Man is as much a creature of his circumstances as he is of his choices. Growing up in the house of someone in service of the state is not easy. Every two years, the city would change and we would end up being strangers in a strange place. But the family unit back then was very strong and our lives sheltered. We seldom missed outside company. But it also meant that with the changing environment, we came across too many people and perspectives. And all of that enriched us.
These were the final days of the so-called Afghan jihad. The Soviet Union was on the retreat and Zia firmly in power. However, when I look back, I recall a characteristic absence of sectarian prejudice. We were told it was enough to know that we were Muslims. On every ninth or tenth of Muharram, our father would take us boys to see an Ashura procession. We always wore black. Nobody judged us and our mother would make sure we set up a sabeel for the mourners wherever we could. Such were those simple times.
Aloof from the religiosity of this all, my father always emphasised the need to understand the cultural significance of those days. The Iran-Iraq War was still raging and to my father it was the ultimate proof of man’s stupidity and ability to self-destruct. I, too, tried to dig deeper into his analyses and despite his busy work schedule, he always spared time for my questions. But his views on the Iran-Iraq War had nothing to do with religious or sectarian matters. The whole thing was so pointless. In case if you have forgotten, let me remind you that this pointless war continued for eight years and concluded with a military stalemate.
What did Pakistan do in those testing times? Did it support Iraq against Iran as were the wishes of our Saudi and American benefactors? No. It did assuage the Saudi fears of an Iranian backlash by stationing its soldiers on Saudi soil. According to some estimates, some 40,000 soldiers were deployed there. But that hardly meant that Pakistan alienated Iran. It provided as much support to Iran as was possible. Again, according to some accounts, Pakistan even provided financial and conventional weapon support to Iran. Even Zia’s regime knew how to keep the delicate balance between the two important countries.
Also let me remind you that during this time, Pakistan’s nuclear programme development was at its peak. If the Saudis had anything to do with financing the project as Bruce Riedel and some princes would like you to believe, then Pakistan should have just bowed before the Arab pressure. But it did not. When Iraq invaded Kuwait and Operation Desert Storm was launched, contrary to the opinion on the street, my father was firmly in support of disciplining Saddam’s regime. He could have told me that Saddam posed a threat to the holy shrines at Makkah and Medina. But he did not. A professional soldier, he only believed that as a state Pakistan was obliged to safeguard Saudi integrity. He also believed Saddam was a destabilising force in the Arab world. He did not live long to see what became of Saddam and of Iran as he left this world in 1992. But his dispassionate assessment of regional politics was not far from the truth.
Today, once again, Pakistan finds itself in similar pressure. We are being asked to join the fight against Iran-supported insurgents in Yemen. Amazingly, I haven’t heard of a similar request to fight the most potent threat in the region — that of the Islamic State. The question is, what should Pakistan do? Should it join the fight against the Houthis in Yemen? If I had the power to decide, I would have chosen to repeat what we did in the 1980s, deploying forces only for Saudi defence. But if it becomes impossible for us to resist the pressure, we should first seek to insulate ourselves from the religious and sectarian dimension of it all. Houthis are non-state actors and are battle-hardened. Let us also not forget we share a border with Iran.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 28th, 2015.