TRAGIC END: The PIA Airbus A320 crashed moments before approaching the runway to land at Karachi airport
As if the pandemic sweeping the world is not detrimental enough, Pakistan is simultaneously facing various other national crises. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports
While the coronavirus pandemic has affected the whole world, Pakistan is facing additional challenges due to a new wave of terrorist attacks, a crumbling economy and now the crash of a passenger plane barely a week after the resumption of domestic flights, in which 97 people were killed.
The Airbus A320 passenger aircraft, run by the state-owned Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), crashed into a congested residential colony on May 22, moments before it approached the runway to land at the adjacent Karachi airport.
Of the passengers flying from Lahore to Karachi, mostly to celebrate the Eidul Fitr festival with their families, only two survived, both men. The rest of those killed were crew members, including the pilot and three stewardesses. Though 25 houses were damaged by the impact of the crash, no-one on the ground was killed.
The crash – the third most catastrophic in Pakistan’s history and the worst since 2012, when a Boeing 737 crashed in Islamabad, killing 127 passengers – saddened the nation just when it was preparing to mark Eidul Fitr after a month of fasting. In any case, the coronavirus pandemic has paralysed life and made it almost impossible to properly celebrate even a festive occasion such as Eid.
This tragedy followed a series of terrorist attacks by militants against the security forces in two of Pakistan’s troubled provinces. Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province area-wise and smallest in terms of population, has faced more attacks in recent months than the conflict-hit Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, parts of which continue to suffer from terrorist strikes. In three recent separate attacks in Balochistan, 13 security forces’ personnel, including officers, lost their lives and others sustained injuries.
Some of the attacks took place near Pakistan’s border with Iran and caused bitterness in the two countries’ normally friendly relations. Islamabad has lately been alleging that the Pakistani Baloch separatists involved in these acts of terrorism were operating from the bordering Iranian province of Seistan-Balochistan. In mid-May, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had to call his Iranian counterpart General Mohammad Bagheri to express concern, in particular over the terrorist strike 14km from the border with Iran (in which six Pakistani soldiers died), asking him to tighten his country’s borders to curb such acts. Yet two more attacks, including one at Mand along the Iranian border, followed on May 19 in which seven soldiers were killed.
Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (l) and his Iranian counterpart General Mohammad Bagher
Islamabad was frustrated that the terrorist strikes, often using remote-controlled improvised explosive devices (IEDs), had continued despite Bagheri’s commitment to Bajwa during their rare phone conversations to enhance security measures on his side of the 909-km-long Iran-Pakistan border. Bajwa had sought action against the Pakistani Baloch separatists operating from sanctuaries in Iran’s border areas, but there is no indication yet that any steps have been undertaken to stop them. Islamabad has also been urging Tehran to ensure that New Delhi does not use its soil, particularly the Chabahar seaport being developed by India, to destabilise Pakistan after it claimed to have captured Indian spy Navy Commander Kulbushan Jadhav in Balochistan. The seaport on the Arabian Sea is aimed at not only bypassing Pakistan to access Afghanistan and Central Asia through a road link, but also competing with the nearby Gwadar port.
Pakistan’s security agencies increasingly believe that the Iranian intelligence services, after several attacks inside Iran’s territory in recent years, decided to develop contacts with the Pakistani Baloch separatists, in order to use them to counter the Iranian Sunni Baloch militants allegedly operating from Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Although Pakistan had helped Iran in apprehending some of the Iranian militants, Tehran seemed dissatisfied as it wanted Islamabad to completely deny space to the two anti-Iran militant groups, Jundullah and Jaish al-Adl. This Iranian complaint was made frequently in recent years, but since April 2019 Pakistan too has started protesting publicly that the Pakistani Baloch separatists, particularly the newly formed alliance Raji Aajoi Sangar, had set up training and logistics camps in Iran’s border areas.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Pakistan had shared this evidence with Iran in April 2019 after a terrorist attack on the Makran coastal highway, when about 20 gunmen intercepted buses and shot dead 14 security personnel once they had been identified. Another terrorist assault on a five-star hotel in Gwadar, the deep sea port that Pakistan has built with Chinese assistance under the $60bn China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, had reinforced Islamabad’s concern that the Baloch terrorists were now entering Balochistan from Iran and returning to their bases there after carrying out attacks. The attackers were specifically searching for Chinese engineers at the hotel to deter Beijing from helping Islamabad to execute CPEC projects, as several Baloch militant groups allege that both are intent on grabbing Balochistan’s resources. No Chinese national was staying at the hotel at the time of the attack.
Yet Pakistan cannot afford any distrust with Iran, given that it already has strained relations with its two other neighbours, India and Afghanistan, and is under some pressure to ensure its border with China is not used to infiltrate the vast, resource-rich Xinjiang region where some radical Uighur Chinese Muslims, under the banner of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), have conducted attacks in the past.
The relationship with Iran is tricky as Pakistan has to balance it with its close ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the Gulf, and also the US. Both Iran and Pakistan have taken steps to secure the border, including fencing parts of the frontier and raising a new paramilitary force, making efforts to complete the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline while staying clear of the American sanctions against Tehran, and cooperating in the trade and transmission of Iranian electricity to some areas of Balochistan. Both are facing ethnic Baloch insurgencies which profit from the mistrust in their relationship. Close collaboration to confront the common threat would, therefore, benefit Iran as well as Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is learning to cope with the crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has continued to dominate politics and the media since late February, when the disease began being reported in Pakistan. The incidence of COVID-19 has steadily increased, although government officials insist the number of confirmed cases and deaths is still lower than the projections. The low figures, which on May 24 stood at 55,447 confirmed cases and 1,146 deaths, are attributed to the lockdown that was imposed to varying degrees across the country and to other precautionary measures, including social distancing and the wearing of facemasks, more so in urban areas. However, warnings are constantly issued that the outbreak could intensify if the lockdown is relaxed prematurely, instructions by the government and doctors are ignored and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are violated.
Pakistan had to close its borders as it is located in a neighbourhood where coronavirus caused considerable damage and continues to remain a threat. China was the first country in the world to face the novel virus, Iran was hit hard, with the highest number of cases in the Middle East, and Afghanistan recently suffered a steady increase in infections that could overwhelm its poor healthcare system, battered by four decades of conflict. This policy may have helped but checking the movement of people across the long and porous border with Afghanistan has always been a challenge.
If certain ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) officials are to be believed, the government is considering a complete lockdown for four weeks from May 27 after the Eidul Fitr festival, in a bid to contain the rapid spread of coronavirus. Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar, Governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, disclosed recently that all shops and markets would be shut down during the coming stricter lockdown and celebrating marriages publicly would be completely banned. Such warnings have become frequent as the lockdown was gradually relaxed in a bid to generate economic activity and cope with joblessness. Although the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan began implementing a generous relief package despite the economic problems already facing the country, in a bid to compensate affected businesses and the most vulnerable sections of society, it was still deemed inadequate, considering the impact of the so-called ‘smart lockdown’ that was enforced.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz