Maverick Pakistan : Army Leading It to Oblivion
Lt General S A Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM (Bar), VSM (Bar) (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The Pakistan Army continues to baffle. Known to be the power behind Pakistan’s foreign and security related policies its hold is also for the purpose of perpetuating its control over Pakistan’s polity and in fact almost every facet of existence of the nation. From 1977 onwards, when General Zia ul Haq overthrew Zulfiqar Bhutto, the control of the Army has been all pervading, even as democracy prevails. It is the Pakistan Army’s concept of existence that has led the Pakistan Government to follow the policy of proxy war against India; ‘war by a thousand cuts’ has been the Army’s way of carrying out retribution for the loss it suffered in 1971. The opening of India’s economy in 1991 almost coincided with Pakistan’s launch of proxy war in J&K and beyond. Yet it was the Pakistan Army’s single handed obsession which prevented Pakistan from joining in the larger game of economic cooperation and development which may have permitted it to also make strides in development as India did. A quarter of a century down the line the Pakistan Army appears to have learnt no lessons, kept its vice like grip over national policies, disallowed the natural process of cooperation to achieve economic goals and continued to play spoiler as far as relations with India are concerned. The baffling part is that it is now extending its maverick behavior beyond the realm of India Pakistan relations. The Saudi Iran standoff is not something from where Pakistan will appear with any cheer. In fact, more likely, it will emerge with much egg on its face.

It is surprising that General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s strongman gave such unequivocal support to Saudi Arabia during his meeting with visiting Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman on 12 Jan 2016. Salman is obviously visiting Pakistan in the wake of its worsening relationship with Iran after the execution of the Saudi Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr el Nimr a fortnight ago. It would be recalled that the minority Saudi Shia community in the oil rich eastern part of Saudi Arabia is increasingly restive after the execution and there has also been emotional outbursts in Tehran. The Grand Ayatollah Al Khamenei has even expressed his desire for retribution for the execution of Nimr el Nimr. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have also been broken off. The Saudi Defence Minister’s visit is an attempt to test Pakistan’s resolve to come to its assistance after the experience of the war in Yemen in which Pakistan refused to provide ground troops citing its own internal security problems. A visit by the Saudi Foreign Minister preceded Salman reinforcing the above assessment. It is reported that General Raheel Sharif while responding to the visitor stated that “…. any threat to Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan." Going as far as that is fine because Saudi Arabia has indirectly bankrolled much of Pakistan’s defence capability and in fact even its nuclear program in return for two things; first the cooperation to allow growth of Saudi Salafi ideology within Pakistan; and second secure an assurance of Pakistani support in the event of a major threat to its security. In the Eighties through to part of the mid-Nineties Pakistan placed an infantry brigade at the disposal of the royal family for its own protection. However, at the launch of the war in Yemen in 2015 Pakistan refused to become a part of the 35 country coalition led by the Saudis leading to some tensions.

In the wake of the above background it is indeed surprising that General Raheel Sharif has chosen to use strong words in support of the Saudis including a statement which purportedly states that Pakistan would “wipe Iran off the map” ostensibly if it threatened Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons. Can Pakistan afford to make such a strong statement and if so is it at the behest of external powers or its own convictions. Pakistan has a 15 percent Shia minority which has been at the receiving end of much violence from Pakistan’s Sunni radical groups, the Lashkar e Jhangvi being the leading one. Gen Sharif, in fact, was at the forefront of action against these groups and others creating mayhem in Pakistan’s port city, Karachi and much of Punjab leading to the killing of the LeJ leader. The Shia communities anywhere in the world have a natural affinity towards Iran, being persecuted minority in most Sunni dominated states. The Shias are known for their propensity towards self-sacrifice taking great motivation from the iconic battle of Karbala. If driven against the wall in Pakistan they could add another serious dimension to the already exasperating internal security situation. Iran may not have been a compulsive Pakistan supporter but it surely has never opposed Pakistan on the politico-strategic front except in the situation against the Taliban where it supported the Nine Party Alliance in Afghanistan. It has a border with Pakistan all along the restive Baluchistan province with some common spillover of the ethnic population. In conflicts with India it is known to have sided with Pakistan although not passionately.

Gen Raheel has to realize that Iran has great potential to create problems for Pakistan both in Baluchistan and on the sectarian front. Pakistan should well understand its vulnerability given the fact that without any such intent on the part of Iran it (Pakistan) is already in the throes of a strangulating internal security situation. On the other flank exists India which too has held back and never exploited Pakistan’s fault lines amidst many demands that it should pay back Pakistan for all the mischief that the latter has sponsored in India’s J&K and elsewhere in the country.

Pakistan’s military leadership, both serving and veteran, has a serious problem with motor mouths. At the drop of a hat Parvez Musharaf reminds India about nuclear weapons as if a nuclear asymmetry exists in the subcontinent. Their latest charade is the supposed newly acquired capability of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) which they mention often, dropping the term at will to send home some kind of a message to India’s leadership. Iran is not exactly bereft of nuclear weapon capability. In the world of international military posturing latent and undercover nuclear capability must be taken for granted. India did that right through the Eighties and most of the Nineties in relation to Pakistan. To be flanked by a declared nuclear weapon state on one side and a potentially nuclear capable undercover nuclear state on the other isn’t exactly a good idea if you have bad relations with both. I would have given General Raheel Sharif much more competence than he has displayed through his indiscrete statement. He belies his strategic background of having been a member of the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) program which always lays emphasis on Security, Stability and Prosperity as its doctrine.

Perhaps it was a mis-reportage in which case it will be denied soon. Be it as it may, the salvo has been fired and it won’t do much to keep Pakistan out of the growing Iran-Saudi standoff, a situation in which it had the potential of playing a far more positive role. Probably, its long aspired dream of being the flag bearer of the Islamic world would have received an impetus if it was seen to be neutral. That was expected after the very bold stance taken during the Saudi led alliance’s launch of war in Yemen against Houthis who are purportedly supported by Iran. In a stroke General Sharif has lost that advantage and got Pakistan unnecessarily involved in an emerging situation in which it cannot come out the winner.

Is this combined US-Saudi pressure which is manifesting? Unlikely, because the US itself is drawing towards rapprochement with Iran, after the Nuclear Deal. It is also seen to be distancing itself from Saudi Arabia and keeping a neutral stance. The Russians who are seen to be getting closer to Pakistan aren’t going to be too happy with threats to its ally, Iran. The Russia-Iran equation appears to be playing its role in stabilizing the Middle East in as much as the control over Daesh is concerned.

This is Pakistan’s peculiar problem; running foreign policy both from Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It has its fallout on the other flank too where the peace process with India would have acquired maturing proportions but for Rawalpindi’s hesitation to allow it to run the course. The Pakistan Army, perceived as villain of the peace, needs a course correction in the ham handed way it is running the affairs of the state. It can only take Pakistan down the path to the oblivion that awaits it. The more its leadership talks of its nuclear weapons as weapons of war fighting the more will it misread the opportunities that wait, on both flanks.

Published in IBN Live on 13th January 2106.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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