February 9, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 258

Pakistan's Military Involvement In The Nagorno-Karabakh War

February 9, 2021 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan, South Caucasus | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 258

On October 2, 2020, the government of Pakistan sought to deny media reports that Pakistani soldiers were aiding the Azeri military against Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war (September 27-November 10, 2020). The Pakistani newspapers of the next morning, October 3, quoted Zahid Hafeez Chaudri, the spokesman of the Foreign Office in Islamabad, as saying that such media reports were "speculative and baseless" and "irresponsible."[1]

After this official denial of involvement, Pakistani journalists came under increased pressure not to write about the Pakistani military's role in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. In this paper, I will examine the Pakistani view of Pakistan's role in this war in which Azerbaijan defeated Armenia with the military help of Turkey and Pakistan. The Nagorno-Karabakh is a region where about 1,000 mujahideen from Afghanistan went to fight in the early years of the 1990s, according to the Pakistani media.[2]

This regional war of 2020, carried out when the international community's attention was consumed by the Coronavirus outbreak, is a key part of an emerging trilateral alliance in this region. Recently, MEMRI has published a series of research papers on this subject, notably: "A New Alliance Rising In The East – Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, China – And Its Enemies – The U.S. and India;"[3] and "Under The Emerging Turkey-Pakistan Strategic Alliance, Pakistan May Provide Turkey With Nuclear Weapons Capabilities."[4]

Pakistani, Turkish, and Azeri flags on a wall in Karabakh after capture by Azerbaijan.[5]

On October 1, a day before Pakistan's denial, the Urdu-language daily Roznama Ummat wrote: "After the beginning of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Pakistan and Turkey are siding with the brother-Islamic country of Azerbaijan."[6] Noting that Turkey is "openly" aiding Azerbaijan, the daily wrote further: "Being a close ally [of Turkey] and a Muslim country, Pakistan has also announced clearly support for Azerbaijan."[7]

Syed Ali Haider, a senior journalist and host with Pakistan's leading TV channel Samaa, posted a video about Pakistan's role in the Nagorno-Karabakh war on YouTube which was highlighted in Urdu as "Pakistani air force ki tarbiyat kaam dikha gayi" – i.e., "Pakistani air force's training worked" wonders against Armenia.[8] The video includes a clip of a MiG fighter jet flown by a young Azeri pilot who later died fighting Armenia and whom Haider celebrates as a "martyr," recommending that Azerbaijan honor him with their highest military award.[9]

However, the video's primary purpose is to celebrate the Pakistan air force's role in training Azeri pilots during the war. The clip included in the video could not have been obtained without access to the Pakistani military. In English, the YouTube video is titled: "Pakistan's training to Azerbaijani Pilots."[10] Haider's video, which does not appear to have been telecast on his Samaa television channel, was posted to YouTube five days after Pakistan's official denial.

Haider had also posted, two days after Pakistan's official denial, another video on YouTube. In this video, Haider sought to find out "the reason for Azeris' love for Pakistan, which they have begun to express clearly for the past few days."[11] He says: "One big important thing they have done is this: in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where these days tourism has begun walking, Pakistanis have started going in large numbers there in Baku, and tourism there is cheap, and visas for Pakistanis arrive stamped just in days, there is a large number of Pakistanis going there; and Allah willing, even I intend to go there once the clouds of war stop..."[12]

Haider's video was posted on October 2, and the preceding nine to ten months saw lockdowns and international travel restrictions across the world due to the Coronavirus pandemic. So, it is surprising how large numbers of Pakistanis were visiting Azerbaijan in the period before October 2020 and after, unless of course they had official authorization from the government of Pakistan, most likely from the Pakistani military. This is process of Pakistanis visiting Azerbaijan in significant numbers seems, as discussed below, to have begun much before the Nagorno-Karabakh war began on September 27, 2020.

So, how was Baku for Pakistanis? Haider asks and responds: "Viewers, the Azeris there had hung flags of Pakistan and Turkey on their buildings, their residences, their offices. You see, at this time, Azeris are in a state of war, there is a conflict with Armenia, a war is underway formally. Armenia has, for several decades... occupied 30 percent of Azerbaijan's territory, their people are getting killed in war, they too are hurt; but think, in such a situation, what would have been the need for Azeris to raise the flags of Turkey and Pakistan on their buildings, to unfurl Pakistan's flag in their homes?"

The television journalist answers: "Pakistan must have done something. Friends, I will tell you what Pakistan has done for Azeris, not only Pakistan as a state, but that you Pakistanis have done something too I will tell you for which all Azeris are thankful."[13] After these introductory remarks, Haider discusses the background to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and why the war is underway. Noting that Pakistan has always supported Azerbaijan, he begins to draw a parallel with the Kashmir situation.

"Friends, if Azerbaijan can wrest its share [of territory] from Armenia, a stronger power than itself, by military muscle, by fighting, which we call by sword, which we call by the strength of arms, here I am not endorsing a war, but Pakistan too should not be afraid of India. If Azerbaijan can make Armenia eat chickpeas through the nose, then Pakistan's army is many times better than that of Azerbaijan [to do this to India in Kashmir]," he says.[14] Toward the conclusion, Haider adds: "Viewers, this is such a war in which, even unwillingly we are part of it, and as part of our own wish we are with Azerbaijan."[15]

Pakistanis and Turkish flags hang over the balconies of a residential building in Baku

On October 8, Roznama Ummat published a report titled as "Pandemonium among enemies after Azerbaijan's expression of gratitude to Pakistan – Pakistan's ambassador in Baku given a briefing on Armenian missile attacks..."[16] The report also noted that a webinar was held by the Azeri Embassy in Pakistan with the support of Pakistani officials on the defense of Azerbaijan.[17]

Among other things, the Urdu daily observed: "Many people had claimed that 'jihadis' from Pakistan and Afghanistan were being transferred to Azerbaijan. To some extent, this commotion is not without reason. An article was published in the Azeri-language newspaper Daily Telegraph on October 4 in which the armed forces of Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Turkey were called 'a power.' In this article, the size of the armed forces of Pakistan, Azeri forces, and the armed forces of Turkey was discussed. The article also referred to the military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Pakistan..."[18]

Pakistan's military relationship with Azerbaijan is not new. Another report in Roznama Ummat discussed the use of missiles and drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. It also noted: "This war is different from the conflict in 1994 when Azerbaijan's military stood demolished and being helpless after Armenia's invasion, the Azeri government sought help from the government of Pakistan and the mujahideen of Afghanistan."[19]

Although the Nagorno-Karabakh war began on September 27, it appears that Pakistan's support to Azerbaijan might have begun much earlier. In mid-August 2020, the Pakistani vlogger Moin Qazi posted a YouTube video titled, "Which Country Loves Pakistan Most?" The location of posting for the video is Baku. Qazi shows how he is overwhelmed by the love he gets as a Pakistani in Baku – a woman enables him to enter metro when he cannot speak Azeri, a shopkeeper refuses to take money for groceries, a youth shocks him when he says, "Pakistan and Azerbaijan are friends" by responding: "No friends, brothers, brothers."[20]

In the end, Qazi, who is surprised by the adulation he gets as a Pakistani in Azerbaijan, asks: "But the question arises: why do Azerbaijani people have so much love for Pakistan?" Qazi, being an ordinary Pakistani, is not well placed to answer this question, but Haider, being a journalist and knowledgeable about Pakistan's military involvement in Azerbaijan, was well placed to do so. Qazi says it is due to Pakistan's having been is among the first to recognize Azerbaijan in 1992 as the USSR fell apart. Qazi's vlog was tweeted by the Azeri Ambassador to Pakistan Ali Alizada on January 24, 2021.[21]

December 12, 2020: a photo tweeted by Ambassador Alizada. His tweet reads: "The relief assistance for some of the needs of military personnel and others working in recently liberated territories of #Azerbaijan was delivered to #Baku by Pakistan."[22]

Roznama Ausaf – an Urdu daily published from six Pakistani cities, and London – carried a report titled as "Conflict with Armenia – Pakistani military's support for Azerbaijan."[23] According to the report, the Azeri ambassador to Islamabad Ali Alizada went, on October 9, to the Joint Staff Headquarters of the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi where General Nadeem Raza, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, told him: "The armed forces of Pakistan support completely Azerbaijan's position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."[24]

On October 8, a day before the Rawalpindi meeting, a YouTube channel, which reports on Pakistani defense preparedness, noted: "A big delegation group will reach Islamabad today. This group will hold meetings with Pakistan's secret institutions and higher military officials. During this, it will discuss the purchase of all weapons necessary in the war in Azerbaijan. And the delivery of these weapons will be made available on an emergency basis."[25]

