Pakistan: Managing the Coalition Business

Managing the Coalition

by Dr Hamid Hussain
intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent; but it
takes a touch of genius and lots of courage to move something in the opposite
Government of Pakistan
announced that it has given a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to recently
retired Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General ® Raheel Sharif to head the Saudi
led coalition. It just put to end the rumor mill swirling around for more than
a year.  However, to date, neither Pakistan government nor General ®
Raheel Sharif has put forward any clarification about the terms of agreement
between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on this subject, nature of the military
organization, its objectives, role of its head and the compensation package
associated with the job. There may be some good reasons that government of
Pakistan thinks this is in Pakistan’s interest but it needs to present its
case.  The lack of transparency in important policy decisions only
increases the cynicism of general public.

 It is no secret that
current Saudi led coalition is engaged in only one conflict and that is in the
civil war in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a power struggle
and Saudi led coalition is part of this struggle. Iran is using its own
military assets as well as arming and training sectarian militias for different
theaters.  On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and
Qatar are arming their own militias to oppose Iran in the same theatres. Iran
has recruited many Afghan and Pakistani Shia who are fighting in Syria. 
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has put together its own potpourri of Sunnis
from Arab lands, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for fighting in many
conflict zones.  Everyone now has a dog in the fight that makes any
concerted effort of reconciliation almost impossible. The main engine of
activity in Riyadh and Tehran is the fear and hatred of the ‘other’ rather than
any well thought out operational plan for an agreed upon national interest.
Both countries are equally responsible for destructive policies totally
oblivious to the human cost.
It is now clear that
current Pakistan army brass led by General Qamar Javed Bajwa has given its
blessing to Raheel’s appointment.  If the agreement is only about Raheel’s
appointment then any negative fallout can be limited to Raheel personally and
country can put some kind of a firewall. Raheel can enjoy a three year
lucrative contract with a few free pilgrimages as a bonus and everyone will
forget about the episode.  The unknown part is whether Pakistan army
General Head Quarters (GHQ) also agreed to sending Pakistani troops.  If
they have also agreed to sending troops to Saudi Arabia then Pakistan army and
government cannot escape the negative fallout if and when it occurs.  My
own feeling is that Pakistan has agreed to send troops.
 In December 2015,
when Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman
announced the formation of Saudi led alliance, Pakistan parliament passed a
unanimous resolution against Pakistan’s participation in alliance. Saudis were
outraged and privately they expressed their anger to both civilian and military
leadership.  Saudis have been doling out generous financial packages to
both civilian and military rulers.  In addition, in mutual infighting
among Pakistani power brokers, Saudis have bailed out both Nawaz Sharif and
General ® Pervez Musharraf arranging for safe and comfortable exiles.  Saudis
have a very low opinion of Pakistanis and they were outraged at Pakistan’s foot
dragging considering it a betrayal. This had a sobering effect on Pakistani
civil and military leadership and they carefully walked back.
Pakistan’s relationship
with Saudi Arabia is wide ranging.  Saudi Arabia has infused cash into
Pakistan’s faltering economy from time to time, provided oil at a special
discount rate and Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia send large amount of
remittances back home. Pakistan has provided military trainers in the past and
in return Saudi Arabia underwrote many military items. In 2004, President
George Bush asked Saudi ambassador and close friend Price Bandar Bin Sultan for
help.  He told Bandar that it will take a long time to get approval from
Congress for the sale of helicopters to Pakistan. Bandar got approval from
Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Saudis paid $235 million for twenty
four Bell helicopters destined for Pakistan.  (Bob Woodward.  State
of Denial). 
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia being in United States orbit of influence
also agree on major geo-political policy issues.
In contrast, Pakistan’s
relationship with Iran is very limited with only small scale trade between two
countries. There is no convergence of interests between two countries as Iran
has problems with Unites States for over three decades and Pakistan has a
different take on many Iranian priorities. However, Pakistan shares border with
Iran.  With this background in mind, one can understand the dilemma of Pakistani
civilian and military leaders when Saudis asked them to stand up and be
counted. If they wanted, Pakistanis could have used unanimous parliament
decision against joining the coalition in Yemen as a cover to try to wriggle
out by agreeing to send only some training and support elements.  Even in
best of the circumstances, this was a hard task but then there was no will on
part of Pakistani decision makers.
Like any decision, there
is a credit side of the ledger and a debit side.  If Pakistan has also
agreed to send troops, the minimum number will be at least a brigade and
possibly a division size force.  On credit side, at personal level,
soldiers deployed to Saudi Arabia will get a generous package something similar
to what they receive for United Nations peace keeping missions.  On
national level, Pakistan will likely receive a compensation package that could
be $1-2 billion per year.  However, this will be contingent upon
deployment of combat troops.  On debit side, Pakistan will invariably get
involved in the wider sectarian conflict to some extent.  Already, the
sectarian gulf inside Pakistan got a little bit more widened with announcement
of General ® Raheel Sharif’s appointment. The discussion on the subject is
mostly along sectarian lines.  Pakistan does not have direct border or any
other significant interest in Yemen therefore there is no risk of direct major
damage or acute crisis.  However, there will be some complications if
international and regional players up the ante. 
