March 20, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5689

Pakistani Commentators Question Sharif Government For Toeing Saudi Line, Warn Against Pakistan's Military Entanglement In Syria

March 20, 2014
Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan | Special Dispatch No. 5689

In a series of recent articles, Pakistani writers questioned the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for toeing the Saudi line as regards Syria, as media reports emerged that Saudi Arabia has asked for Pakistani military weaponry such as Chinese-built JF-17 Thunder fighter planes and tanks for use in Syria. According to some reports, Riyadh has also asked for two divisions of Pakistan Army soldiers(about 30,000 troops) to be sent to Saudi Arabia to train Saudi troops.[1]

Musharraf Zaidi, a columnist, accused the Sharif government of selling Pakistan's sovereignty for cash, and warned that Pakistan's foreign partners such as the U.S., China, and Saudi Arabia have never supported Pakistan on some of its core existential issues, namely the need for strengthening democracy in Pakistan and resolving the Kashmir issue.

Nadir Hassan, a Karachi-based journalist, wrote an op-ed warning that Pakistan's entanglement in Syria could cause Sunni-Shi'ite conflict at home. Hassan also noted that Pakistan's past military engagements in Bangladesh, Jordan, and Bahrain have angered those countries.

Respected commentator Ayaz Amir warned in a column against any Pakistani role in Syria, blaming such a move on Nawaz Sharif's inability to say "no" to the Saudis.

"Pakistan Is Making A Grave Error Of Judgment By Aligning Itself With An Interventionist Philosophy In Syria"; "We Are Now Pro-Intervention In Syria Because We Cannot Pay Our Bills"

The following are excerpts from Mosharraf Zaidi's article:[2]

"Pakistan is making a grave error of judgment by aligning itself with an interventionist philosophy in Syria. The fact that it is Saudi Arabia that is convening the interventionism is secondary to the larger issue in Syria. The larger issue is quite simple: Syria is too complex for any external actor to completely understand properly, much less enact a solution.

"This was as true for Iraq in 2003 as it is for Syria in 2014 – but the difference is the mass slaughter of innocent Syrians, including children, at the hands of a brutal and inhuman Iran-supported dictatorship led by Bashar Al-Assad, and a brutal ... Al-Qaeda…

"The slaughter in Syria is an unforgiveable tragedy. But it is neither Saudi Arabia's job, nor Iran's, nor America's, nor the European Union's, nor Turkey's, nor Russia's, and most certainly not Pakistan's tragedy to solve. Syria is a hornet's nest, and intervention in that country is a fool's errand that can only exacerbate and complicate the bloodletting. Unfortunately there is no shortage of fools in the global political arena, and worse still, there is no shortage of money to sustain international folly. Intervention in Syria is a bad idea, whether it is in support of Saudi Arabia's decidedly sectarian concern for Syria, or in support of U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power's decidedly humanitarian 'responsibility to protect' concern for Syria.

"What about Pakistan? In a brilliant blog post this week at the Five Rupees blog, George Mason University professor Ahsan Butt has put it most succinctly. 'Is it wise and advisable,' he asks, 'to wade into a sectarian civil war 2,000 miles away?' The answer? 'Obviously not. Some states can afford to do so, and bless their heart, they are intervening to their heart's content. So be it. We do not have to join them.'

"To understand the reason for Pakistan's sudden change of heart [in support of the Saudi line on Syria], we need to revisit the structure of the Pakistani state and the model of governance that has been in place - regardless of the kind of government we've had - since at least 1979. Arguably, the structure of the Pakistani state is primarily patronage-based. Whether general, or professor, or World Bank vice president, or classical South Punjab feudal, or neoclassical Central Sindh Wadera [feudal], every … Pakistani 'leader' employs patronage as the first and last port of call to create, enhance, and deepen his or her legitimacy. Every Pakistani leader needs a pot of patronage that he can distribute. This pot, (later pool, and later reservoir) of patronage cannot be produced by appeals to [Sufi mystics] Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, or Rehman Baba or Data Ganj Bakhsh. It requires hard cash. Hard cash is unavailable in the bowels of our syncretic Sufi culture.

