By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Latest decision of the Supreme Court castrating the insatiable itch of Mian Sahib to remain the lead player in politics despite his judicial disqualification has given an altogether new turn to Pakistan’s fast changing scenario. The Supreme Court judgment drastically plucking his wings has plunged PMLN politics in a deepening imbroglio.
Despite the fatal blow to its leadership, PMLN paper musketeers who refuse to read the writing on the wall, seem to be hell bent in making matters worst confounded. When things back home were moving towards an implosion shrouding future course of events under a dark cloud, the arbitrary decision of sending troops to a foreign country without debate or approval of the Parliament-has added foreign dimension to the sensitive issue since it is being inferred that it was a decision taken by the former prime minister when he was in effective power.
The matter should have sparked off a controversy. However, due to its religious undertones, muted dissenting voices have been heard. Senator Farhatullah Babar, however, showed his courage as usual and raised the issues of by passing of parliament followed by Senate Chairman Mian Raza Rabbani who rightly expressed his anger over what he called a decision “tantamount to bypassing the parliament”.
Both Raza and Babar have done a national service by drawing the attention of the House to the matter since the issue is of public importance. Subsequently under pressure, Defence Minister Ghulam Dastgir came up with a “loli langri” briefing. He, however, did not give the details of ‘unilateral decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia for deployment’ committing ‘contempt of parliament’ as the Chairman described his refusal to divulge “operational details”. The Senate chairman rightly censured Dastagir for not taking the house into confidence even though both he and the Prime Minister had the knowledge of the decision for several months. “The parliament found out [about the deployment] through a press release,” Rabbani said. “The executive has itself rubbed parliament’s nose in the dirt.”
It may be recalled that Saudi Arabia has been demanding the deployment of Pakistani troops since the start of the Yemen conflict in 2015. Without undermining the traditional fraternal relations between the two countries, it was Parliament that refused to oblige on compromising Pakistan’s neutrality. The parliamentary resolution not conceding to the request, asserted Pakistan’s neutrality in the conflict. The latest decision without seeking Parliament’s permission is total contradiction of the “neutrality” – in line with the unanimous resolution passed by a joint sitting of parliament in 2015 stating that Pakistan will not become party to any war in the Middle East or any Arab state.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had closest defence partnership since ages. And the defence of the Holy Places is considered as divine duty. However, here the issue is of vital national importance and it cannot be decided by a few individuals for their selfish personal relations, jobs or comforts in Saroor Palace in case of exile. It relates to rapidly unfolding events in Middle East that are likely to have serious consequences for the entire region.
In the past 17 years, post the 2001 Iraq war, the map of the Middle East has completely changed. Prior to 2001, Saudia Arabia was the dominant power in the region and Iran’s sphere of influence existed only in Syria, part of Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Hamas). However, today in 2018, Iran has formed a Crescent around Saudia Arabia which has cornered Saudia Arabia in the Middle East. Iran now enjoys complete control in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In addition, it is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; it has successfully allied Qatar on it’s side; it’s causing uprisings in Bahrain (unreported in the media). Also, it has occupied a significant portion of Yemen, successfully removing a pro-Saudi government.
In view of the above shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, the Saudis have naturally decided to take on Iran in a penultimate battle because on the current trajectory, Iran will become the sole power in the region. This has also led to the closest alliance that Saudia has ever had with Israel, as it to wants to engage Iran in a direct battle to change the force history.
Initially, Saudia and Israel both supported groups such as the Islamic State/Al-Nusra against Iran, in both Iraq and Syria but that strategy has failed due to support of the Russians in favour of Iran. Therefore, the decision was made to make the battle direct. The first example of this direct war was the attack on the Iranian Parliament, last year. It was an infamous attack, unparalleled in recent Iranian history. Iran responded swiftly, with a couple of warning shots over Riyadh: The rockets fired on Saudia, by the Houthi’s from Yemen-delivered the message.
In the given situation in order to take on Iran directly, Saudia needs the three of the most well equipped and battle trained Muslim Armies: Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey. Since Pakistan trumps both Egypt and Turkey due to it’s obvious superiority (e.g. nuclear weapons), General Raheel Shareef was seduced in as the head of the “Islamic Nato”, created by Saudia in anticipation of the coming war. It was obvious then that Pakistan would only acquiesce to a troop request, if it had complete control over the running of the Muslim Nato and, therefore, General Raheel Shareef swiftly moved to take up that position.