Like any simmering
conflict, many aspects of Yemen conflict are not clear yet.  United States
under new administration is reviewing its Yemen file.  Trump
administration is entangled in domestic controversies, allegations and
investigations that are sucking most of the oxygen.  Foreign and military
policy is not clear but indications are not auspicious. Trump’s national
security team with the possible exception of National Security Advisor General
H. R. McMaster is solidly anti-Iran.  Secretary of Defence James Mattis
has ordered the review of Yemen policy and it will likely be completed in a
month (The Washington Post, March 26, 2017). 
In the last few months of
Obama administration, Washington not only vetoed many Saudi and Emirati
requests about deeper involvement but significantly downgraded intelligence and
operational cooperation.  It also stopped shipment of precision-guided
munitions to Saudi Arabia in view of rising civilian casualties from air
strikes.  Trump administration has lifted the ban on shipment of precision-guided
munitions to Saudi Arabia and provided better optics for Middle East players by
inviting Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, Egyptian President
Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah to the White
House.  Trump administration is currently working on bringing together a
five country military alliance to quarantine Iran. The members of this club
include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
Israel will provide only intelligence and technical assistance while Arab
members will provide boots on the ground.  (The Wall Street Journal,
15 February 2017).
Egypt and Jordan have very
close and long standing relationship with Israeli security apparatus and both
countries facilitated Saudi rapprochement with Israel. Saudis are cautiously
pulling the curtain away. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al
Faisal met two retired Israeli generals with intelligence background. 
Major General Amos Yadlin is former head of Israeli Military Intelligence (Aman)
and Major General Yaakov Amidror is former head of research department of
Israeli Military Intelligence. In the summer of 2016, former Saudi Major
General with intelligence experience Dr. Anwar Eshki led a delegation of Saudi
businessmen and academics to Israel. He met Foreign Ministry Director General
Dore Gold and military coordinator of Palestinian territories Major General
Yoav Mordechai.  There is nothing wrong in breaking the ice and starting
some working relations with Israel. However, in current context it will be seen
by Arab public in a very negative light resulting in many public relations
problems for Saudi Arabia. Saudis want a broader coalition of Sunni Muslim
countries even if majority of the members are sleeping partners to be able to
sell the project to a sceptic public.
The final verdict in
Washington will be based on risks of deeper involvement of U.S. troops in case
Saudi led coalition falters during a major operation especially amphibious
landing.  The other concern will be distraction from main U.S. mission in
Yemen that is fighting al-Qaeda and Yemeni franchise of Daesh (Islamic
Currently, Yemen conflict
is in a state of stalemate.  If Trump administration decides to push back
against Iran, then a low cost powerful message to Tehran can be via
Yemen.  In that case, project of taking back the crucial port of Hodeida
will be the first item on the agenda.  Hodeida is the port on western Red
Sea coast of Yemen.  It is a crucial supply route for Houthi/Saleh
coalition that is fighting other Yemeni groups and is the target of Saudi led
coalition. Emiratis and Saudis asked Obama administration for increased U.S.
involvement including Special Forces and logistics for large scale amphibious
landings that was declined.  If Trump administration goes for active
involvement in Yemen then close cooperation in capture of Hodeida is an
attractive option.  This may also help in jump starting more inland gains
especially capture of important city of Taiz.
Emirati troops have
surprised many military observers by fighting well and successful amphibious
landings at Aden and Mukalla. It is due to good training by Australian former
Special Forces operatives as well as a brigade consisting of Latin American
former Special Forces soldiers.  However, Emirati troops are too small in
numbers and small Gulf sheikhdoms cannot sustain prolonged deployment or high
casualty rates.  It is here that Saudi led coalition needs Pakistani
troops and potential complications for Pakistan.  If Pakistani troops are
only deployed along Saudi-Yemeni border and they suffer casualties from rocket
attacks, this can be sold to Pakistani public as martyrs for the defense of
holy places.  However, if Pakistani troops are used inside Yemen where in
all probability Saudis want them then it will be a difficult sell. 
However, I don’t see any large scale protests against it in view of army’s
control of the narrative and civilian leadership fully supportive.  In
fact, Saudis may unilaterally activate their own friends inside Pakistan (many
sectarian outfits have ideological affinity with austere Saudi version with
deep antipathy towards Shia while others such as Hafiz Saeed & Company have
received generous financial packages) by organizing demonstrations portraying
Pakistan’s involvement as defense of holy places.
If the scenario unfolds
this way, Tehran will face a dilemma.  If they also decide to up the ante,
their only option is to provide Houthi-Saleh coalition with maritime mines to
cause panic at the choking point of Bab al Mandab that carries most
commercial traffic from Red sea to Arabian sea.  This can internationally
isolate Tehran as international community will not like any hindrance of
commercial traffic.  A less costly option may be to use remote controlled
boat based attacks on coalition military ships on Red Sea coast.  If
Tehran decides to increase costs for Saudi Arabia and provide Houthi/Saleh
coalition with longer range rockets that can have serious re-percussions. 
