Managing the Coalition Business
by Dr Hamid Hussain
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent; but it takes a touch of genius and lots of courage to move something in the opposite direction." Albert Einstein
Government of Pakistan announced that it has given a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to recently retired Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General ® Raheel Sharif to head the Saudi led coalition. It just put to end the rumor mill swirling around for more than a year. However, to date, neither Pakistan government nor General ® Raheel Sharif has put forward any clarification about the terms of agreement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on this subject, nature of the military organization, its objectives, role of its head and the compensation package associated with the job. There may be some good reasons that government of Pakistan thinks this is in Pakistan’s interest but it needs to present its case. The lack of transparency in important policy decisions only increases the cynicism of general public.
It is no secret that current Saudi led coalition is engaged in only one conflict and that is in the civil war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a power struggle and Saudi led coalition is part of this struggle. Iran is using its own military assets as well as arming and training sectarian militias for different theaters. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are arming their own militias to oppose Iran in the same theatres. Iran has recruited many Afghan and Pakistani Shia who are fighting in Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has put together its own potpourri of Sunnis from Arab lands, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for fighting in many conflict zones. Everyone now has a dog in the fight that makes any concerted effort of reconciliation almost impossible. The main engine of activity in Riyadh and Tehran is the fear and hatred of the ‘other’ rather than any well thought out operational plan for an agreed upon national interest. Both countries are equally responsible for destructive policies totally oblivious to the human cost.
It is now clear that current Pakistan army brass led by General Qamar Javed Bajwa has given its blessing to Raheel’s appointment. If the agreement is only about Raheel’s appointment then any negative fallout can be limited to Raheel personally and country can put some kind of a firewall. Raheel can enjoy a three year lucrative contract with a few free pilgrimages as a bonus and everyone will forget about the episode. The unknown part is whether Pakistan army General Head Quarters (GHQ) also agreed to sending Pakistani troops. If they have also agreed to sending troops to Saudi Arabia then Pakistan army and government cannot escape the negative fallout if and when it occurs. My own feeling is that Pakistan has agreed to send troops.
In December 2015, when Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman announced the formation of Saudi led alliance, Pakistan parliament passed a unanimous resolution against Pakistan’s participation in alliance. Saudis were outraged and privately they expressed their anger to both civilian and military leadership. Saudis have been doling out generous financial packages to both civilian and military rulers. In addition, in mutual infighting among Pakistani power brokers, Saudis have bailed out both Nawaz Sharif and General ® Pervez Musharraf arranging for safe and comfortable exiles. Saudis have a very low opinion of Pakistanis and they were outraged at Pakistan’s foot dragging considering it a betrayal. This had a sobering effect on Pakistani civil and military leadership and they carefully walked back.
Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is wide ranging. Saudi Arabia has infused cash into Pakistan’s faltering economy from time to time, provided oil at a special discount rate and Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia send large amount of remittances back home. Pakistan has provided military trainers in the past and in return Saudi Arabia underwrote many military items. In 2004, President George Bush asked Saudi ambassador and close friend Price Bandar Bin Sultan for help. He told Bandar that it will take a long time to get approval from Congress for the sale of helicopters to Pakistan. Bandar got approval from Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Saudis paid $235 million for twenty four Bell helicopters destined for Pakistan. (Bob Woodward. State of Denial).
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia being in United States orbit of influence also agree on major geo-political policy issues.
In contrast, Pakistan’s relationship with Iran is very limited with only small scale trade between two countries. There is no convergence of interests between two countries as Iran has problems with Unites States for over three decades and Pakistan has a different take on many Iranian priorities. However, Pakistan shares border with Iran. With this background in mind, one can understand the dilemma of Pakistani civilian and military leaders when Saudis asked them to stand up and be counted. If they wanted, Pakistanis could have used unanimous parliament decision against joining the coalition in Yemen as a cover to try to wriggle out by agreeing to send only some training and support elements. Even in best of the circumstances, this was a hard task but then there was no will on part of Pakistani decision makers.
Like any decision, there is a credit side of the ledger and a debit side. If Pakistan has also agreed to send troops, the minimum number will be at least a brigade and possibly a division size force. On credit side, at personal level, soldiers deployed to Saudi Arabia will get a generous package something similar to what they receive for United Nations peace keeping missions. On national level, Pakistan will likely receive a compensation package that could be $1-2 billion per year. However, this will be contingent upon deployment of combat troops. On debit side, Pakistan will invariably get involved in the wider sectarian conflict to some extent. Already, the sectarian gulf inside Pakistan got a little bit more widened with announcement of General ® Raheel Sharif’s appointment. The discussion on the subject is mostly along sectarian lines. Pakistan does not have direct border or any other significant interest in Yemen therefore there is no risk of direct major damage or acute crisis. However, there will be some complications if international and regional players up the ante.
