The Pakistan Army has lost every war it fought against India, committed mass atrocities in Balochistan and what was then East Pakistan and has failed to defeat militant extremists in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. It has, however, always been willing to lend an iron hand to despots of the Middle East. For the army, pan-Islamism, if the definition of the term is narrowed to mean only serving dictators and not their unfree populations, has always trumped national interest.
A report in this newspaper revealed that the Fauji Foundation — a business conglomerate of former military men with links to the military — that, among other things, produces corn flakes, was recruiting personnel to serve in Bahrain’s security forces. The protests in Bahrain are pitting the Shia-majority population against a Sunni royal family. Given its sectarian overtones, and Pakistan desperately needing good relations with the Sunni Saudis and Shia Iran, this is one fight we should have silently observed from a corner. Instead, we have ensured that we will be instantly blacklisted by any new government. The army’s activities in Muslim countries seem to indicate that it is only willing to uphold the status quo, without considering how it will affect Pakistan if ‘their’ side falters.
After the Arab countries were routed by Israel in 1967, Jordan, Syria and Iraq asked for military training from Pakistan. This uncontroversial request was rapidly granted since the enemy in question was the Jewish state. By 1970, though, King Hussein of Jordan had another irritant on his hands: The refugee Palestinian population in his country. Among the Pakistani soldiers stationed in Jordan was Ziaul Haq (then a brigadier) and he was asked to assume charge of a division of the Jordanian army. Given that our army’s role in the country was not supposed to involve combat, the Jordanian request was perplexingly granted.
The Jordanians massacred scores of Palestinians in what is known as Black September. While the exact role played by Zia in putting down the Palestinians is in question, the mere presence of a Pakistani military officer in charge of one division of the army was enough to strain relations between the two sides. It is hard to understate just how immense a foreign policy debacle this was, as after Black September, India could credibly claim to have closer ties than Pakistan with both the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel.
Similarly, the Pakistan Army had a brigade posted in Saudi Arabia to aid the regime during the 1970s and ‘80s. Its role in clearing the Masjid-al-Haram of rebels in 1979 is as disputed as its activities in the Black September uprising. To the extent that it was possible to clear the fog that surrounds the operation, it appeared that the Pakistani brigade was present in a purely advisory capacity, while the fighting was done by Saudi and French forces. Back home, Zia, for some reason, claimed that the US had invaded the mosque and then stood idly by for hours as the American Embassy was attacked by an enraged mob. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prevented a permanent straining of relations. But the incident cemented the US policy that Pakistan is to be used and discarded as needed, but never trusted.
The difference between our entanglements of the 1970s and that in Bahrain is that now, the soldiers are being hired by an organisation run by ex-servicemen and hence, this is not a reflection of official Pakistan policy. That argument is facile. If Pakistan decides to stay neutral in Bahrain’s internal conflict, mercenaries can simply be banned from serving there. And if we are to avoid the embarrassments of the past, neutrality is the only credible option.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2011.