Pakistan counts votes after election tainted by violence, mobile service cuts, rigging allegations

Pakistan counts votes after election tainted by violence, mobile service cuts, rigging allegations
Polling staff start counting votes as polls end during country's national elections in Karachi on February 8, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 08 February 2024
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Pakistan counts votes after election tainted by violence, mobile service cuts, rigging allegations

Pakistan counts votes after election tainted by violence, mobile service cuts, rigging allegations
  • A clear picture is likely to emerge early on Friday as counting continues through the night
  • At least nine people killed in multiple attacks in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan began counting votes after polling ended on Thursday in a closely watched general election that laid bare the turbulent state of the South Asian nation’s politics, with the vote tainted by militant attacks, suspended mobile phone services and allegations of rigging and disarray at polling booths.

Thursday’s vote was the culmination of an especially contentious election season in which allegations of military meddling took center-stage, casting a shadow over a historic event that marks only the country’s third-ever democratic transition of power. The army, which has ruled for over three decades of Pakistan’s history since independence in 1947, strongly denies interfering in political affairs.

The government’s decision to suspend mobile data services across the country minutes before voting began was also seen by many as an effort to keep opposition voters from getting information or coordinating activities, but the interior ministry said it opted for the blockade to ensure the security of polling stations after at least 28 people were killed in two explosions near election offices in the southwestern province of Balochistan on Wednesday.

Networks only began to be restored in some parts of the country more than three hours after voting ended.

On Thursday, at least nine people, including two children, were killed in a number of attacks in the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

In the rest of the country, things remained calm though there were reports of delays in the opening of some polling stations and voters complained of mismanagement.

“On the conclusion of the process of polling for General Elections 2024, I announce with immense satisfaction that the overall security situation across the country was kept generally stable to ensure the peaceful conduct of free and fair elections,” Interior Minister Dr. Gohar Ejaz said in a statement.

“Despite a few isolated incidents, the overall situation remained under control, demonstrating the effectiveness of our security measures.”

 

 

Experts said the election was largely peaceful.

“This is the first election in Pakistan’s history that has remained remarkably peaceful, with only a few minor incidents considering the scale of the event,” said Kanwar Dilshad, a former secretary of the election commission. 

“The closure of mobile phone signals did not significantly impact turnout, wherever I went in [city of Lahore], there were long queues of voters waiting patiently … There have been no signs of rigging or intimidation on election day.”

Ahmed Bilal Mahboob, a foremost election expert in Pakistan, said the mobile network shutdown was “understandable” given security concerns:

“But I don’t think it made a major impact on the fairness of elections.”

“CLOSE FIGHTS”

The election comes at a time when the Pakistani economy is beset by record high inflation, falling foreign exchange reserves, a depreciating currency, low consumer confidence and slow growth caused by tough reforms carried out to meet the conditions of a last-gasp $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved last year.

Tensions between civilian politicians, particularly from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the powerful military, also ran high as millions of Pakistanis went out to vote.

Khan, arguably the central pole of Pakistani politics, was missing from Thursday’s elections, as he has been in jail since August last year and is also disqualified from running for public office for ten years. The former premier was convicted in three back-to-back cases this month and faces dozens of other legal challenges, including one case in which he is accused of ordering violent attacks on military installations on May 9, 2023, which could entail the death sentence. Khan says all the cases are politically motivated to sideline him and his party from elections.

In the run-up to the polls, Khan’s PTI complained of a widening crackdown against the party, including not being allowed to campaign freely, and analysts questioned the legitimacy of an election that Khan, the main opposition leader and arguably the country’s most popular politician, was not allowed to contest.

Khan’s key challenger is the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan last year from self-imposed exile to lead the party ahead of national elections.

Sharif’s last three terms as prime minister in 1990-93, 1997-99, and 2013-17 ended before he could complete his tenures, as he was removed by a military-backed president in 1993, ousted in a military coup in 1999, and disqualified by the Supreme Court in 2017.