Finally, the news of the brigade that might be sent to Saudia, comes as no surprise. Please note that according to unconfirmed reports, at least 50,000 retired Army personal are already serving in Saudia and the UAE in very important positions. Some of the recruitment was even rumoured to have taken place under the guise of indigenous proxy organisations in cahoots with the deep state.
While Turkey was supportive of Iran and Qatar, Saudi could not do much by just hiring a retired general from Pakistan and renting its troops for Saudi Nato, its biggest impetus came with the election of President Donald Trump since President Obama had refused to re-supply the Saudi Army with important weaponry, severely restricting their ability to fight in Yemen or preparing for a war with Iran. However, Trump’s first visit to Saudi Arabia to head an Arab summit led to refueling the Saudi arsenal with everything it needs, to prepare for a war with Iran.
Pakistan’s Parliament, its Foreign Office and GHQ must deliberate and debate as to what would be impact of such an eventuality on other states. No doubt Iran will be the biggest loser in such a war, because it will force Iranian resources towards the conflict and away from its current expansive strategy in the Middle East and economy while Qatar is lready paying the price for its alliance with Iran.
Just when Pakistan was clandestinely preparing to send its troops, India and Iran signed agreements of far reaching economic and strategic developments. Iran agreed to lease to New Delhi operational control of part of Chabahar Port for 18 months that creates a new transit route between India and Afghanistan enabling it as well access to Central Asian markets bypassing Pakistan. In their summit Indian Prime Minister Modi and the Iranian President Rouhani vowed to expand their economic ties, construction of the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link to boost regional connectivity and energy trade.
Pakistan’s key influence in the region. India’s investment in Afghanistan crossing more than $Two billion has already given Delhi an overbearing foothold in the war torn economy of Afghanistan much to the pleasure of Americans that are supportive of the Indian role of a regional power pursuing ‘common interests’ in countering terrorism, extremism, illegal drug trafficking and organised crime.
While apparently Indian aim is to help achieve stability in Afghanistan to ensure that anti-Indian militants (or those allegedly supported by Pakistan) don’t find a haven in Afghanistan, there is also the ambition to counter Pakistan and keep it under check on the western borders. Indian overemphasis on the word terrorism is in keeping with Delhi’s position at all international forums is reflective of the direction of the new alliances. A key threat to this relationship relates to India’s strategic partnership with the United States and given Trump administration’s move to revise nuclear deal with Iran, this will be a test for India’s diplomatic and strategic skills.
Consequences for Pakistan of a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be severe. It will face a backlash, in the form of resurgence in Sunni/Shia violence as happened after the Iranian revolution. Unknown to many people in Pakistan, a small contingent of Shia fighters from Pakistan were actually caught fighting in Syria on Iran’s side. Needless to mention, all the Wahabi miscreants in Pakistan have been receiving financial sustenance from Sunni Gulf states over the years. In the event of any direct war, these proxies will play their subversive part in Pakistan causing a sectarian implosion. Even now their activities are beyond the leash and writ of the state.
Last but not least, given the consistency of decisions in Saudi Arabia, direct war is most probable. Every Saudi step over the past few years has been Iran-centric and has signalled preparations for war. Therefore, it is difficult to see how Saudis will change this mindset especially when Pakistan has readily offered its troops for its defence. Besides, in the event of a war, the outcome remains unknown as we have Israel/Saudia/Pakistan/US/Egypt/UAE on one side and Iran/Russia/Iraq/Syria/ Lebanon/etc on the other side with India covertly supporting it along with Afghanistan. Time is the essence. The present thrust in Saudi foreign policy would only last as long as President Trump is in office since American support will be crucial.
At present both the US/UK are supporting Saudia in Yemen and even have their special forces on the ground but if in 2020, a democrat comes into power, it might adversely affect Saudi plans. As far as Pakistanis concerned, it has got itself trapped in a catch 22 dilemma.
Once its neutrality is compromised as it is likely, it will be difficult for it to get out of the Middle Eastern quagmire. In order to be pragmatic in our response to the emerging scenario, we have to put our house in order, stop the clash of institutions, let political and military leadership be on the same page and take all issues to the Parliament for its decision on the basis of collective wisdom in the best national interests.
(Author is former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist.)
By Wajid Shamsul Hasan