There’s debate, again, over Pakistan ‘joining’ Saudi Arabia’s 39-nation military alliance and the former Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, leading it. The military spokesman says Sharif’s appointment was decided by the government; the government, so far, has been silent. The predominant view looks at both critically, raising multiple concerns. Ambiguity from the government on both issues has led to speculation that has further fueled debate. So what is going on?
It’s instructive to go back in time. Harking back in this case is not just an exercise in historical pedantry but to address one of the chief concerns (i.e., Pakistan hasn’t and mustn’t jump into an imploding Middle East). Pakistan’s military, then part of the British Indian Army, was involved in the Middle East in both World Wars. The British relied on this force, more than a third of which was Muslim, to control areas in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and the Levant. Such was their romance with the British Indian Army that even when Partition became irreversible Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck seriously suggested that the force should remain intact. That, of course, didn’t happen. In August 1947, the British Indian Army split into the Pakistan and Indian armies.
Far from the old links getting broken, the Pakistan Army established a different kind of relationship with Middle Eastern countries, including Iran. Army and Air Force personnel have been stationed in countries like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. During the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, Pakistani pilots flew combat sorties for Syria, though our troops never took part in any ground combat. The Pakistan Army has also remained involved in stability operations in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Pakistan Military Academy, the Command and Staff College in Quetta, and the National Defense College (now university) have over the decades trained innumerable cadets and officers from dozens of Muslim-majority countries, including Palestine.
Pakistan is not just about to get into the Middle East, it has always been there. In fact, over the years, its contribution to training cadets and officers from Middle Eastern militaries has increased. And that does not just include Saudi Arabia, but also Iraq, which is now led by a Shia-dominated government. During the 1980s, as Iran and Iraq slugged it out in a long, often stalemated war, Pakistan and its Army remained involved in multiple peace initiatives.
More recently, after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shia cleric, protestors in Tehran mobbed the Saudi Embassy and burnt it. It was then-Army chief Sharif, along with the prime minister, who went to Riyadh and then Tehran to defuse tensions. Gulf states, wary of Iran, have long looked at the Pakistan Army as a guarantor of stability in the region.
This is as far as history and facts go. The relationship(s) hasn’t been one-way. Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries have helped Pakistan financially with credit lines for energy imports during crisis points. There’s intelligence cooperation, as also close working in relation to Afghanistan and Central Asia. There are no free lunches in diplomacy. Relations are about I.O.U.s, and people, or states, come collecting when they need to.
The complexity now, as since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, is the nature of conflicts in the Middle East. While Saudi Arabia and Iran jockey for power in the region, their multiple battles are being fought along sectarian lines and that line runs diabolically deep. Sunni-Salafi nonstate actors are ready to butcher Shia nonstate actors and vice versa. Pakistan saw that war in the 1980s. It has spread far and wide since. Other actors have entered the fray after 9/11 and America’s revenge wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Add to that the Arab Spring that has seen Libya, Syria and Yemen implode and we have a situation whose flowchart is boggling. As wars rage in these imploded states, external nonstate and state actors have come in support of their respective proxies, making it more and more difficult to restore normalcy. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight—not yet.
This is why in 2015, when Saudi Arabia pulled a surprise on Pakistan by declaring that Islamabad was part of its military coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, there was widespread resistance in the country to joining a futile war. The government was put on the mat and Parliament overwhelmingly rejected any suggestion that the country could or should have any combat role in Yemen. It was a good decision, but it had a cost. The GCC countries were livid.
Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has gone south and sideways. It is a disaster and Yemen is now a serious humanitarian crisis. But now the Kingdom has come up with another alliance, which it describes as a counterterrorism force. No one that I have spoken with in the government, especially at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, knows what the force configuration is or how or against who it will operate. Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told the Senate on Jan. 11 (on the record) that General Sharif had not approached the government for any no-objection certificate for employment with the Saudi coalition. More recently, Asif said during a TV interview that Islamabad has received a request in this regard from Saudi Arabia and the government, in principle, has agreed to it. It is still unclear whether this agreement pertains only to Sharif’s employment or, more broadly, to Pakistan’s official participation in the Saudi alliance.
We do know that something is afoot because Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, did approach Tehran regarding Sharif’s appointment as head of the Saudi-led coalition. Iran, we are told, has objected and expressed its concerns.
There is yet no discussion in Parliament and nothing has been officially confirmed. On TV, a former lieutenant general, Amjad Shoaib, who claims to be close to Sharif, has said that the former general has three conditions for leading the coalition: Iran should be included in it, he is not to be under anyone’s command, and he should have the remit to negotiate with warring factions and groups. Again, Sharif himself has remained silent, just like the government. The current team at GHQ is also tightlipped. There’s also the ‘minor’ technical hitch as per retirement rules: no civil or military officer can take up foreign employment for two years after concluding service.
What should one make of this?
One: Pakistan’s involvement in the Middle East is an old affair. Two: we have to determine whether this involvement has redounded to Pakistan’s advantage. Three: no policy is ever cost-free, but we must first know what exactly the policy is. Four: there should be an institutional debate on the pros and cons of deeper involvement, its nature, and its parameters (Iran is recruiting Pakistani Shia; Sunni Pakistanis, though in lesser numbers are joining Islamic State and Al Qaeda). Five: the Middle East is important for Pakistan and it is naive to think that we can stay entirely clear of its politics. Six: flowing from the previous point, the approach should not be determined by pusillanimity, but caution must be exercised. Seven: the most important point of reference would be to clearly determine that any benefits must outweigh the costs. Eight: Pakistan must captain the policy and not just bat for Saudi interests.
Finally, the government must state clearly what exactly is happening, how exactly it will navigate this treacherous terrain, and what course of action it intends to take so there can be an informed debate on that policy inside and outside Parliament with input from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. From our April 8 – 15, 2017, issue.