The announcement that Pakistan has joined the Saudi-led coalitionagainst terrorism was made after some ambiguity. Once again, highlighting the nature of a personalised and ad hoc decision-making process that has become our leaders’ hallmark, they are unwilling to use institutions for evaluating the merits of national policies, a practice which is normal in democratic countries. It seems the prime minister, in consultation with the army chief, took this decision and even failed to keep the Foreign Office in the loop although this serious matter should have first been brought before the cabinet, the National Security Committee and parliament.
Muslim countries of the Middle East are today deeply divided in two major camps with highly sectarian overtones. The group of 34 countries is led by Saudi Arabia and the other group, guided by Iran, includes Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah. The US and the Western world are supporting the Saudi-led coalition. This alliance was hastily conceived and structured by Prince Mohammad bin Salman after President Obama pressurised Saudi Arabia to play its role in galvanising Muslim countries to put a joint front against the Islamic State (IS). The Saudi coalition is perceived to be at cross-purposes with Iran that enjoys the support of Russia. This polarisation among Muslim countries could accentuate the sectarian divide that could be very destructive and create serious problems for Pakistan, which has seen much sectarian strife.
The interests and priorities of the two camps are in conflict with each other. The Russians are targeting the militias that are opposed to Syrian President Assad and the IS, their secondary target. For the US, Saudis and Turks, the highest priority is to dislodge President Assad as they believe he is the problem and that Syria’s civil war will continue as long as he is in power. Talks between Russia and the US are taking place at the highest level to reconcile their positions and unless an understanding is reached, the war will get messier causing unlimited suffering to the people of Syria. The images of desperate immigrants are heartrending as they get caught between the savagery of the IS and the conflict being waged by regional and global powers. A consensus needs to be built among all Muslims states as the IS and other militant groups pose a common threat.
The contours of the Saudi-led alliance are not clearly defined as there is confusion whether this is a military alliance or if it will be confined to military cooperation in intelligence and training, and building a united front to curb radical ideologies. In any case, there are only a few Muslim countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt that have highly professional armies capable of fighting insurgencies. But practically, all of them are heavily committed internally and would find it difficult to spare forces for fighting in Syria or Iraq. Preferably, it should be a professional military force from within the Arab countries that should counter the IS. Heavy reliance on aerial bombardment and half-trained militias will not suffice.
When the dastardly Paris attack occurred, the Muslim world stood shoulder to shoulder with the French in condemning the attack. The immediate reaction of President Hollande to announce that France was at war was understandable. Europe is really scared for it is confronting the fear of the unknown. While force will have to be used, it would be a mistake to rely solely on military operations. Now that some time has passed, it would be advisable to reflect on what the US gained by declaring an all-out war in Afghanistan 14 years ago- or later against Iraq. The problem of Syria is far more complex and deep-rooted and unless deprivation of the Muslim youth and the causes of their disillusionment are addressed, it will keep getting worse.
The question is, if previous attempts at uniting the Ummah failed, why would this time be any different. Despite differences, there are areas where Muslim countries can closely cooperate, such as squeezing the sources of funding of the IS. This acquires greater significance, as the group is one of the most well-funded, non-state organisations and also the most powerful that has spread its tentacles in several countries. The other challenge is to defeat and reverse the nefarious ideology propagated around the Muslim world. Can Muslim countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, bring about this change from within? Ideological pluralism is not possible in Saudi Arabia, which is the prerequisite for bringing about change. The situation in Iran regarding freedom of expression is very poor. Opposing the clergy can land one in prison. Pakistan and other Muslim countries are facing severe challenges from different militant groups that will have to be defeated primarily through their own resources.
Pakistan’s tilt toward Saudi Arabia is understandable. It has been historically very close to the Saudis — Zia, Musharraf, and especially Nawaz Sharif, all enjoyed close personal relationships with the kingdom. At the state level, the Pak-Saudi relationship was a strategic one. Saudi Arabia has helped us financially, morally and diplomatically at critical periods of our history. It bailed us out when we were being punished for testing the nuclear bomb. During India-Pakistan wars, we always had its tacit and moral support. Iran, too, is a very important neighbour and an emerging regional power with which we have historical, religious, cultural, economic and political ties. It came to our rescue in the 1965 war by allowing the use of its territory for parking our military assets and supporting us diplomatically. It is only after the Islamic revolution that relations went sour, but now are on the mend.
We have to navigate a very delicate road by supporting Saudi efforts of uniting Muslim countries in fighting the IS menace and other militant groups. But we must stay away from any involvement that leads to a power struggle between the two regional powers. Pakistan cannot afford to overlook the presence of a fairly large population within the country that has a strong affinity with Iran. External policies should be properly harnessed and coordinated with internal political compulsions.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2015.