Attacks on areas closer to holy places will inflame Sunni passions putting
Tehran in a very difficult situation.  Tehran’s interests in Syria, Iraq
and Lebanon are more strategic in nature while Yemen is a side show. 
Tehran may decide to concede in Yemen to protect interests in other important areas. 
However, it may still provide rebels with enough short range rockets to inflict
a certain degree of pain to Saudis especially along Yemeni border. 
Iran and Pakistan have
serious differences on many issues.  There is an environment of deep
mistrust and suspicion.  In 2007-10, extremist Sunni Jundullah
group was operating from Pakistani Baluchistan and was involved in some
devastating attacks on Iranian targets in Seistan-Baluchistan province. 
In view of close cooperation between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence
(ISI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during that time period, Iranians
believed that Pakistan was involved in this adventure.  This was not
true.  Later, it was disclosed that Israelis made contact with Jundullah
in London posing as American agents carrying American diplomatic
documents.  After this revelation, U.S.-Israeli relations were strained
and incoming Obama administration significantly downgraded Israeli-U.S.
intelligence cooperation. (Foreign Policy, January 2012).  Pakistan
had to go an extra mile and worked overtime to apprehend Jundullah
operatives and handed them over to Tehran to convince Iranians that they were
not in the game.  There was some improvement in relations but in March
2016, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was visiting Pakistan, he was
embarrassed.  The arrest of Indian intelligence operative Kulbhushan Yadav
in Baluchistan when he was coming from Iranian port city of Chahbahar was made
public and General Raheel Sharif then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) read Rouhani
the riot act. Army’s spokesperson dutifully contradicted Rouhani’s statement at
a press conference and tweeted the text of conversation while Rouhani was still
in Pakistan. This has not been done to even a visiting rival Indian high level dignitary. 
Iranians were furious as they had brought a large delegation including several
cabinet members for wide ranging engagements.  They left with the
impression that Pakistan army had done this at the behest of Saudi
Arabia.  This incident brought Iran-Pakistan relations to another
low-point.  Now with the hindsight, we know that Raheel was negotiating
his post-retirement lucrative employment package with Saudis at that time, it
puts a question mark whether he did this to earn few ‘brownie points’ from
Iranians are no boy scouts
and they will look after their own interests.  Osama Bin Ladin’s family
members were kept for safe keeping in Iran.  Now looking at the time line
after Bin Ladin’s killing, it is clear that in 2010 Iran exchanged Bin Ladin’s
family members for its intelligence operative Heshmatollah Atterzadeh.  He
was working under the cover of commercial attaché at Iranian consulate in
Peshawar from where he was abducted by al-Qaeda operatives and kept in
Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Tehran didn’t bother to inform Pakistanis even
after the exchange was done.  Leader of Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansur was
travelling on a Pakistani passport with an Iranian visa and coming from Iran
when a drone sent him packing back to his creator.  He was surely not
going for a holiday trip to Iran.  Pakistan’s involvement in Saudi led
coalition will add to this existing deep mistrust. From economic point of view,
there is not much between Iran and Pakistan and an angry Iran will simply
further downgrade economic ties.  However, everyone knows how to play the
game.  If you are unhappy with Pakistan then simply enhance your relations
with Afghanistan and India.  It is now certain that Iran’s cooperation
with Afghanistan and India will expand and it may result in clash with
Pakistani interests.  Tehran will also increase its contacts with
Pakistani Shia players as it will find a fertile ground of resentment against
the state and its policies.  There is clear risk that Tehran will try to
cultivate its intelligence assets inside Pakistani security apparatus for
situational awareness.  This in turn will put extra load on an already
overstretched Pakistani intelligence apparatus for counter-intelligence. 
Coalition especially a
military coalition is a tricky business.  North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) with seventy years history, enormous resources and
unrivalled diplomatic cover has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Mutual
incriminations, huge wastage of resources and uncertain benefits from a decade
long involvement in foreign adventure by a well-established and well-resourced
entity like NATO should make every sane person to pause and reflect.  If
General Raheel Sharif thinks that he can pull this thing up while serving as an
employee of a royal ego like Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, then he needs serious
counselling. In case he is not aware, Saudi Arabia has declared Hezbollah a
terrorist organization, Egypt has declared Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist
entity and Turkey has labelled its own former mentor Gulen movement a
terrorist organization. You don’t need a military staff college course on your
resume to understand the dilemma.
It is important for
Pakistani elite and general public to understand that if someone is giving them
financial aid as well as bailing them out in their personal woes then payback
is an essential element of this arrangement.  They may have to then make
decisions that may not be in Pakistan’s long term interests. This has been a
pattern of Pakistani-U.S. relations and now Pakistan is expanding on this theme
with its relationships with Saudi Arabia and China going on the same
‘The desire to gain an
immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests.  If
they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late’.
  Reinhold Niebuhr

Hamid Hussain
Brown Pundits