"For hard cash, we must turn to our other saints: Saeen America Bahadur [i.e. Washington], Hazrat Saudi Arabia Al-Ikhwan Al-Ummah [i.e. Riyadh], and Baba Cheen Tse Dong [i.e. Beijing]. Occasionally, we must also seek the blessings of Daata Le European Union [i.e. the EU] and Peer Dubai Oasis Fil-Desert Wal-Cristal [i.e. UAE]. In short, we are now suddenly pro-intervention in Syria not because we love Muslims. And not because we are pro-Sunni or anti-Shia. And not because we love human rights. And not because we are sickened by the slaughter of innocent people. No. We are now pro-intervention in Syria because we cannot pay our bills, and if we cannot pay our bills, then somebody won't get re-elected…

"This model of governance, any half-wit can tell you, is unsustainable if there isn't a steady supply of hard cash. And given the appetite around the world for fool's errands, like intervention in Syria, it stands to reason that there are plenty of fools willing to underwrite Pakistan's unsustainable model of governance with hard cash, ad infinitum, because, let's face it, it really is true – there is no shortage of fools in the global political arena; and worse still, there is no shortage of money to sustain international folly."

"America Loves The Pakistan Army; Saudi Arabia Loves The Pakistan Army; China Loves The Pakistan Army; [But] On The Two Existential Tests [Democracy And Kashmir Issue] Of Pakistan's Core Interest, They All Fail"

"Since 1979 Pakistan has consistently refused to appoint a people's politician as finance minister. The reason is simple: no self-respecting man of the people could possibly manage to do what Pakistani finance ministers regularly do - use other people's hard cash to sustain Pakistan's internal dysfunction. The parade of highly effective bureaucrats, accountants, and economists that Pakistan employs as finance ministers is an international who's who. Whether under General Pervez Musharraf or General Zia-ul-Haq, or under Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, or Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, this corps of highly competent men has successfully enabled Pakistan to go from one failed IMF program to the next, from one enthusiastic international partner to the next. The three repeating themes in those partners?

"America loves the Pakistan Army. Saudi Arabia loves the Pakistan Army. China loves the Pakistan Army. [But] on the two existential tests [democracy and Kashmir issue] of Pakistan's core interest, they all fail. All three countries have consistently failed Pakistani democracy and all three countries have consistently failed to create international pressure for a resolution to the Kashmir issue. And still Pakistan keeps turning to them. And still Pakistani leaders alternately keep expressing 'trust' in them. Over and over and over again. Why? The secret is not embedded inside the vaults of the CIA at Langley, or in [Indian intelligence agency] RAW files, or even at the [Pakistani intelligence] ISI offices at Aabpara [in Islamabad]. The secret is embedded in our national accounts. We cannot pay our bills, and we are ruled by people who are part of the problem – because they do not pay their taxes.

"Their solution is to barter Pakistani sovereignty for the sake of hard cash [from Saudi Arabia]. This would be ok if the transactions of Pakistani leaders, democratic and military both, did not have adverse effects. But there are adverse effects. The fallout is both intense and long-term. As a result of these transactions, Pakistan's relations with its neighbors (Afghanistan and Iran) are badly broken and its internal harmony is deeply compromised. Many will misdiagnose Pakistan's swing toward Saudi Arabia as a confirmation of some sort of sectarian-inspired policy shift. This is a misdiagnosis. The actual disease is much more malign. Increasingly, Pakistan's mood swings are almost entirely informed by financial concerns.

"Pakistan keeps doing things to please countries and organizations that have money to spare – the IMF, the Asian Development Bank, the U.S., China, and increasingly, once again, Saudi Arabia. No country is deliberately trying to ruin Pakistan. But international relations are not constructed entirely of altruistic motives. If it was, Saudi aid would have preceded – not followed – the Syria policy shift and American F-16s would have preceded, not followed, the Afghanistan intervention. Countries act out of self-interest, not friendship or brotherliness."

