By Aisha Saeed
Last month, the Inter-Services Public Relation (ISPR) announced that a contingent of Pakistani troops will be sent to Saudi Arabia under the bilateral military and defense protocol of 1982 as per the statement released by Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense.
The announcement has drawn criticism and raised query as the initial details of the mission being sent have not been released by the military or the Ministry of Defense, calling for an explanation by the Senate and National Assembly of Pakistan. The number of troops being sent is yet to be confirmed, but stands at an estimate of 1,000 and more around 1,600 over the month’s span. It is imperative to note, this is not the first time Pakistan has sent its troops to Saudi Arabia. However, this time around, the circumstances are different and more complex, and therefore the decision has drawn criticism.
Historically tracking, Pakistan has maintained a certain number of troops in the Kingdom since the 1982 protocol of military cooperation; that was an extension of 1968 security pact which began under the reign of late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and had deepened significantly during the 60’s. Under the agreement, Pakistan would provide training to the Saudi forces with bilateral exchange of military advisors, joint exercises and enrollment of Saudi cadets in Pakistani military institutes.
The ambiguity in the details of the recent move, however, is still drawing skepticism on the actual aims of sending a Pakistani contingent to Saudi Arabia, with strong calls for reversal of the decision. However, considering Pakistan’s strong ties with the Kingdom, such a decision seems unlikely.
Pakistan maintains its stance that the current troop deployment is solely for training and advisory role and will not be deployed against the Houthi rebels in Yemen nor will it be a cause of agitation to for Iran. Iran’s military officer, Brigadier General Hassan expressed Iran’s concerns over Pakistan’s increasing military cooperation with the Saudis in his meeting with Pakistan’s top military brass where he was assured of Pakistan’s intentions of being otherwise.
Pakistan joined the Saudi led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) last year with former army Chief General Raheel Sharif as its leading man. Apart from the bilateral military engagements with the Saudis, Pakistan now is an integral part of the new military alliance due to its extensive counter terrorism expertise and hence shoulders responsibility to formulate the workings of the coalition.
Some reports suggest that Pakistan’s ally Saudi Arabia did not support Pakistan on the FATF forum and voted against Pakistan to secure its membership in the organization. If the given speculations are true, some experts suggest that Pakistan should have reviewed its decision to send troops to the Kingdom. However, the agreement of sending troops was probably made before the FATF meeting and perhaps requested by General Raheel for his assistance and regular integration in the military alliance.
Pakistan has not only extended its defense diplomacy towards the Saudis, but also Turkey, Russia, China, Iran, and US bilaterally while also participating in multilateral joint exercises under a similar idea. Defense Diplomacy is the pursuance of foreign policy objectives through the peaceful interchange of defense capabilities. It develops a parallel channel of communication between the states along the traditional civil diplomacy.
The chorus of disapproval towards the recent troop deployment is based on previous assessment of Pakistan allying with the US against its war on terror. This matter differs in comparison as the Pak- Saudi relationship weighs more in the trust factor than it does with the Pak-US relations. To make the equation complicated, the Saudis have been leaning towards the US recently and the two have signed military deals worth billions of dollars. This situation makes things interesting for defense analysts who are still anticipating how Pakistan’s alliance with the Saudis will turn out.
Matters like these are often times classified, which, according to the state’s justification, ensure the protection of Pakistan’s interests in the Gulf States and its military personnel currently stationed or due to be deployed in the region. Previous news related to such deployments were kept discreet by both countries but due to the Kingdom’s involvement in Yemen, the news has had the politicians and opposition in Pakistan turning.
Pakistan, however, is mindful of the fact that the Saudi-led coalition forces are in an active conflict in Yemen and any participation on behalf of Pakistan would force it to take sides in a conflict where it has maintained a neutral stance; something it strongly did when the initial request by the Saudis was made.
Despite the fury, Pakistan needs to ensure that it pursues rational decisions that safeguard its long term interests with its allies in the Gulf region, but not at the cost of its sovereignty. The favors of such diplomatic moves are not played out immediately but are a quick call away when a country fails on the frontline of traditional diplomacy. It is now up to Pakistan to keep a perfect balance between training and direct confrontation outside the Kingdom while reaping a hefty reward for its services.
*The author is an independent analyst