Ambiguity prevails: Pakistan ready to send mercenaries to Saudi coalition

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After initial ambiguity, the Pakistan government confirmed on Wednesday its participation in a Saudi-led military alliance for ‘fighting terrorism’, but said the scope of its participation would be defined after Riyadh shared the details of the coalition it was assembling. “Pakistan… is awaiting further details to decide the extent of its participation in different activities of the alliance,” a statement issued by the Foreign Office said. Saudi Arabia had announced on Tuesday that it had forged the 34-nation alliance of Muslim countries for fighting terrorism and extremism, which included Pakistan. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir had later explained that the participating countries would themselves decide about the extent of their participation. The coalition was envisaged to serve as a platform for security cooperation, including provision of training, equipment and troops, and involvement of religious scholars for dealing with extremism. Conspiracy theorists are wondering out loud whether the establishment has said yes to the alliance without taking the foreign office (and perhaps the government?) into confidence. Whatever the case, even the foreign office spokesman’s admitting that Pakistan would be part of the alliance was tinged with ifs and buts. Pakistan, according to the spokesman, still awaits details of what is expected of it. This is a rather strange way to put together an alliance, and that too for the lofty aim of combating terrorism, no doubt an objective shared by many countries but not necessarily with consensus on who is the main enemy and who a friend in this endeavour. This anomaly is sharply brought into focus by the fact that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah are left out, whereas they are arguably the most effective three forces fighting Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The fact that all three are Shia lends credence to the accusation that the ‘Sunni alliance’ Saudi Arabia wants to cobble together has a sectarian tinge. Not only is it inexplicable how even a close friend like Saudi Arabia could announce Pakistan’s membership without proper consultations beforehand, this tendency to put the cart before the horse is repeated in Saudi Arabia reaching out to the opposition PPP regarding the alliance. One may be forgiven for wondering why Riyadh is not bothering to first talk to the government. Surely without such consultation, Islamabad will at best be a reluctant partner, at worst wary of being part of any sectarian conglomerate that would cause difficulties in its relationship with Iran, which has of late enjoyed firmer footing. The whole thing smacks of taking Pakistan for granted. Perhaps that is what explains the bitter and surprised response of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states when Pakistan earlier refused to join a Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, considered by Riyadh to be surrogates of Iran. If Pakistanis appreciated Islamabad’s rare wisdom in not going along blindly with Saudi wishes on that occasion, many are troubled by the implications of even a nod in the direction of this new construct. The fact of the matter is that the Saudis and some of their Arab and Muslim allies are still not able to make up their minds who is the real enemy, Bashar al-Assad or IS. This confusion is also tinged with sectarian hues. When the Saudi defence minister argues that they aim at all shades of terrorists, what remains unexplained in its wake is why then is Riyadh supporting jihadi groups, including al Qaeda affiliate the Al Nusra Front, in Syria? By any definition, such groups too fall under the rubric ‘terrorist’, since they are imbued with an extremist, fanatical version of jihad, which they justify in the name of religion. And what is to stop Riyadh from twisting Islamabad’s arm in a new way by asking for Pakistan to join the fight in Yemen in the name of combating terrorism (i.e. the Houthis). The quagmire is not only in Saudi minds. It finds reflection also on the ground in the manner in which Riyadh has pursued its sectarian Wahabi agenda in Syria and the broader Middle East. For Pakistan to insert itself, for whatever reason, into such a bog is unquestionably unwise and unacceptable. Obsequiousness in our approach to relations with Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states must give way by now to a self-respecting independent policy in Pakistan’s, and no one else’s, interest.

 

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