On the day Ambassador Ali Alizada was meeting General Nadeem Raza, Roznama Ausaf published an editorial titled "The Dream Of Making Pakistan An International Power And The Responsibilities."[26] The editorial, referring to a statement of Prime Minister Imran Khan about turning Pakistan into a global power, praised the role of Pakistan's nuclear weapons status achieved against numerous odds, adding: "Countries raising questions on the security of our nuclear assets today consider it a matter of pride to take lessons from our 'center of excellence.' If we can achieve excellence in this difficult technology, then why not in other fields?"[27]

After Azerbaijan won the war, there were celebrations in Baku and elsewhere in Azerbaijan. It is not incidental then that the Pakistani national flag, along with the Turkish and Azeri flags, were seen in these celebrations as well as in the liberated areas of Karabakh. On January 17, Ambassador Alizada shared a video of a street in the vicinity of Baku lined with the flags of all three countries, something that cannot be achieved without governmental support.[28] On January 28, Alizada shared a photo of a wall in a freed area of Karabakh with flags of Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan.[29] After victory, Alizada tweeted that "during the war" Azerbaijan showed strong unity and "was also supported by several countries" that were "with us on these days..."[30]

Haider's video shows the Pakistani flag in Karabakh after Azerbaijan's victory

This analysis does not consider accusations of Pakistani military involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh war from non-Pakistani sources, such as the Armenian and Indian media. Pakistan has officially denied its role, but there is more here than meets the eye. After Joe Biden became the president of the United States, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi declared in an interview: "You have to engage with this new Pakistan."[31] Pakistan is new. Pakistan is bold.

In the same interview, Qureshi sought to explain why the Pakistani flag was seen in Azerbaijan's celebrations: "We had not handed them (flags), this was the people's emotions, acceptance and tribute to Pakistan."[32] This answer is at best a camouflage. Haider is more forthcoming. After Azerbaijan's victory, the Samaa television host returned to his YouTube channel. In his video, Haider reminds the viewers that they would have got the details of Azerbaijan's victory, "But I am going to tell you something different. That is, how Azerbaijan has decorated the tiara of its victory to the head of its friend-nation Pakistan, to the head of Turkey; how a Pakistani's respect has grown in Azerbaijan now, Pakistanis are now going to Baku, not Dubai..."[33]

Haider splashes photos of Pakistan's flags shown in Azerbaijan's supermarkets, streets, and victory celebrations, and offers his assessment of the situation: "You can imagine from this how much respect Azeris have begun giving to you and us. Its credit goes to the Pakistani military. This is the Pakistani military's success, viewers."[34] He also shows a photo of the Pakistani flag in Karabakh tweeted by Ambassador Alizada and his tweets. Haider notes how Alizada thanked Pakistan for its victory – in his tweet stating "Many thanks @ForeignOfficePk, @OfficialDGISPR & @GovtofPakistan"[35] – and singles out the fact that the Azeri ambassador has especially mentioned @OfficialDGISPR, which denotes the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, i.e., the Pakistani military.[36]

* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow at MEMRI


[1] (Pakistan), October 2, 2020.

[2] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), September 29, 2020.

[5], January 25, 2021.

[6] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), October 1, 2020.

[7] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), October 1, 2020.

[8], October 7, 2020.

[9], October 7, 2020.

[10], October 7, 2020.

[11], October 4, 2020.

[12], October 4, 2020.

[13], October 4, 2020.

[14], October 4, 2020.

[15], October 4, 2020.

[16] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), October 8, 2020.

[17] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), October 8, 2020.

[18] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), October 8, 2020.

[19] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), October 12, 2020.

[20], August 13, 2020.

[21], January 24, 2021.

[22], December 12, 2020.

[23] Roznama Ausaf (Pakistan), October 10, 2020.

[24] Roznama Ausaf (Pakistan), October 10, 2020.

[25], October 8, 2020.

[26] Roznama Ausaf (Pakistan), October 9, 2020.

[27] Roznama Ausaf (Pakistan), October 9, 2020.

[28], January 17, 2021.

[29], January 28, 2021.

[30], November 10, 2020.

[31] Pakistan Today (Pakistan), January 24, 2021.

[32] Pakistan Today (Pakistan), January 24, 2021.

[33], November 11, 2020.

[34], November 11, 2020.

[35], November 10, 2020.

[36], November 11, 2020.

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