Pakistan and the Saudi Coalition | Nasim Zehra

Pakistan’s foreign policy managers, including the prime minister, the advisor on foreign policy, the foreign secretary and indeed the spokesperson, had all initially contributed to confusion over Pakistan’s involvement in the anti-terrorism coalition the Saudis announced on December 15.

The Saudi announcement had taken them by surprise since like the Saudi’s April 2015 anti-Yemen coalition – in which they had announced Pakistan’s membership – this time too the Saudis unilaterally announced Pakistan’s inclusion in this 34-member coalition. Pakistan’s foreign secretary had announced Pakistan knew nothing about the coalition hence could be a member. The Foreign Office spokesman was instructed within hours to announce we are happy and we are right in the coalition!

However, behind the scenes the official buzz was that Pakistan has no clue about the what and the how of the coalition, our troops are committed internally in counter-insurgency operations and therefore we are not in the coalition – but we cannot say no outright because the Saudis will again get annoyed. Parliament’s final no to the Yemen coalition, and the discussion in parliament, had prompted an unbecoming remark by a junior UAE minister against Pakistan.

So for our policymakers the lesson from the last experience was to opt for deliberate ambivalence on the question of Pakistan’s membership in the new coalition. This ambivalence made the Foreign Office spokesman again announce that Pakistan welcomes the coalition and is part of it while the advisor on foreign policy publicly announced that the question of Pakistan’s membership was premature.

However, Pakistani policymakers finally lent some coherence on the matter. At the conclusion of the third high-level Saudi visit in less than a month, the answer to whether Pakistan is a member of the 34-member Saudi anti-terror coalition came in the form of an official statement from the prime minister’s office. The statement “welcomed the Saudi initiative to establish a coalition of like-minded Islamic countries to counter terrorism and militancy…”. Pakistan also “supports efforts to counter terrorism and extremism.” The prime minister had a brief meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman – who is also the Saudi defence minister.

It was the army chief who had a longer, more substantive, meeting with Defence Minister Salman. Yet the ISPR statement made no mention of the 34-member Saudi coalition. Instead, it framed the meeting within the bilateral framework, reiterating that “Pakistan holds its defence ties with KSA in highest esteem and re-asserted that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.”

The ISPR statement also reflected the Pakistan-Saudi discussion at the GHQ on how could Saudi Arabia could benefit from Pakistan’s counterterrorism expertise. It stated that: “the Saudi Defence Minister said KSA attaches great importance to Pakistan and its armed forces and appreciates their successes in fight against terrorism and efforts for regional stability.” Together the two statements, from the prime minister’s office and the ISPR, stayed within the parameters that were set by the four decisions taken at the January 7 meeting chaired by the prime minister, regarding positioning Pakistan with regard to the Saudi coalition and the growing Saudi-Iran belligerence.

These four decisions were: one, that Pakistan will be emphatic about its support to Saudi Arabia within the bilateral context and troops will only be sent to defend Saudi territory; two, counterterrorism support will be provided to Saudi Arabia which could involve intelligence sharing; three, no Pakistani troops for deployment or battle in any other country; and four, that Pakistan must position itself as a mediator within the Saudi-Iranian conflict.

Understandably, the first two decisions, positives for the Saudis, were repeatedly reflected in all official statements. The Saudis seemingly went back pleased. They were promised CT cooperation especially as they battle Al-Qaeda and Daesh within Saudi Arabia. In case of increase serious internal threats Pakistan could then send combat troops. Currently, Pakistan reportedly has several hundred armed forces personnel from the intelligence, training and medical units.

Although the ‘no’ to combat troops for outside of Saudi Arabia has been clearly conveyed to the Saudis, as was done when troops were expected for the anti-Yemen coalition, Islamabad-Rawalpindi have refrained from making public statements. However, on Pakistan’s mediation role between the Saudis and the Iranians, the Saudis too have privately conveyed the minimal possibility for a rapprochement any time soon.

The post-Iran revolution Iranian-Saudi relations have been fraught with tension if not confrontation. No respite is likely in the immediate context. Between Saudi Arabia and Iran geostrategic and ideological contests continue: developments like the Iran-US nuclear deal, the ongoing Iran-Saudi proxy battle on Saudi Arabia’s border in Yemen and now a diplomatic war after Sheikh Nimr’s execution

While the Saudi-Iranian bilateral dynamics are deteriorating, Pakistan’s policy manoeuvring has to take into account elements that are relevant to Pakistan’s own interests. Five are noteworthy. One, throughout history Saudi Arabia’s relations with Pakistan have been significant from the diplomatic, security and economic perspectives. Two, Iran is an important neighbour with whom we historically share cultural ties and continue to have important diplomatic and security ties. With hope of the revival of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, Iran can also become our major energy partner.

Three, Pakistan cannot let sectarianism influence, let alone dictate, its foreign policy. Although the blunder of our 1980s policy – ranging from co-authoring, and jointly executing the international Afghan jihad, allowing Pakistan to be used as a battleground for Saudi-Iranian proxy battles and promoting our security objectives through proxies – dragged Pakistan into the hell-fires of sectarian battles, Pakistan has not adopted a sectarian identity as a State. Pakistan has remained, despite the 1980s blunders, a Muslim state. Five, Pakistan’s three and a half decade old lessons of the headlong plunge into the international Afghan jihad, clearly dictate that we stay away from becoming partisan in geo-strategic battles of sectarian shades.

Six, international law cannot be ignored by Pakistan in positioning itself on any issue. Pakistan rightly condemned attacked attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran. Similarly Pakistan’s decision to stay away from the anti-Yemen coalition or any military coalition that is outside of a UNSC mandate was also a correct one.

Apart from Pakistan’s own compulsions that discourage our active military involvement in the Saudi coalition, several key questions regarding the coalition still need to be answered. One is on the operational methodology, that is, by what means will it achieve its objectives – through war, intelligence operations, political interventions, regime subversion etc.

What are the Saudi coalition’s strategic objectives and within what geographical and ideological parameters? After all Saudi Arabia opted to leave countries like Iraq and Syria, where Daesh is most active, out of the anti-terrorist coalition. Unless Saudi Arabia reaches out to these countries this anti-terrorism coalition cannot achieve its objectives. Equally, Saudi Arabia’s planned coalition has very limited capacity to conduct any anti-terrorism operation. Also without legal mandate, either bilaterally or internally, no operation can be legitimate.

Against this backdrop, Pakistan’s policy of helping Riyadh battle terrorism – without sectarian underpinnings, and strictly only within the Saudi territory – would be a wise policy.

The writer is a national security strategist, visiting faculty at NUST and fellow at Harvard University’s Asia Centre.


Twitter: @nasimzehra


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