"Should We Start Sending Weapons To Syria We Will End Up Making Another Country Hate Us, Regardless Of The Outcome"; "The Palestinians … Ended Up Becoming Closer To India Than Us After We Decided To Support Jordan In Its Expulsion Of Refugees"

The following are excerpts from Nadir Hassan's article:[3]

"The [Pakistani] state's brutal subjugation of local nationalist movements usually uses the foreign [i.e. Indian] meddler theory as one of its justifications. Taking punitive military action against, say, the Baluchi nationalists demanding equitable treatment or separation becomes kosher because they are supposedly receiving financial and military backing from India. Accepting that assertion at face value, shouldn't we then, under the physician-heal-thyself principle, apply the same metric to ourselves when we consider intervening in a foreign land [Syria]?

"Recent reports indicate that we are considering a Saudi Arabia request to send weapons to arm the anti-Assad rebels in Syria. The peace agreement hashed out by the major powers and Assad piqued the Saudis who, absent military intervention in Iran, would like nothing more than for an Iranian ally to be driven out of power. Let the two big Middle Eastern powers fight out their proxy war for domination in the region, but we should stay as far away as possible from a civil war involvement which brings us no conceivable benefit and plenty of opportunities for self-harm.

"Let's start with the identity of the rebels in Syria. This hodgepodge group of disparate warriors is believed to include some of that most fabled of species – the secular liberal – and a lot of thoroughly nasty characters associated with the likes of Al-Qaeda. Our own most pressing enemy, the TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan], claimed to have sent fighters in the war against Assad. That may have been an idle boast, but the militant group made its preferred outcome in Syria known and now, for no earthly reason, we are pondering fighting on the same side.

"Should we start sending weapons to Syria we will end up making another country hate us, regardless of the outcome. Before this our biggest export to the country was polio, with cases of the disease being linked back to the Peshawar strain. Adding arms to the mix should do wonders to our popularity ratings.

"The lesson from our history should be clear: whenever we intervene in the Middle East, we end up losing. The Palestinians, for one, ended up becoming closer to India than us after we decided to support Jordan in its expulsion of refugees, thus giving India the distinction of having warmer relations than us with both Palestine and Israel."

"Our Current Armed Support For The Regime In Bahrain Will Likely Lead To Estranged Ties With That Nation Once The Minority [Sunni] Monarchy Inevitably Runs Out Of Time And Luck"; "Unless Saudi Arabia Is Offering To Send Us Over Ten Million Barrels Of Free Oil A Day, This [Syria Role] Is Not A Fight We Need To Insert Ourselves Into"

"Our current armed support for the regime in Bahrain will likely lead to estranged ties with that nation once the minority monarchy inevitably runs out of time and luck. This will be a repeat of our Iran policy, which was to back another Sunni tyrant lording over a Shia-majority population 'til the bitter end, the repercussions of which we still suffer today.

"Evaluating our relationship with Iran should be the primary focus before deciding on the Saudi request for arms. Right now we claim that the gas pipeline from Iran is the solution to our energy crisis – let it slide for the moment that this is a ridiculous claim which ignores the basic fact that under the terms of the current deal the gas we get from Iran will be unaffordable – and yet we are willing to join the fight against an Iranian ally. Unless Saudi Arabia is offering to send us over ten million barrels of free oil a day, this is not a fight we need to insert ourselves into.

"We might also want to consider the effects of involvement on our beleaguered domestic Shia population. Will we not be sending them yet another clear signal that the war being waged against them has state sanction, and that we are so opposed to Shias getting any power that we are willing to fight against them in every Middle Eastern country where they are yearning for majority rule? Then again, supporting those we have wronged doesn't come easy to the state. Our cricket team, already unwelcome by TTP militants at home and begrudgingly tolerated abroad, is now going to face the wrath of a nation that had previously extended them a lot of support: Bangladesh.

