The US military’s assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani has left leaders around the world nervous. But the current situation is much tougher for Pakistan than India.
With stock markets and global oil price reacting negatively, most states are concerned about their own security against a potential fallout. Now, Iran has launched missiles at American troops in Iraq. But the bigger question is how to deal with Donald Trump’s US for which military exigencies rule out diplomatic choices.
Much as PM Narendra Modi and his team may longingly look at Donald Trump’s action as worth following, all South Asian countries including India would have to act cautiously without getting embroiled in any conflict in the Middle East. New Delhi is on America’s side and closely following Washington’s policies, which is why oil supply from Iran was stopped by the middle of 2019. Last year, Modi regime also agreed to a business partnership with Saudi Arabia with the expectation of not just building an economic partnership but also in the process, ensuring that Riyadh sees that its interests lie equally in India rather than just in Pakistan.
Tougher fight for Pakistan
After the Soleimani killing, popular sentiment in many of the Muslim countries has become more anti-US. In case of an escalation, there could even be a public outcry in Pakistan to sever all ties with the US. In over 60 years of bilateral ties between Pakistan and the US, public opinion in the former towards the latter has consistently gone from bad to worse. Notwithstanding the popularity of the US visa, people from the Left to the Right of the political spectrum are not fond of US diplomacy, or at least use anti-American slogans to muster domestic support even when they have cooperated with the US. In case of an attack on any of Iran’s religious sites, even by way of reaction to a potential Iranian retaliation, it could be a nightmare for security and law enforcement agencies to stop people from marching towards the American diplomatic mission in Islamabad. One is reminded of an attack on the US embassy in Pakistan in 1979 after the siege of Mecca, in which Washington was not even remotely involved but the rumour was that it had a hand.
Surely, those were different times. Pakistan was ruled by General Zia-ul-Haq, who had taken over the country more than two years ago and was keen to draw American attention, which he received after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve that year. Zia-ul-Haq was out cycling as the embassy building was torched by an angry mob for which Pakistan had to reimburse Washington. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the current army chief, who is equally in control of the state without declaring martial law, would not imagine allowing a repeat of 1979. The American President in 1979, Jimmy Carter, was a different man, who emphasised human rights, unlike trigger-happy incumbent Donald Trump.
The Iran-US conflict may prove disruptive for Bajwa’s desire to rebuild relations with the US. From the time that the relation had nose-dived to a point that Trump tweeted his anger against Pakistan in 2018, ties were rebuilt with Saudi and British help, especially with the high-powered Pakistani delegation’s visit to Washington in July 2019. Although the delegation was led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, General Bajwa was the centre of attention. The visit opened doors for dialogue between the American leadership and Pakistan Army, which was evident with the US announcing the resumption of military training for Pakistan. This is likely to remain on track even if Rawalpindi does not indicate eagerness to join any US action against Iran. The training is an investment in relations with Pakistan’s officer cadre and building a pro-US lobby inside the GHQ. It is this lobby that seems to be pushing to bring a balance between ties with the US versus those with China.
From 2016-2017, when Pakistan Army’s hawkish strategic thinkers were talking about forming a strategic alignment with China and Russia, to now, when Pakistan’s economic relations with China seem to have slowed down, the pro-US lobby kicking back is obvious.
Even if Pakistan does not participate in military action against Iran, the issue will provide more opportunities for a conversation between Washington and Rawalpindi. The statement from the DG ISPR, Maj. General Asif Ghafoor, that Pakistan will remain neutral in the conflict and not allow the use of its territory against either stakeholder was meant to signal Iran but also the domestic audience. This is also what its strategic partner, China would like it to do. The fact that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bypassed the prime minister and foreign minister to talk to General Bajwa, puts responsibility on the military’s shoulder. It will be unfortunate if the army chief, who has planted himself on top of his service for another three years tenure, errs on this issue. Caution is necessary because the British-US preference for him had a role to influence his extension.
Appeasing domestic audience is critical. After Iran, Pakistan has the largest number of Shias. Despite that it is incorrect to assume that all Shias would take up arms against Pakistan if it makes a miscalculated move or that all Shias in Pakistan are pro-Iran, the centrality of Iran and Iraq to Shia faith makes it important for Islamabad and Rawalpindi to emphasise neutrality. So, even if Bajwa wants to get closer to the US military-strategically, he can’t afford to do so. It is not a moment of strategic convergence as American connection at this time could prove to be the ‘Midas touch’ – everything could turn into unusable gold with zero dividend. Given that Pakistan has encountered terrorism, especially of a sectarian nature since the 1980s, continued internal stability and keeping a tight lid on sectarian differences is vital. In January 2018, the state facilitated a fatwa from approximately 1,800 religious scholars of different sects of Islam to forbid terrorism and suicide attacks inside the country. This included Fazlur Rehman Khalil, the founder and leader of militant organisation, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen that was known for its anti-Shia violence.
Despite that, anti-Shia statements are still made by some of the militant groups and the Pakistan military has tried to ensure reduction in sectarian violence.
Since 2015, Pakistan’s policy has been aimed at bringing a balance in its relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In April 2015, the country’s parliament turned down a Saudi request for Pakistan to participate in its war-fighting in Yemen. Despite being close to Saudi Arabia at a personal, organisational and national level, Pakistan has avoided getting directly involved in the Iran-Saudi conflict, which is a variation from the times when the country had turned into a battleground during the 1980s and the 1990s for the Iran-Saudi cold war. It was just a few years ago, in 2011-12, when Sunni militant groups unleashed terror against Shias in Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. Earlier in 2010, interior minister Rehman
Malik voiced concern about Saudi funding religious seminaries. When I spoke to Malik in 2011, he mentioned the role played by the Saudi ambassador in disbursing funds, which is why Riyadh was asked to withdraw its representative. The Saudi contact with militant organisations is something that Pakistan will have to watch even more carefully.
For Pakistan and rest of the region, the way out lies in the temperature cooling down. Islamabad’s efforts in the recent past to negotiate between Iran and Saudi Arabia have failed. However, this is a time to engage with alternative diplomatic mechanisms to contain the conflict. Russia, China and the European Union would certainly have to become more proactive.
The author is Research Associate at SOAS, University of London and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets as @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.