His political fortunes have risen and fallen on his relationship with the military, with which he has repeatedly fallen out after reportedly pushing for more civilian control in government, only to find himself once more in its favor time and again.

In the last election in 2018, it was Sharif’s PML-N that widely complained of rigging and manipulation. A year earlier, Sharif had been ousted by the Supreme Court as prime minister and disqualified for life from running for public office. He later left for the United Kingdom after being granted medical bail and declined to return.

But as he came back to Pakistan in October last year, corruption cases against him evaporated and the bar against contesting in polls was lifted. Sharif is now widely seen as the frontrunner in elections, with an edge over rivals due to the backing of the military.

The PML_N leader has denied the generals have thrown their weight behind him or that the results of the election are pre-decided. 

TV channels started making projections of first results after voting closed at 5pm but a clear picture is likely to emerge early on Friday as counting continues through the night. The Election Commission is expected to announce official results tomorrow, Friday.

“Despite the setbacks to PTI in the pre-poll phase, I don’t think that results are predetermined,” Mahboob, the election expert, said. “We are witnessing close fights in most constituencies.”

He predicted that hundreds of independent candidates backed by the PTI would be able to win a “respectable number of seats” but would not be able to secure anything close to a majority in the National or Punjab assemblies. 

“They may secure close to a majority in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly,” Mahboob said, referring to a province that the PTI ruled from 2013-2023. “They will play an important role by lending their support to any candidate for prime minister and chief ministers.”

He predicted a “coalition government” led by the PML-N at the center. 

Syed Mudassar Rizvi, the CEO of election observer group FAFEN, said independent candidates would add intrigue to the government formation process, “as they have the freedom to align with any party, form their own group, join the opposition, or become part of the government.”

“DEFINING AN ENEMY”

But there are many observers who believe the results of Thursday’s vote are predetermined.

“Each time, one party or another has been targeted as the party that must be kept out of power and this time that party is PTI,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and currently a scholar at Washington’s Hudson Institute, told Arab News. “The military usually proceeds by defining an enemy and that enemy right now is Imran Khan.”

“The pattern is not new nor are the [security] establishment’s tactics,” he said, adding that the PTI’s vast social media presence and the celebrity status of its leader were amplifying the controversy more than in the past.

“Pakistan seems stuck with the hybrid model of partial democracy and military intervention. That will not change with this election. The only issue is whether Imran Khan’s popularity will dent the next hybrid regime’s ability to function effectively,” Haqqani added.

Sarwar Bari, National Coordinator at the not-for-profit Pattan Development Organization, said the 2024 election was peculiar in the “very transparent” nature of the manipulation and intimidation taking place.

“In the past, it used to be very subtle,” he told Arab News. “But this is unprecedented, at this level, so intense and widespread rigging.”

“I have been saying that this election is neither free nor fair,” Bari added, “but it is an absolutely transparent election because whatever is happening is happening in the clear light of day.”

At a polling station in Islamabad, an elderly woman, who declined to be named, said she was voting for “Khan and only Khan.”

“I am voting for the one who is being suppressed,” she told Arab News. “He is my prince, my son.”

But Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who is in Pakistan to head the Commonwealth Observers mission, said he was “pleased” with election arrangements, and had observed calm at the polling stations he visited.

“I believe that by the end of the day the people of Pakistan will be happy,” he told reporters. “On Sunday we will give a comprehensive report on this election.”

With additional inputs from Aamir Saeed in Islamabad


Search on in northwest Pakistan for four who went missing while bathing in canal, boating

Search on in northwest Pakistan for four who went missing while bathing in canal, boating
Updated 12 April 2024
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Search on in northwest Pakistan for four who went missing while bathing in canal, boating

Search on in northwest Pakistan for four who went missing while bathing in canal, boating
  • A boat capsized in Kund Park in the Nowshera district on Thursday and seven people submerged as a result of it
  • In another incident in Charsadda, six people went under water while bathing in Khayali canal, three were rescued

ISLAMABAD: A search operation was underway for four people who went missing while boating and bathing at recreational spots in different districts of Pakistan ‘s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, the Rescue 1122 service said on Friday.

