Pakistan should think twice before meddling in the Middle East.
By Miranda Husain
Less than three weeks after Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces, led by Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain to aid the anti-democracy crackdown there, dignitaries from both oil-rich kingdoms did their separate rounds in Pakistan. The royal houses of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are nervous, and they need Pakistanâ€™s mercenaries, andâ€”if necessaryâ€”military muscle to shore them up.
This is a remarkable turn of events for Asif Ali Zardari, who had been trying since he was elected president in 2008 to secure Saudi oil on sweetheart terms. He had been unsuccessful in his efforts because the Sunni Saudis view his leadership with some degree of skepticism. It also doesnâ€™t help that Zardari, a Shia, is big on improving relations with Shia Tehran. Riyadh now appears inclined to export oil on terms that better suit cash-strapped Islamabad. Manama, too, wants to play ball. It wants increased defense cooperation and has pledged to prioritize Pakistanâ€™s hopes for a free-trade agreement with the GCC in return. But Zardari and his Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, should fight the urge to get mired in the Middle East.
Pakistan already has a presence in Bahrain: a battalion of the Azad Kashmir Regiment was deployed there over a year ago to train local troops, and retired officers from our Navy and Army are part of their security forces. Media estimates put the number of Pakistanis serving in Bahrainâ€™s security establishment at about 10,000. Their removal has been a key demand of protesters in the kingdom. Last month in Islamabad, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reportedly assured Bahrainâ€™s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, that Pakistan would offer more retired manpower to help quell the uprising against Bahrainâ€™s Sunni rulers by its Shia majority. Gilaniâ€™s spokesman was unable to confirm the pledge. Islamabadâ€™s support to the tottering regime in Manama is not ideal.
â€œItâ€™s like our version of Blackwater,â€ says Talat Masood, a former Pakistan Army general, referring to Bahrainâ€™s recruitment drive in Pakistan. â€œWeâ€™re doing [in Bahrain] exactly what we have been opposing here,â€ he says. Pakistan, he maintains, has no business in trying to suppress a democratic, peopleâ€™s movement in another country. Short-term economic gains cannot be the only prism through which Pakistan views its national interests, he says.
Pakistan has a long history of military involvement and training in the Arab world. Its pilots flew warplanes in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and volunteered for the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Involvement in Bahrainâ€™s current strife would not be the first time that Pakistan has used its military might to thwart an Arab uprising against an Arab regime. In 1970, future military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, then head of the Pakistani military training mission in Jordan, led his soldiers to intervene on the side of Amman to quash a Palestinian challenge to its rule.
Some Bahraini opposition groups have called on the U.S. to intervene to get the GCC troops out of their country, fearing it could become a battleground in a Saudi-Iranian battle for regional supremacy. They stress that they share no real affinity with the theocratic regime in Shia-majority Iran, while noting that a number of Bahraini Sunni Muslims have also come out in the streets to call for greater reforms.
Pakistani involvement, therefore, could result in it being embroiled in a proxy war, with serious implications for its own security interests.
The issue of Iran is important, but thereâ€™s a deeper issue, according to author Noam Chomsky. â€œBy historical and geographical accident, the main concentration of global energy resources is in the northern Gulf region, which is predominantly Shia,â€ he told Newsweek Pakistan.
Bahrain, he points out, neighbors eastern Saudi Arabia, where most of the latterâ€™s oil is. â€œWestern planners have long been concerned that a tacit Shia alliance might take shape with enormous control over the worldâ€™s energy resources, and perhaps not be reliably obedient to the U.S.â€
Bahrain, which like Pakistan was designated a major non-NATO ally by the George W. Bush presidency, is home to the Fifth Fleet. It is the primary U.S. base in the region and allows Washington to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, while keeping checks on Iran.
Chomsky believes that Pakistani presence in Bahrain can be seen as part of a U.S.-backed alliance to safeguard Western access to the regionâ€™s oil.
â€œThe U.S. has counted on Pakistan to help control the Arab world and safeguard Arab rulers from their own populations,â€ says Chomsky.
â€œPakistan was one of the â€˜cops on the beatâ€™ that the Nixon administration had in mind when outlining their doctrine for controlling the Arab world,â€ he says. Pakistan has such â€œsevere internal problemsâ€ that it may not be able to play this role even if asked to. But the real reason that Pakistan should avoid this role is so that it can stand on the right side of history, alongside those who are fighting for democracy.