A Faustian Deal
In 2004, the then Pakistani President Gen Pervez Musharraf made a secret deal with the US allowing the Special Activities Division of Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] to use Pakistani airspace for its covert drone programme of targeting top ranking Al Qaeda terrorists. When Washington appeared apprehensive that details of this repugnant programme being compromised, Gen Musharraf allayed its fear by telling the CIA officer handling this issue that “in Pakistan, things fall out of the sky all the time.”
Bending backwards to please Washington, Musharraf even went as far as agreeing that in order to conceal US involvement, the Pakistani military would take responsibility for the CIA drone attacks, but not without extracting his pound of flesh. He demanded that Washington should also target those whom the military dictator turned president felt were a threat to Pakistan or a personal embarrassment to him. And the first name of such a person that came to Musharraf’s mind was that of Afghan Taliban commander Nek Muhammad Wazir.
As the Afghan Taliban was Pakistan’s ally and Wazir had signed the famous Shakai peace agreement with the Pakistan Army in April 2004, Musharraf’s request for his elimination must have come as a big surprise for Washington. However, since this Taliban commander had vowed that despite this peace deal his ‘jihad’ [Holy war] against the US would continue, Washington gladly obliged. In less than two months after he had signed the peace agreement with the Pakistan Army, Wazir was ‘droned’ by the CIA and his blood sealed the secret US –Pak drone deal.
An Unpublicised Pakistani Airspace Violation
Little would Musharraf have known that his off-the-cuff remark about things falling out of the sky in Pakistan would prove prophetic, and in addition to the US and India, even Iran would carry out aerial strikes against terrorists and their facilities existing on Pakistani soil- with the January 16 Iranian air strike in occupied Balochistan’s Panjgur district being the latest. While this attack has shocked many as well as generated a lot of discussion and debate, it’s not the first time that Tehran has carried out an aerial attack against terrorists based on Pakistani soil.
In November 2013, Pakistani media reported that a “rocket” fired from Iran territory had hit three houses in Kulahu village of Kech District, Pak-occupied Balochistan. While one of the targeted houses belonged to Mullah Omar Irani, a commander of the anti-Iran Sunni terrorist group Jaish-ul-Adl [JuA] or ‘army of justice’, the other two were owned by his close relatives. Though Tehran didn’t mention anything about this strike, but since JuA had claimed responsibility for the dastardly killing of 15 Iranian Pasdaran [Border Guards] just two months earlier, it’s obvious that Irani was the prime target of this rocket attack.
While one of his nieces was killed and six other relatives injured in this attack, Irani and his two sons survived this assassination attempt. Islamabad played down this brazen violation of its airspace by Tehran as is evident from the news report on this incident. Dawn merely mentions that “Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch took notice of the rocket attack from the Iranian side on a Pakistani area and said the provincial government had informed the federal government about it,” adding that the Balochistan Chief Minister had asked the Interior Minister to “take up the border violation with Iranian officials.”
An Elusive Fugitive
After its unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Irani, Tehran repeatedly demanded that Islamabad should apprehend the JuA commander and his fighters living in hideouts on Pakistani soil and hand them over to Iran, but Islamabad didn’t oblige. Some maintain that ever since he was targeted by Tehran, Irani had become extremely cautious due to which tracking his movements and ‘fixing’ his location had become virtually impossible. The pro-Pakistan lobby also contends that as Islamabad gains nothing by sponsoring terrorist activities in Iran, there’s no reason for it to provide safe sanctuaries to anti-Iran terrorist groups on its soil.
While this may well be true to some extent, it’s certainly not the only reason. There are numerous indications which endorse the view that Washington has been using JuA to wage asymmetric war against its arch-enemy Tehran. There are also convincing reports that since direct financing of this terrorist group would require congressional approval which besides being an uphill task portended the potential risk of being uncovered by the media, the CIA is instead routing funds to JuA through ISI.
This arrangement put Rawalpindi in a win-win situation. One, it earns Islamabad the goodwill of Washington; two, it allows ISI to siphon part of funds meant for JuA towards its proxy war in J&K. Lastly, it gives the Pakistan army a good degree of control over this terrorist group and makes it a ‘strategic asset’ that can conveniently be used against Iran as and when required. So, acting as a conduit for US funding of JuA makes much sense and is a good enough reason for Rawalpindi to patronise JuA.
JuA commander Mullah Omar Irani and his two sons were gunned down by Pakistani security forces in an alleged encounter in Turbat Pak-occupied Balochistan district on November 17, 2020, and this should have silenced those claiming that he and his fighters were being sponsored by the Pakistan Army. It should also have drawn Tehran’s gratitude and appreciation as this JuA commander had the blood of many Iranians on his hands. However both things didn’t happen and instead, these killings only raised several more questions on the incident, which Rawalpindi hasn’t yet answered.
The first question is that when he knew that the Iranian security forces were baying for his blood and so was its Pakistani counterpart, why had he thrown caution to the wind by travelling in a single vehicle together with his two sons? Secondly, being a top level commander, why was Irani moving in a single vehicle without any escorts? Thirdly, even if he felt that movement of a single vehicle was a sound decision from the security point of view as it wouldn’t attract attention of the security forces, why didn’t Irani at least utilise the services of a driver?
Lastly, JuA is very particular when it comes to avenging the deaths of its fighters. Hence, its failure to even announce that it would seek retribution for the killing of their commander and his sons is rather surprising-unless of course the JuA leadership was afraid that it could face eviction from its safe sanctuaries on Pakistani soil if it antagonised Rawalpindi.
Decoding Irani’s Killing
It doesn’t require rocket science to deduce that Irani was able to evade arrest by Iranian security forces all along just because he was a protégé of the Pakistan Army. It’s also no secret that he was the one who carried out the 2016 abduction of retired Indian Navy officer Kulbhushan Jadav from Chabahar area of Iran and handed him over to Pakistan Army’s spy agency Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] for an undisclosed sum of money.
Rawalpindi supporters would argue that why should the Pakistan Army have eliminated an ‘asset’ who has served it so well? The answer isn’t too hard to find.
Irani undoubtedly gave ISI the best ever ‘catch’ in its history. However, being planners and executors of this ‘black operation’, he and his sons were privy to the entire abduction process and the whole deal, which made them high security risks for the Pakistan Army’s spy agency. So, following Benjamin Franklin’s famous dictum that “three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead,” the elimination of Irani and his sons was inevitable.
The deceased JuA commander and his sons should have known that they signed their own death warrant the day they abducted Jadhav on ISI’s orders!