A boat capsized in Kund Park in the Nowshera district on Thursday and seven people submerged as a result of it. Of them, six were rescued, according to Rescue 1122.

In another incident in Charsadda, six people went under water while bathing in Khayali canal and the rescuers three of them. Three were still missing.

“An operation by Rescue 1122 is ongoing in search of the four missing persons,” a Rescue 1122 spokesperson said in a statement on Friday. “One person in Kund and three in Charsadda are missing.”

The incidents occurred as a large number of people visited recreational spots on the second day of Eid Al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Muslims around the world offer special prayers on Eid morning, spend time with loved ones, organize lavish meals and go for recreational activities during the three-day religious festival.

The Rescue 1122 spokesperson said teams of divers had already been deployed at picnic and recreational spots on account of Eid.

“Rescue 1122 diving teams have rubber boats and all other equipment,” the spokesperson added.


In Pakistan’s Hyderabad, storehouse hydroponic farm beats drought, land degradation

In Pakistan’s Hyderabad, storehouse hydroponic farm beats drought, land degradation
Updated 12 April 2024
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In Pakistan’s Hyderabad, storehouse hydroponic farm beats drought, land degradation

In Pakistan’s Hyderabad, storehouse hydroponic farm beats drought, land degradation
  • Attiq-ur-Rehman Bhayo is using water-based nutrient solution instead of soil to grow tomatoes
  • Shift to urbanization combined with climate change is reducing farmlands in Pakistan, UN official says

HYDERABAD, PAKISTAN: In a large storehouse in the southern Pakistani city of Hyderabad, a 29-year-old entrepreneur is growing tomatoes on a hydroponic farm, defying land degradation, water shortage and power cuts in a country that ranks among the top 10 nations worldwide most affected by climate change.

Attiq-ur-Rehman Bhayo says his solar-powered set-up, in which farming is done in water instead of soil, will provide an urban solution to Pakistan’s agriculture needs as it faces more extreme rainfall, drought and heat waves, crop losses and other worsening threats from climate change.

Instead of soil to grow the tomatoes, Bhayo uses a water-based nutrient solution, coco peat, which is crushed from coconut husks, comes in the form of fine dust or powder and is popular due to its environmental friendliness and sustainability. In hydroponic farming, water is conserved because it is reused multiple times. Hydroponically grown plants also require no pesticides because there are no soil-borne diseases.

Spread over a large 4,000 square feet storehouse, Bhayo’s farm has been registered with the Securities & Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) since April 2022 and yielded its first produce in January this year. Since its inception, the farm has produced around 100 kilograms of tomatoes and exotic cherry tomato varieties.

Bhayo said his farm is the first solar-powered vertical farm in Pakistan, though there is no official confirmation of this.

“This is controlled environment agriculture based on hydroponic technology. In this system plant roots are submerged in a nutrient-drenched water solution,” Bhayo, the chief executive officer (CEO) and owner of Sulit Agro (Pvt) Ltd, told Arab News.

“Basically, the main difference between this system and the traditional system is yield and the quality of the fruit. As you can see this is a controlled environment so we don’t use any pesticides or fungicides which give us organic produce.”

Bhayo, who comes from a traditional family of farmers in Pakistan’s Sindh province, decided to pursue hydroponic farming while pursuing a Masters of Science degree in Engineering Business Management in the United Kingdom.

On returning to Pakistan in 2018, he set up his farm under the Prime Minister’s Kamyab Jawan Youth Entrepreneurship Scheme at a cost of Rs20 million.

“URBAN FARMING”

Hydroponic farming offers many benefits, including minimal food wastage as compared to open field cultivation, the prevention of nutrient runoff pollution that endangers livestock, fertilizer conservation, savings in pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, water conservation through closed-loop systems to avoid aquifer depletion, elimination of tilling to save Co2 emissions and protect soil microbes, and high yield in small spaces, Bhayo explained. 