"Currently in the country [Bangladesh] for the Asia Cup … [Pakistani cricketers] are now unwitting pawns in our refusal to let go of 1971 [war as a result of which East Pakistan became Bangladesh]. The Bangladesh government has been litigating the war and recently hanged aged leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami for war crimes. This earned it a rebuke from our parliament. The wisdom of Bangladesh's decision to refight these old battles can and should be debated, but the only country that has a moral duty to avoid comment is that which committed most of the war crimes back then [i.e. Pakistan]…

"Our policies – if a collection of haphazard statements and actions can be called a policy – in Iran, Syria, and Bangladesh take root only because we have the misfortune of choosing governments who want to pacify the right wing at home. The lesson should have been learned by now. There is no pacifying those who smell victory. They will always demand more and we will always give it to them. The government has now realized that this is the principle on which the TTP has been operating and refused to cede any more ground. We might want to take the same approach in our relations with foreign countries. The mess we're in today is a direct result of joining wars – both hot and cold – foisted on us by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. This time let's take a step back and a deep breath and refuse participation."

"Don't We Have Enough Of A Sunni-Shia Problem At Home That We Should [Not] Be Taking Sides In The Larger Sunni-Shia Cleavage Racking The So-Called World Of Islam? The Battle Lines Of This Larger Conflict Are Drawn Most Visibly In The Killing Fields Of Syria"

The following are excerpts from Ayaz Amir's article:[4]

"Don't we have enough of a Sunni-Shia problem at home that we should [not] be taking sides in the larger Sunni-Shia cleavage racking the so-called world of Islam? The battle lines of this larger conflict are drawn most visibly in the killing fields of Syria and Pakistan, at the bidding of friends, has committed itself on the side of the increasingly sinister anti-Bashar al-Assad coalition. The recent [Saudi-Pakistan] joint communiqué signed in Islamabad calls for 'the formation of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers...' – in other words for the ouster of al-Assad.

"The western powers wanted Syria to go down the Libyan path, and would have succeeded but for the Syrian military, the crucial help rendered by Hizbullah – the only Arab outfit … which has bested the Israeli military in combat – and Russia's backing of the Assad regime. And holy [i.e. Saudi] friends are incensed because President Obama launched no air strikes on Syria and because he is trying to improve relations with Iran, [which is] anathema to friends [i.e. Saudis] and to Israel. Even by the Middle East's usual standards of throwing up the bizarre, this would be counted as unusual: friends [i.e. Saudis] and Israel on the same page, and both raving against the U.S.

"Saudi ambassadors are not known for their op-ed writing skills, but when the U.S.-Saudi rift over Syria came into the open the Saudi ambassador in London penned an op-ed column sharply critical of American policy. Unprecedented, but there it was. The Obama administration is being careful about Egypt, skeptical of the military-led government but not openly critical. Friends [i.e. Saudis] from the desert of Hejaz are, on the other hand, openly supportive. Their checkbook [is] the most potent weapon in their arsenal; a check for five billion dollars was recently written for the new dispensation in Egypt led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

"Let's try to make sense of this. In Egypt our friends [i.e. Saudis] … are for military-led 'stability.' In Syria they are for the rag-tag opposition even if it contains significant al-Qaeda elements. In Egypt they don't like the Muslim Brotherhood because it is a populist movement, populism and monarchic absolutism not going well together, and because being who they are they look with profound distrust at anyone else claiming to hold aloft the true banner of Islam. In Syria they don't like Bashar al-Assad because he is an Alawite Shia backed by Shi'ite Hizbullah and Shi'ite Iran.

