Saudi pres­sure

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Moeed Yusuf

THAT Pak­istan has thus far man­aged to steer clear of the fires in the Middle East is no less than a mir­a­cle. The Pak­istani govern­ment dodged the Saudi re­quest for di­rect in­volve­ment in Ye­men last year. But this pres­sure will sus­tain. The rea­son is sim­ple: there is no other Mus­lim coun­try that has deep links with key Arab regimes and can be co­erced to lend an army ac­tu­ally worth its salt.

Quite apart from the Saudi de­mand, Pak­istan also risks be­ing burnt if the prin­ci­pal ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the chaos in the Middle East - the mil­i­tant Is­lamic State group and its af­fil­i­ates - ex­tend their reach into South Asia proper. They are al­ready op­er­at­ing in Afghanistan and be­gin­ning to do so in Pak­istan.

This is hardly sur­pris­ing: af­ter all, they have old con­nec­tions here from the time they were part of Al Qaeda; they es­pouse a sec­tar­ian agenda that ap­peals to Sunni ex­trem­ist out­fits in Pak­istan; and any num­ber of mil­i­tant groups out of favour and un­der at­tack from the Pak­istani state are in des­per­ate need of a pa­tron that Al Qaeda no longer is.

Pak­istan must avoid get­ting sucked into this mess. The start­ing point for this has to be the recog­ni­tion that Is­lam­abad's tra­di­tional pro-Arab pol­icy has been over­taken by events.

Iran has made a diplo­matic come­back. And since Iran isn't a regime - it's a real state with real in­sti­tu­tions and a con­trolled but func­tion­ing democ­racy - it has a greater chance of cash­ing in on this op­por­tu­nity to al­ter the bal­ance of power in the re­gion. Mean­while, the Saudi-led coali­tion seems in­sis­tent on ig­nor­ing the sin­gle-most ob­vi­ous les­son from the post9/11 wars: use of ki­netic force, es­pe­cially in for­eign ter­ri­tory, has not and can­not de­feat the kind of non-state ac­tors/dis­si­dents fight­ing dis­cred­ited, mis­gov­erned Mus­lim states. The present Saudi force­heavy strat­egy won't de­liver and as the House of Saud's des­per­a­tion grows, they'll inevitably look to crank up the pres­sure on Pak­istan. We've al­ready seen hints of a 'with us or against us' ul­ti­ma­tum - mer­ci­fully so far only from an Emi­rati min­is­ter shoot­ing from the hip.

But when this comes se­ri­ously and di­rectly from the Saudis, we'd be stuck - for de­fy­ing this block be­yond a point en­tails grave costs. Fore­most amongst th­ese would be a pos­si­ble move to­wards Pak­istani di­as­pora repa­tri­a­tion that is vir­tu­ally un­af­ford­able given the eco­nomic bur­den it en­tails and the hard­ened reli- gious in­ter­pre­ta­tions the ex­pats are likely to bring back with them.

But Arab des­per­a­tion could also lead to more bla­tant co­er­cion, most ob­vi­ously, by stok­ing sec­tar­ian fires within Pak­istan. Of course, oblig­ing the Arabs could lead the Ira­ni­ans to con­sider the same ap­proach to force Pak­istan to re­think such a move. Pak­istan's only re­course is to play the middle. It should proac­tively me­di­ate the con­flict. Not just by mak­ing high-level vis­its to Tehran and Riyadh. I am imag­in­ing a per­ma­nent backchan­nel to iden­tify a middle ground in Ye­men that con­vinces the Arab world to drop their de­mand for mer­ce­nary Pak­istani forces.

Mean­while, the tra­di­tional Pak­istani di­rect (phys­i­cal pro­tec­tion) and in­di­rect ( political) sup­port to Arab coun­tries should con­tinue, and per­haps be but­tressed fur­ther as a re­as­sur­ing tac­tic. Arab states be­gin­ning to face do­mes­tic ter­ror- ism will also in­creas­ingly need coun­tert­er­ror­ism as­sis­tance. Pak­istan has a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence to con­trib­ute here and should do so ea­gerly - again, with­out putting any of its own per­son­nel on the ground. To Iran, this rather am­biva­lent Pak­istani po­si­tion must be pre­sented as be­ing con­tin­gent on its as­sur­ance that the Saudi main­land will not be threat­ened un­der any cir­cum­stances. For cross­ing this line would be the surest way to panic Arab regimes and force them to read the riot act to Pak­istan if it still re­mains non­com­mit­tal.

As for IS, there is no room for com­pla­cency. But thank­fully, the most crit­i­cal state re­sponse here is al­ready in play. At this stage, you've ba­si­cally got to pre­vent the IS fran­chise from be­com­ing a net­worked group. This re­quires preven­tive coun­tert­er­ror­ism tech­niques co­or­di­nated be­tween the civil­ians and the mil­i­tary. This is an area where the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus seems to be do­ing bet­ter than any other. That said, the one fac­tor that could dent my cau­tious op­ti­mism is neg­a­tive re­gional de­vel­op­ments.

If the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan goes fur­ther south and spills over into Pak­istan or if the east­ern bor­der heats up, the state's at­ten­tion will be di­verted. IS and its af­fil­i­ates will find pre­cisely the kind of space and time they need. Pak­istan should be on the look­out for IS-in­spired at­tempts to cre­ate cir­cum­stances that could lead a break­down in Af-Pak or Pak-In­dia re­la­tions. Pak­istan has sur­vived the Middle East­ern storm so far. But things will con­tinue to heat up in the Arab world. As they do, the de­mand for Pak­istani pres­ence there as well as the po­ten­tial for IS to ex­pand out­side the Middle East will only in­crease.

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