But the primary distinction between hydroponics and traditional farming was yield and fruit quality, the grower said. 

Under the controlled environment of a hydroponic farm, pesticides and fungicides were unnecessary, resulting in organic produce. Additionally, produce could be available year-round compared with soil-based farming, which typically yields tomatoes for only three or four months annually.

Also, with traditional farming, the average yield per plant is 5 to 8 kilograms per season each year, whereas with hydroponics, the yield is year-round with an average of 36 kilograms per plant. If more advanced hydroponic systems are used in a high-tech temperature-controlled environment with special lights, the yield can go up to to 60 kilograms per plant yearly. 

It is for these reasons that vertical farming is gaining momentum in Pakistan, primarily driven by the private sector, with public sector organizations also embracing the modern agricultural approach.

The Soil Salinity and Reclamation Research Institute (SS&RRI), a provincial body established in Sindh’s Tando Jam town, recently carried out experiments using hydroponics. 

“Under the hydroponic system, we experimented with five vegetables, brinjal, chilies, tomatoes and others,” an official at the institute, Jamila Jamro, told Arab News.

In soil-less farming, she said, plants received essential elements without toxic additions like arsenic and cadmium, making the fruits healthier than those that came from field crops.

“We recommend indoor farming over traditional field farming,” Jamro said.

She said the institute’s future plan was to expand its research to major crops such as rice and wheat, for which it would identify salt-tolerant varieties.

“FUTURE SOLUTION”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, 70 percent of which will be living in urban areas mainly in low- and middle-income countries in Africa and Asia.

Against this background, the FAO has been supporting the transformation of urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) into a recognized urban land use and economic activity, integrated into national and local agricultural development strategies as well as food and nutrition programs and urban planning, a Sindh-based FOA official, James Robert Okoth, explained.

He told Arab News the social shift toward urbanization in Pakistan, combined with climate change which was reducing available farmland, had spotlighted the importance of urban farming to enhance food security and availability in communities.

“Urban farming is important for Pakistan, especially in Sindh province, as the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly evident,” Okoth said. “There is considerable land degradation, and much of the groundwater is becoming brackish, limiting crop options in these areas.”

Urban farming allows for intensification within a small area, enabling the cultivation of diverse, nutritious vegetables, as well as creating employment opportunities, the FOA official added.

Bhayo agrees and hopes the idea will catch on.

After having successfully established his farm, the entrepreneur now offers consultancy on greenhouse technology to others intending to set up similar farms.

“The response is that people are most likely scared whether they will get a return from this huge investment or not,” he said, adding that government support to scale hydroponic farms, through loans and knowledge transfer, was the way forward. 

“This will provide them [farmers] a good opportunity to invest in this system,” Bhayo said. “Once you stabilize the system, there are minimum requirements to maintain the system.”
 


Pakistani politician writes to Hamas chief, condoles over death of sons in Israeli strike

Pakistani politician writes to Hamas chief, condoles over death of sons in Israeli strike
Updated 12 April 2024
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Pakistani politician writes to Hamas chief, condoles over death of sons in Israeli strike

Pakistani politician writes to Hamas chief, condoles over death of sons in Israeli strike
  • The killings came as talks dragged on in Cairo for a temporary ceasefire and hostage release deal
  • Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman calls Israel’s targeting of families of Hamas leaders ‘admission of failure’ 

ISLAMABAD: Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) religious party, has written a letter to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh to condole over the death of his three sons in an Israeli strike in Gaza, the JUI said on Thursday.

Israel confirmed the killings that came as talks in Cairo for a temporary ceasefire and hostage release deal dragged on without signs of a breakthrough.

Speaking to Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, Haniyeh suggested the strike, which also killed four of his grandchildren, was an attempt to shift Hamas’s negotiating stance.

