Mysterious ways

The confusion over Pakistan's military cooperation with Saudi Arabia may be deliberate

Mysterious ways
Despite Pakistan’s tactical ambivalence on committing troops for Saudi Arabia’s external operations, it is quietly being sucked into the Middle Eastern maelstrom.

The participation of Pakistani troops in the multinational counterterrorism maneuvers codenamed North Thunder (Ra’ad Al-Shamal) in Saudi Arabia’s Hafr Al-Batin region near the border with Iraq is just one indication. The war games that have all three military components – ground, air and sea – are being dubbed “the largest in the region’s history”.

The Foreign Office said Pakistan was taking part in the exercises because of “close fraternal ties” with Riyadh and bilateral defense cooperation spanning decades.

The 18-day exercise comes less than two months after Saudi Arabia announced a 34-nation alliance for “countering terrorism”, of which Pakistan is also a part. Many see these maneuvers as an operationalization of the alliance that aimed to improve intelligence sharing, provision of military hardware, troop deployment, training of forces, and developing a counter-narrative to the extremist propaganda. The inaugural meeting of the alliance is being planned for next month.
Saudi fighter jets are already stationed in Turkey

Pakistan has been a longtime ally of Saudi Arabia, but participation in the exercises – which also coincide with Riyadh’s announcement of plans to make a ground intervention in Syria to “fight ISIS” – has raised concerns at home. Saudi Arabia has bankrolled and armed the Syrian insurgency throughout the last five years.

Publicly, the Saudis deny that the war games were linked to its Syria plans, but simultaneous statements – such as the latest one by Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir in which he had said Syrian President Bashar Al Assad would be removed by force if the UN-brokered peace process fails – fuel skepticism about their intentions. With Saudi fighter jets already stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik base, close to the Syrian border, there is hardly any doubt that Saudi Arabia and its allies are prepared to involve themselves in the Syrian civil war sooner or later.

The venue of the exercises, which involve 150,000 soldiers from 20 countries, has also raised concerns in Iraq, which has in response deployed a large number of troops on the Saudi border despite its internal counterterrorism commitments.

The Senate’s foreign affairs committee raised questions about Pakistan’s likely involvement in the planned Saudi intervention in Syria in its last sitting. But Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry tactfully avoided making any categorical statements. They said they were not aware of the details, and that media reports could not be made the basis of policy formulation.

Foreign Ministry officials say they still don’t have a complete picture of the nature of the 34-nation alliance, even after the Saudi defense and foreign ministers’ visit to Islamabad, and the meeting between King Salman the Pakistani prime minister and army chief in Riyadh.

This ambivalence on military cooperation with Saudi Arabia may be deliberate, for several reasons.

Firstly, the government is wary of the strong opposition at home against getting involved in a conflict in the Middle East or taking sides in the Riyadh-Tehran row. The apologetically worded Foreign Office statement announcing Pakistan’s participation in the military exercises was meaningful. Announcements of this nature are rarely phrased like that.

There is also a general fear that participation in the conflict may spark sectarian tensions at home. The apprehensions are not unfounded. A statement issued by the Islamist group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat welcomed Pakistan’s participation in the war game and said it was a pointed message for “anti-Islam” forces.

Besides, Pakistan’s stated position so far has been that it will not intervene in Syria or become part of a regime change plot. It may revisit its stance, or just tacitly endorse the Saudi moves.

The ambivalence may work while dealing with domestic audience, but it will not work with other countries, such as Iran and Iraq. Sooner or later, the government will have to break its silence and take a clear position.

The Saudis have hardly tried to conceal their intention to show-off their clout through these military exercises. Officials in Riyadh say they are meant to show that its allies “stand united in confronting all challenges and preserving peace and stability in the region.”

And that is how other countries will see Islamabad’s position, regardless of its claim that it pursues a balanced policy.

The writer is a freelance journalist

based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr