing its 900-kilometer long border with Iran in an effort to control cross-border incursion of terrorists. In 2020, Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, phoned his Iranian counterpart Major General Mohammad Bagheri to discuss the fencing of the border and the recent attacks on Pakistan’s security forces near Iran’s border.

Meanwhile, complaints of cross-border attacks go both ways. Following an attack in Balochistan in April 2020, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi noted that the militants behind the attack came from Iran. Over the last few months, militant attacks on Pakistan’s security forces in Balochistan have increased significantly.

Despite the alarming situation in the border region, apparently a status quo has prevailed whereby both countries have tried to contain the situation while conveying their mutual frustration to each other. Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that Iran would carry out a unilateral military operation inside Pakistan as that would upset the delicate situation. Moreover, it makes sense that Tehran would share intelligence with Pakistan, as in the past. It’s possible that shared intelligence led to the Iranian soldiers being freed by Pakistan’s military.