In his letter to the Hamas chief, Rehman said targeting families and children of Hamas leaders was an “admission of failure” by Israel.

“The blood of these martyrs will not go in vain,” he stated. “We support Hamas’ efforts in fight [against Israeli occupation of Palestine].”

The Pakistani politician said his party condemned the targeting of hospitals and refugee camps by Israel. He called on the international community to end the oppression and violence on the Palestinians forever.

Pakistan does not recognize the state of Israel and calls for an independent Palestinian state based on “internationally agreed parameters” and the pre-1967 borders with Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital.

Rehman’s statement came amid talks, mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, which have been ongoing in Cairo since Sunday.

Despite calls for a ceasefire, Israel has carried out strikes in the Gaza Strip, particularly in the south of the territory, witnesses say.

The war broke out with Hamas’s October 7 attack against Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,482 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry.


IMF chief says Pakistan seeking potential follow-up loan program

IMF chief says Pakistan seeking potential follow-up loan program
Updated 12 April 2024
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IMF chief says Pakistan seeking potential follow-up loan program

IMF chief says Pakistan seeking potential follow-up loan program
  • Pakistan, IMF last month reached an agreement on second and final review of the $3 billion stand-by arrangement
  • The IMF board is expected to review the matter in late April, but no firm date has been set, a spokesperson said

WASHINGTON: Pakistan is in discussions with the International Monetary Fund on a potential follow-up program to its nine-month, $3 billion stand-by arrangement, IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said on Thursday, adding that it had important issues to solve.

Georgieva told an event at the Atlantic Council think tank, that Pakistan was successfully completing its existing program with the IMF and its economy was performing somewhat better, with reserves now being built up.

“There is a commitment to continue on this path, and the country is turning to the fund for potentially having a follow-up program,” Georgieva said, flagging issues that the struggling South Asian nation still needed to address.

“There are very important issues to be solved in Pakistan: the tax base, how the richer part of society contributes to the economy, the way public spending is being directed and of course, creating ... a more transparent environment.”

Pakistan and the IMF last month reached a staff-level agreement on the second and last review of the $3 billion stand-by arrangement, which, if cleared by the global lender’s board, will release about $1.1 billion to the struggling South Asian nation. The IMF’s board is expected to review the matter in late April, but no firm date has been set, a spokesperson said.

Both sides have also spoken about negotiating a longer-term bailout and continuing with necessary policy reforms to rein in deficits, build up reserves and manage soaring debt servicing.


Islamabad banned Zainebiyoun Brigade after it became threat to Pakistan’s security — experts

Islamabad banned Zainebiyoun Brigade after it became threat to Pakistan’s security — experts
Updated 12 April 2024
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Islamabad banned Zainebiyoun Brigade after it became threat to Pakistan’s security — experts

Islamabad banned Zainebiyoun Brigade after it became threat to Pakistan’s security — experts
  • The Zainebiyoun Brigade comprises Pakistanis allegedly trained by Iran for fighting in Syria alongside Bashar Assad’s forces
  • Islamabad’s move comes days before Iranian’s president’s expected visit, aimed at repairing ties after tit-for-tat strikes in Jan.

KARACHI: Pakistan designated the Zainebiyoun Brigade, an Iran-backed militant group comprising Pakistani nationals that has been active in Syria, as a “terrorist” organization after it became a potential threat to the country’s security, experts said on Friday.

The Pakistani government had reasons to believe that Zainebiyoun Brigade was engaged in certain activities “prejudicial to the peace and security of the country,” read a notification, issued by the country’s interior minister on March 29, which emerged on Thursday. Subsequently, Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) updated its official list of proscribed organizations, placing the Iran-backed group at 79th spot.

The development came a day after Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that Israel “must be punished and will be punished,” following an April 1 attack that destroyed Iran’s consulate building in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards, including two generals. Some analysts believe Tehran might be planning an attack on Israeli interests in the world and could move the Zainebiyoun Brigade for this purpose.

