It was in August 2018 that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, banged his fist on the table to announce that, henceforth, the country’s foreign policy will be made at the Foreign Office. He intended to post career diplomats in foreign missions not just as an expression of control but also to encourage them. In early 2018, even the Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI, had discovered through a study of the Foreign Office that diplomats were demotivated because of political appointments in the department, especially at higher ranks. However, within two years, the foreign minister had to reverse his policy experiment — there are now quite a few retired military officers serving as Pakistani ambassadors in the capitals of the world. A career diplomat in Riyadh was recently shown the door even before the end of his term and replaced with a retired three-star, Lt General Bilal Akbar.
While the change denotes issues with a hybrid regime, it also indicates GHQ Rawalpindi’s urgency in bringing the country’s Middle East policy under its control. More importantly, it is about managing relations with the US via the Middle East. There are critical matters that Rawalpindi needs to communicate privately with both Washington and Riyadh — recognition of Israel being one of them. This could possibly be one of the reasons why Lt General Akbar — an officer who owes his promotion to the position of a three-star in December 2016 to General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and hence, the Pakistan Army chief’s man — was sent to Saudi Arabia. Though the rumour mill in Pakistan does not consider the posting beyond an issue of appeasing an aggrieved General, it is claimed that Akbar was a contender for the army chief’s position in 2020 but was moved out of the way to ensure Bajwa’s extension. Currently, he is being dispatched as a confidant to take care of the Pakistan-Saudi bilateral relationship. Even if there was any grievance in Akbar’s mind, for now, it has been well taken care of. The military’s own socio-cultural system tied with punishments and rewards is beneficial to any chief.
Despite the fact that ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan seem to have nosedived in the past year-and-a-half, the bilateral relations are not a thing of the past, nor has the strategic significance reduced. Notwithstanding that both the Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Imran Khan have vented out their sharp disagreement, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and General Qamar Javed Bajwa have remained engaged.
Pakistan has fresh agenda with Saudi, beyond Kashmir
In Islamabad, it is no more about the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) or Saudi Arabia playing a role in Kashmir. Pakistan has long known it can’t expect a lot from Riyadh on this issue besides some resolutions. However, the recognition of Israel has emerged as a new common cause, a matter on which Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are tied, as if by an umbilical cord. Both cannot move forward without the other. One will not do it unless the other does it.
Although MbS is keen to have diplomatic ties with Israel, he needs another significant Muslim State that does not recognise the Jewish State to do the same. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the Pakistan Army was keen to go ahead on the matter. The fact that some of the journalists and propagandists closely associated with the armed forces, such as Kamran Khan, Mubashar Luqman and Ahmed Qureshi, spoke in favour of recognising Israel could never have happened without instructions to signal the Benjamin Netanyahu government and build a favorable opinion inside the country. That Rawalpindi even got a rabid religious cleric like Maulana Sherani to give a statement in support of the Israel idea indicates that the State was making its preparations. Nonetheless, as sources argued, it was Prime Minister Imran Khan who not only refused but also got Shah Mahmood Qureshi to oppose the idea, because it would be politically costly for the PTI leader. The cost of recognising Israel for any political leader in Pakistan is prohibitive, but more so for Khan. I remember a former naval chief once lecturing me about how because of the PM’s first marriage with Jemima Goldsmith, Khan was an Israeli plant.
The prime minister is not necessarily independent of the military but there are instances when he exercises his own will, especially when it pertains to his survival. Bajwa does not intend to throw him out, or wouldn’t punish him for such disagreement but it seems he has decided to directly watch over the affairs with Riyadh.
To US via Israel
For Pakistan, developing ties with Israel is important, especially after the change of government in Washington. Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan aimed at securing Israel’s legitimacy among Muslim countries. With Pakistan, Tel Aviv too can make gains such as partnering with a State in Iran’s immediate neighborhood, especially when the two neighbouring militaries have a history of suspicion dating back to the 1980s. Despite the military establishment making tremendous efforts in the past two to three years to contain sectarian conflict inside Pakistan, which is one of the major issues with Tehran, the suspicion and resentment between the two countries remain. After change in the US, the three stakeholders – Netanyahu, MbS, and Bajwa-led Army — find themselves on the same page: President Joe Biden will support the peace deal but not as vehemently and one-sidedly as Trump, or at least not without expecting some concessions for the Palestinians.
While opening possibilities for Palestinians is a good idea, there is a far bigger advantage for Pakistan if it makes the move now, when recognition of Israel is more challenging — it could, therefore, bring greater dividends. Netanyahu and MbS will also have to struggle more. Thus, an impetus may have to be created among the three stakeholders. Pakistan and Israeli armed forces are already in contact, particularly due to them operating on the same side during the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
What Pakistan gains
Pakistan sees three major gains in cooperating with Israel.
First, it is interested in buying military technology that it may not get from the US but could from Tel Aviv as a political dividend. It is claimed that Saudia or Israel itself could reward Pakistan by paying for military hardware. Second, Rawalpindi does not want to entirely surrender Israel to India. It’s the same way it thinks about the US. The idea isn’t to draw a wedge between Delhi and Tel Aviv which Pakistan understands it cannot. If Israel develops stakes in Pakistan, it could at some future point be used for conversation with India or to keep an eye on it. It’s just like when India started to build relations with Saudi Arabia after 1997/98, the former head of the ISI, Lt General Asad Durrani, who also served as ambassador in Riyadh, was of the view that Pakistan did not necessarily see it as a disadvantage. In a conversation with me he said that while Pakistan could not stop Riyadh from building terms with Delhi for economic reasons, Islamabad could at some point use it to its benefit. Third, there is an appreciation in Pakistan’s strategic circles regarding the influence of the Jewish lobby in the US that Rawalpindi wants to use to its advantage.
The issue here is not about challenging the India-US relations, which Pakistan understands nothing much can be done about, but it doesn’t want Delhi’s voice to be the only one that falls in Biden’s ears. Moreover, both Islamabad and Rawalpindi want to keep a steady relationship with Washington that can be used from time to time, especially in negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or continuation of the military-to-military relationship. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s strategic ties with Beijing, it does not want to be entirely in China’s camp.
Links with Washington are already not under the purview of the Foreign Office. Sources in Islamabad and Washington suggest that a lot of the real communication takes place between Rawalpindi and the State Department directly, circumventing Pakistan’s mission in the US capital, which is left to deal with a lot of day-to-day functioning. The same is likely to happen in Riyadh.
Pakistan has certainly missed the moment, yet again, when it could have developed ties with Israel. However, the sharp divide between the military establishment, and the civilian government that is fast losing control of critical foreign policy issues is not a good sign. A political government, which is not ready to take responsibility for this policy means it will be unable to sell it to its constituents and the society at large. A policy of recognition that it pursued covertly or sprung at people as a surprise will have unpleasant consequences, especially for a society like Pakistan, which was educated for decades about Zionist-Jews being the worst enemies and a major source of all security threat to the country. A policy for which no one takes responsibility is always dangerous.
Ayesha Siddiqa @iamthedrifter is research associate at SOAS, London, and author of ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’. Views are personal.