"The U.S., Britain, France, and now even Turkey are wary of Islamic extremists not only penetrating but dominating the al-Assad opposition. But our friends have thrown caution to the winds, [with] the Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar, previously long-time Saudi ambassador in Washington, overseeing the effort to arm and fund the anti-Assad forces. Into this Sunni-Shia conflict played out on a large checker-board, Pakistan has stepped at external bidding because: (a) it is not easy for PM Sharif to say 'no' to the quarter from where this pressure is coming [i.e. Riyadh], his friends having saved his skin during the Musharraf regime [after the Saudis gave shelter to Nawaz Sharif following the 1999 coup by Musharraf]; and (b) Pakistan's perennial need for dollars and riyals, or any other foreign currency…"

"Pakistan Has Been A Proxy Battleground For Competing Saudi And Iranian Interests From General Zia's Time"; "The [Pakistani-Saudi] Understanding On Syria … Sends A Confused Message, That Instead Of Moving Forward We Are Still Clinging To Aspects Of Our Dangerous Past"

"Our popular narrative rightly blames [past] military dictators for jumping into battles that were not Pakistan's, and selling Pakistan's interests for a song. Now Pakistan has signed on to something that doesn't concern it at all. If General Zia-ul-Haq and General Musharraf concluded deals and understandings without public disclosure, much less anything resembling public discussion, Pakistan's new tack on Syria has also come about in the same hugger-mugger fashion. Long live democracy. Some content is provided by this AFP dispatch (Feb 23): '[Saudis are] reportedly in talks with Pakistan to provide anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets to Syrian rebels fighting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, a Saudi source said…'

"No one in his right mind will say [to] spoil relations with Saudi Arabia. If the Sharifs [i.e. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is the Chief Minister of Punjab province] have some cachet with our friends from the holy kingdom they should exploit it in the country's interest. This is a cash-strapped government, indeed a cash-strapped economy. We could do with what help we can get. But our begging bowl is eternal. We are always in need of cash. No one bailout or temporary funding is going to redeem our condition.

"In any event, this should not mean bartering away other interests, such as our vital relationship with Iran, for short-term gains. Iran and its rivals are entitled to the pursuit of their sectarian agendas, and indeed their dreams of glory. But why must Pakistan become a party to this useless exercise? The Sharifs at a personal level perhaps owe a lot to their patrons in their days of exile. But if any repayment is required let it too be at a personal level. There was no protocol necessity for PM Sharif to receive and see off his recent guests [from Saudi Arabia] at Nur Khan airbase. If he did and felt that this is what he [owes] his benefactors, that's fine. But jumping into the Syrian cauldron is a different ballgame.

"Pakistan has been a proxy battleground for competing Saudi and Iranian interests from General Zia's time, the Saudis pouring in money to Deobandi madrassas and the Iranians funding Shi'ite seminaries and imambargahs [religious-cum-mosque places], and Pakistan reaping the whirlwind and turning into the sectarian and extremist powder keg it has become. Have we learned nothing from our tale of woe, the record of our follies?

"After Pakistan suffered defeat at the hands of India in 1971 [war of Bangladesh, Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto initiated the 'Look West' approach, the turning to the Arab world. But he knew how to play the game and developed equally cordial and close ties with all Arab states, conservative and so-called radicals alike. But Zia played to Saudi sensitivities because he wanted Saudi support and his treasury was empty. Afraid that the Saudis might appeal for sparing Bhutto's life the then-Jamaat-e-Islami chief, Mian Tufail Muhammad, was sent to Saudi Arabia where he met King Khalid. Of all the countries close to Pakistan only Saudi Arabia kept mum over Bhutto's hanging.

"The Hudood Ordinance [of Pakistan] prescribing so-called Islamic punishments for sex and drinking – the single most regressive bit of legislation on our statute books – was issued by Zia to please the Saudis. This was just before Bhutto's hanging. The irony remains that the constitutional amendment passed under Bhutto declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims was also something, according to some Bhutto insiders, on which some of Pakistan's foreign well-wishers were keen. In the name of religion or in the name of anything else, Pakistan doesn't need to be a pawn or a plaything of outside interests, [of] the U.S. or any other country. And the war against extremism in which Pakistan currently finds itself needs no mixed signals. It should be all clarity and no confusion. The [Pakistani-Saudi] understanding on Syria, however, sends a confused message, that instead of moving forward we are still clinging to aspects of our dangerous past."


[2] The News (Pakistan), February 26, 2014.

[3] The News (Pakistan), February 27, 2014.

[4] The News (Pakistan), February 25, 2014.

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