Since the US Treasury added the Zainebiyoun Brigade to its financial blacklist in Jan. 2019, Pakistani authorities have arrested several militants affiliated with the group, notably in the country’s commercial hub of Karachi, a significant recruitment hub for the militant outfit, along with three other regions – Parachinar, Quetta and Gilgit Baltistan.

Security experts say Islamabad moved to outlaw the Zainebiyoun Brigade due to the threat it posed to Pakistan’s security in the current scenario.

“Its [Zainebiyoun’s] activities may trigger major sectarian conflict as it used to be in Pakistan sometimes ago as retaliation by Sunni extremist groups may further complicate the environment,” Abdullah Khan, an Islamabad-based security expert, told Arab News.

Previously, Zainebiyoun members fighting in Syria and Iraq were considered an “indirect threat,” but now the group’s members have reportedly returned to Pakistan and replaced banned sectarian outfit Sipa-e-Muhammad “as the main militant group targeting opponents,” according to Khan. The Zainebiyoun Brigade has now become “a very serious threat to Pakistan’s sectarian harmony.”

A Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the decision to designate Zainebiyoun Brigade as a proscribed entity was made after Iran’s attacks inside Pakistan.

“The decision, implemented on March 29, was taken in a high-level meeting following Iran’s attack inside Pakistan,” the official told Arab News. “Increasing attacks in Balochistan by militants based in Iran further pushed for the implementation of this decision.”

In January, Iran targeted two suspected bases of the Jaish-ul-Adl militant group in Pakistan with missiles, prompting a rapid military riposte from Islamabad targeting what it said were separatist militants in Iran.

The tit-for-tat strikes were the highest-profile cross-border intrusions by the two countries in recent years and raised alarm about a wider conflict.

“Iran-Pakistan relations have been strained since the Iranians fired missiles in Pakistan earlier this year, which has triggered questions about Iranian relationship with various armed groups active in Pakistan, including the Zainebiyoun,” Dr. Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the US Institute of Peace, told Arab News.

“Even if not a decisive factor in Pakistani calculus to designate Zainebiyoun, it is difficult to separate the decision from the state of Iran-Pakistan bilateral ties.”

Pakistan’s designation of the Zainebiyoun Brigade as a militant outfit also comes days before an expected visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in the third week of April and is likely to put pressure on Tehran in the talks later this month.

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based independent scholar on militancy, politics and security, concurred the move was also linked to “growing tensions” between the two countries.

“Recently, amid growing tensions between Pakistan and Iran, this move can be interpreted as Pakistan’s attempt to thwart potential sectarian attacks aimed at destabilizing the country,” he said.

“Iran has accused Pakistan of harboring sanctuaries for Jaish-ul-Adl [militant group] and has threatened repercussions.”

Sayed said the group had emerged as a “dangerous” organization as significant number of youths previously associated with other outfits had joined its ranks.

“Its militants have also been implicated in terrorist attacks against rival sects within Pakistan,” he added.

In January this year, the counter-terrorism department (CTD) in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province said they had apprehended Syed Muhammad Mehdi, a suspected militant associated with the Zainebiyoun Brigade who had been involved in an assassination attempt on Mufti Taqi Usmani, a top Pakistani cleric, in Karachi in 2019. The attack had killed two of Mufti Usmani’s guards.

In July 2022, then Pakistan interior minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the Senate that Zainebiyoun Brigade members were among the militants “found actively involved in terrorist activities” in the country in 2019-2021.

In recent years, Pakistani authorities have announced the arrest of a number of suspects who they said were affiliated with the Zainebiyoun Brigade and were trained in Iran.

In Nov 2020, an Associated Press report said a number of Pakistanis were among 19 pro-Iran militia fighters killed in eastern Syria.

In March 2020, a senior official told Arab News that up to 50 Pakistani fighters were killed by the Turkish army and Syrian forces in a major rebel stronghold in the northwest of Syria.