It is hardly surprising to see the eruption of a heated debate in Pakistan over the decision of General (retired) Raheel Sharif (GRS) to become head of the so-called Islamic Military Alliance which is cobbled together by Saudi Arabia. Many Pakistanis are concerned about the possible fallout of this new adventure while the country is still profusely bleeding because of her old Afghan adventure. It is particularly so as the Middle Eastern adventure has the potential for taking the sectarian divide in the country to a new level.
Many Pakistanis vividly remember that up till mid 1970s Pakistan was one of the favorite destinations of tourists from all over the world and was known in other countries for producing good quality of cotton. Then came General Zia’s despotic dictatorship that derailed the country by imposing the so-called Jihadi project on the country with the support of western countries and Arab kings. After that Pakistan came to be known for exporting Taliban and other high quality terrorists. Therefore many people believe that with serious problems of religious extremism and terrorism on her plate, Pakistan can ill afford to jump into the sectarian quagmire of the Middle East. It was with this background in mind that the Pakistani Parliament had passed a resolution opposing the country’s involvement in the on-going military conflict in Yemen.
Pakistan has a history of military relations with Saudi Arabia in terms of providing training facilities and deploying troops for purely defensive purposes. But this time round it’s going to be a new ball game altogether due to the following monumental political and geo-strategic changes in the Middle East.
One, after the defeat of the Sassanian Empire of Persia at the hands of Muslim Arabs in 651 AD it is for the first time that Iranians have been able to deploy their army on a large scale in Arab lands. The post Saddam Shia majority Iraq is part of the Iranian camp. The Alawite regime of Bashar-ul-Assad in Syria has so far survived the devastating civil wars and proxy wars mainly because of Iranian support. Iran has strong and loyal allies in the shape of Hizbullah in Lebanon. Ascendancy of Yemeni Houthies has opened yet another Arab country to Iranian influence. Sheikdom in Bahrain has had a difficult time in quelling Shia uprising. Saudi Arabia, like many of its neighbors, is facing internal sectarian fault lines apart from the threat from the expanding influence of Iran. So the ideological threat from Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 is now turning into a real military threat for which Saudi Arabia is least prepared. It is looking for boots on ground in the war in Yemen, the outcome of which is vital for the future of the Saudi ruling clan.
Two, the mass uprising in recent years, known as the Arab Spring has badly shaken almost all the Arab countries. The Saudi monarchy was able to keep it out of KSA but it had to provide financial incentives to the population for keeping it away from the uprising, leading to financial difficulties. These financial strains have intensified due to the falling oil prices for the last so many years.
Three, Saudi relations with western countries in general and US in particular have seen a definite decline. US is not as dependent on Saudi oil as it used to be. Wahabism and Salfism, the official ideology of ruling Saudi elites, is regarded to be the ideological basis for violent religious extremism. Many in the west believe that Saudi terror financing hasn’t come to an end despite lots of pressures and persuasions. Unlike the past experience, the Saudis weren’t able to stop western countries from entering into a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue that resulted in lifting stringent financial sanctions from Iran. Saudi insecurities have further deepened with the growing hostile attitude of the western media towards its archaic and repressive state system (although one must add that when it comes to repression the Iranian theocracy is hardly any different).
In view of all the above it is pretty clear that the aforementioned military alliance is needed by Saudi Arabia to contain Iranian political expansion and military domination in the Middle East, for defending herself and other Sheikdoms. Winning the war in Yemen is crucial for achieving the aforementioned objective and the experience of the last two years has proved it beyond any doubt that KSA cannot do it by herself. Hence the so-called Islamic Military Alliance against terrorism. Saudis have their eyes on the Pakistan Army. General Raheel Sharif’s joining the force will be the first step towards committing Pakistani soldiers to the so-called military alliance. After all GRS is not an ordinary citizen who can go and seek a job anywhere in the world. He was until very recently military leader of Pakistani state and his joining the Saudi led alliance will only indicate the state’s inclination towards physically joining it. This will amount to attracting a Saudi-Iran proxy war into Pakistan, a country already suffering from sectarian terrorism.
Apart from the recent resolution of the Parliament against becoming a party to the war in Yemen there was another policy decision a few years ago. After the US attack on a Pakistani border post in Salala the then Parliamentary Committee on National Security had prepared some recommendations that were subsequently approved by a joint session of the Parliament. One of them made it obligatory for the government to present every agreement or treaty with foreign countries to the Parliament. That policy is still binding. Unfortunately the present federal government has a very poor record in making Parliament the main forum for policy making and oversight. In the present case the situation is more difficult in view of the close relations of the Pakistani ruling clan (the Sharif family) with their Saudi counterparts. Also of no less importance is Saudi investment in the Pakistani defense sector and military establishment (remember Musharraf’s confession about flowing of Saudi money into his bank accounts). But history will never forget the rulers if they bring sectarian wars into the country by falling for Middle Eastern temptations.
To avoid in future situations like the present one the Parliament needs to legislate and the relevant government ministries need to make rules for the foreign employment of persons who have served on high and sensitive security institutions of the country. It shouldn’t be free for all.