General Raheel Sharif in Saudi Arabia

All The King’s Men 

Dr Hamid Hussain

“We don’t do operations.  We don’t know how.  All we know how to do is write checks”.  Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki al-Feisal to Mark Anderson, CIA Directorate of Operations, Near East Division  (1)

 Pakistani Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif retired on 29 November 2016 handing over command to General Qamar Javed Bajwa.   Four weeks later, Saudi Arabia sent a special plane to Lahore to bring Raheel for a meeting in Saudi Arabia.  Even before his retirement, rumors have been circulating that he will be given some role in ongoing conflict in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia has cobbled together a thirty nine Muslim (all Sunni) nation coalition.  This is mainly a paper organization with majority of member nations not even sleeping partners.  All major military operations are conducted by Saudi Forces with sprinkling from Emirati and Egyptian forces.

 In summary, Yemen crisis emerged when in a fracturing state, Shia backed Houthi rebels took control of large swaths of the territory and finally overran the capital.  This was a disastrous move by a Zaidi Shia minority in a country divided along several lines.  This coincided with the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and installation of a new King and re-alignments within the Saudi royal family (inner competition and rivalries among Royal family members is a whole different arena and I have done some work a while ago on the subject).  Saudi Arabia was already involved in Syria where majority Sunni rebel forces of all colors are fighting the minority Shia Alawi regime of President Bashar Asad.  In Yemen, a change of power dynamics on their doorsteps with Shia rebel forces getting an upper hand rattled new Saudi regime.  King Salman bin Abdul Aziz’s favorite son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Muhammad bin Salman was the architect of the new aggressive posture and fully supported by Crown Prince and Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayaf.  This resulted in an aggressive air campaign that devastated large swaths of urban centers.  Criticism from mounting civilian casualties and no end in sight resulted in second thoughts.  Operations were dialed down and Muhammad bin Salman made the right decision of quickly getting out of the limelight.

In my view, in the absence of direct channels of communications, Tehran and Riyadh usually overreact to each other’s moves.  This was one such case where Saudis over-reacted and embarked on a dangerous escalation (Naval blockade, air campaign and ground offensives mainly by Saudi and Emirati forces is a separate story).  Now, Saudi Arabia has two choices in Yemen.  The less risky approach is to accept a de facto partition of the country resulting in support of Yemeni partisans and less direct involvement of Saudi forces.  The high risk approach is to double down and try to push opposition through direct military means that entails increased involvement of Saudi forces. Saudis are mulling over their options and have not yet made the final decision. In my view, for a variety of internal, regional and international factors, Saudis will likely go for former option and conflict will be a protracted one.

 Now the equation of multiple conflicts in Middle East is squarely along sectarian lines.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are fully engaged in an all out proxy war spanning over a number of countries (the sectarian poison now reaching to the very souls of some communities is another little noticed dirty secret).  Both countries are equally responsible for a dangerous course without realizing extreme vulnerability of their own societies.  Iran and Saudi Arabia are presiding over fairly oppressive regimes in their own countries. On both sides, it started from deep suspicion followed by deep mistrust and now leading to outright hatred.  In this environment, genuine security interests get distorted at cognitive level resulting in flawed decision making. One of the major factors in Saudi decision making process was the fear that if Shia Houthi rebels are able to consolidate, then Iran will deploy long range missiles on Yemeni soil.  This will give Iran a foothold on Arabian Peninsula for the first time and able to directly target major Saudi cities.  This is just one example of the real dilemma for Tehran and Riyadh.  Now both regimes are presenting themselves as guardians of their respective sects and bulwark against the encroaching ‘other’ to resist any change at home.

 In such a complex and potentially volatile situation what are the re-percussions of appointment of a former Pakistan army chief in any capacity on Saudi soil with a lucrative benefit package underwritten by Saudi government? General Raheel Sharif is the only Pakistani army chief who left office with very high approval ratings.  There is genuine respect and admiration for his conduct among all segments of the society.  In army, he is respected for giving the final go ahead for North Waziristan operation and civilians give him the credit of taking back the initiative from terrorists.  Targeting criminal elements of political Mafiosi in the port city of Karachi was also lauded by general public.  If he decides to join the Saudi led coalition efforts many questions will be raised including taking a second look at his decisions while he was in office.

 –          Serving and retired Pakistani army officers work in United Nations framework in different conflict zones.  It is a well recognized and properly regulated role under the auspices of army’s General Head Quarters (GHQ).  Anything outside this framework is an unchartered territory.
–          There is also history of serving Pakistani officers working in Saudi Arabia in the framework of bilateral agreements and process was directly controlled by GHQ.
 –          When Raheel was army chief, it was the collective decision of army and civilian government that Pakistan will not join Saudi led coalition.  This was in line with general public opinion where all major political parties and independent media strongly advocated for staying away from the fires of Middle East.  In my view this almost general consensus of the society was the main factor that forced government to stay neutral despite very close personal and family relations of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Saudi royal family.  Saudis were furious but later calmed down.  If he joins now then he will be working directly against the stated policy of his own country and army that was taken under his own command.  He has to explain what has changed now that he wants to be part of Saudi coalition.

–          The question will be raised about the motivation.  We all know that Raheel is not of religious bent and has no sectarian bias.   The only reason will be a very lucrative package offered by Saudi Arabia.  This will be linked with his decision not to push for his own extension as COAS (although many still believe that he tried to get one). It will be fair to ask that rather than retiring on a grade 22 pension, he wants an executive package even if offered by foreigners. Debt ridden poor Pakistani nation pays a very lucrative severance package to its army chief including prime residential, commercial and agricultural lands that is suffice to support him in his retirement and his next one or two generations.  It is more than adequate compensation for their services especially when it is compared with the benefit package offered to the army chiefs of neighboring India and Bangladesh.

–          The next question will be did he enter in this discussion about his future role with Saudi government while he was COAS and if yes did he inform his government?

 –          What can be his role?  He will be hired and paid by Saudi Arabia and not any neutral entity or a party that has no direct conflict of interest with the outcome.  His role will be essentially promoting and implementing official Saudi policy.  This leads to next question of whether he will be involved on military or diplomatic front or both.  Let’s dissect that.  If he will be involved on military front, obviously he will not be wearing Saudi army uniform.  His role could only be that of a military advisor.  What qualifications he has to fulfill this military advisor role?  He is an infantry officer who saw his force take back large swath of territory captured by militants in a totally different strategic and operational environment.  Success was due to combination of factors including a re-organized and re-trained army led by highly motivated junior and mid-level officers, highly professional input from senior commanders and planning by an excellent General Staff branch led by one of the most respected officer.  Raheel deserves the credit for some of his bold decisions.  Pakistani experience has no semblance with events on ground in Yemen.  He is not known for his intellectual brilliance where a scholar soldier can think beyond his own horizons and can give strategic insight in a different conflict.  Military operations are conducted by Saudi forces with their own chain of command.  They are not bound to follow recommendations of a non-Saudi advisor.  There is very high likelihood of friction between a foreign advisor and host government as well as local military commanders.   In such cases, advisor gets frustrated as no one is listening to his advice.  On the other hand, if anything goes wrong i.e. large scale civilian casualties, the advisor will share the blame even if no one is heeding to his advice.

If he is assigned a role on diplomatic front what can he offer? He is a retired general with no special skills for any diplomatic task.  As he will be employee of Saudi government, therefore he can only project his employer’s national interest and not as a mediator.  If he is tasked by United Nations or Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) then he can have some credibility to act as a mediator.  In any case, we must remember that Pakistan army chiefs make on the list of influential persons of Time magazine only because they hold the baton.  Once you hand over the baton, you have no regional or international role.  My suggestion is that after hanging boots, Pakistani generals should focus on improving their golf game rather than venturing into unknown territories.

–          It is no secret that Pakistani civilians have been fighting on the killing fields of Iraq and Syria on both sides of the conflict.  Iran and Saudi Arabia have recruited Pakistani youths to be sacrificed on the altar of sectarianism.  As no serious research has been done therefore we don’t know the numbers.  Even if numbers are small it adds fuel to the sectarian fire inside Pakistan.  A former Pakistan army chief joining one party no matter in what capacity will invariably arouse anger among other partisans. If this door is opened, then will Pakistan also accept the notion that a Shia Lieutenant General who retires as Corps Commander and four weeks later hired by Iranian government as its defense advisor in Syria. Food for thought.

–          How Pakistan army brass will see Raheel’s appointment?  It is stated policy of Pakistan and collective decision of Pakistan army that Pakistan should stay away from the Yemen conflict.  This means that he will have no support from Pakistan and his role will be essentially as an employee of Saudi Arabia.  My own feeling is that Raheel’s visit was planned early but was delayed so that new army chief can have some input about the issue.  It is a known fact that Bajwa was not Raheel’s choice just as Raheel was not Kayani’s choice.  Bajwa brought in his own team quickly.  Bajwa was busy taking control of his institution and bringing his own team therefore Raheel issue was down the list.  Bajwa visited Saudi Arabia and although we don’t know what transpired between him and Saudi royal family but one can assume that Raheel’s role came up for discussion.  If Bajwa has vetoed this proposal for a variety of reasons then Saudis will re-think.  They will listen to a Pakistani army chief with baton rather than the one without it.  In this case, Saudis may modify their proposal and offer Raheel such a deal that he cannot accept it and everything fades away.  The other possibility is that they give him a consolation prize with an office, chauffer driven car and even a Gulfstream jet to fly around for one or two years but no real role in the game.  That will not be a good position for Raheel to get into. One the other hand, after listening to the Saudi position and expectations, Raheel may himself decide that it is not good for him or his country and walks away.  This will be the best case scenario.

–          In recent past, there has been lot of resentment among junior army officers where senior army officers immediately after hanging the boots take a flight abroad and stay for extended period of time in some cases courtesy of foreign rulers.  It is fair to ask the question that in what capacity they are working especially after serving at very high and sensitive positions where they are privy to state secrets?  This matter is more serious than the so called Memo Gate scandal when an ambassador was dragged on coals for his alleged indiscretions.

Pakistan needs friendly relations with Saudi Arabia in view of economic and other interests.  In view of trouble on both eastern and western borders, Pakistan also needs a working relationship with Iran.  It is not in Pakistan’s interest to have troubled relations with either Saudi Arabia or Iran.  Pakistan has to walk on a delicate line so that they are not entangled in Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry as it is not good for Pakistan’s health.  The ‘bang’ part of Saudi led operations is completed and now it has entered in a stalemate and ‘dirty’ phase.  Any involvement of a senior retired army officer from a foreign country at this stage will only soil his own clothes.  

In summary, if Raheel accepts Saudi offer, the only benefit is a generous personal financial package with no meaningful contribution towards Yemen crisis and a lot of uncomfortable questions rising about him as well as complications for Pakistan and its army.  He retired on a very high note and he will be remembered by history how he faded away and not by balance in his bank account.

Brown Pundits