Like any simmering conflict, many aspects of Yemen conflict are not clear yet. United States under new administration is reviewing its Yemen file. Trump administration is entangled in domestic controversies, allegations and investigations that are sucking most of the oxygen. Foreign and military policy is not clear but indications are not auspicious. Trump’s national security team with the possible exception of National Security Advisor General H. R. McMaster is solidly anti-Iran. Secretary of Defence James Mattis has ordered the review of Yemen policy and it will likely be completed in a month (The Washington Post, March 26, 2017).
In the last few months of Obama administration, Washington not only vetoed many Saudi and Emirati requests about deeper involvement but significantly downgraded intelligence and operational cooperation. It also stopped shipment of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in view of rising civilian casualties from air strikes. Trump administration has lifted the ban on shipment of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and provided better optics for Middle East players by inviting Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, Egyptian President Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah to the White House. Trump administration is currently working on bringing together a five country military alliance to quarantine Iran. The members of this club include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Israel will provide only intelligence and technical assistance while Arab members will provide boots on the ground. (The Wall Street Journal, 15 February 2017).
Egypt and Jordan have very close and long standing relationship with Israeli security apparatus and both countries facilitated Saudi rapprochement with Israel. Saudis are cautiously pulling the curtain away. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal met two retired Israeli generals with intelligence background. Major General Amos Yadlin is former head of Israeli Military Intelligence (Aman) and Major General Yaakov Amidror is former head of research department of Israeli Military Intelligence. In the summer of 2016, former Saudi Major General with intelligence experience Dr. Anwar Eshki led a delegation of Saudi businessmen and academics to Israel. He met Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold and military coordinator of Palestinian territories Major General Yoav Mordechai. There is nothing wrong in breaking the ice and starting some working relations with Israel. However, in current context it will be seen by Arab public in a very negative light resulting in many public relations problems for Saudi Arabia. Saudis want a broader coalition of Sunni Muslim countries even if majority of the members are sleeping partners to be able to sell the project to a sceptic public.
The final verdict in Washington will be based on risks of deeper involvement of U.S. troops in case Saudi led coalition falters during a major operation especially amphibious landing. The other concern will be distraction from main U.S. mission in Yemen that is fighting al-Qaeda and Yemeni franchise of Daesh (Islamic State).
Currently, Yemen conflict is in a state of stalemate. If Trump administration decides to push back against Iran, then a low cost powerful message to Tehran can be via Yemen. In that case, project of taking back the crucial port of Hodeida will be the first item on the agenda. Hodeida is the port on western Red Sea coast of Yemen. It is a crucial supply route for Houthi/Saleh coalition that is fighting other Yemeni groups and is the target of Saudi led coalition. Emiratis and Saudis asked Obama administration for increased U.S. involvement including Special Forces and logistics for large scale amphibious landings that was declined. If Trump administration goes for active involvement in Yemen then close cooperation in capture of Hodeida is an attractive option. This may also help in jump starting more inland gains especially capture of important city of Taiz.
Emirati troops have surprised many military observers by fighting well and successful amphibious landings at Aden and Mukalla. It is due to good training by Australian former Special Forces operatives as well as a brigade consisting of Latin American former Special Forces soldiers. However, Emirati troops are too small in numbers and small Gulf sheikhdoms cannot sustain prolonged deployment or high casualty rates. It is here that Saudi led coalition needs Pakistani troops and potential complications for Pakistan. If Pakistani troops are only deployed along Saudi-Yemeni border and they suffer casualties from rocket attacks, this can be sold to Pakistani public as martyrs for the defense of holy places. However, if Pakistani troops are used inside Yemen where in all probability Saudis want them then it will be a difficult sell. However, I don’t see any large scale protests against it in view of army’s control of the narrative and civilian leadership fully supportive. In fact, Saudis may unilaterally activate their own friends inside Pakistan (many sectarian outfits have ideological affinity with austere Saudi version with deep antipathy towards Shia while others such as Hafiz Saeed & Company have received generous financial packages) by organizing demonstrations portraying Pakistan’s involvement as defense of holy places.
If the scenario unfolds this way, Tehran will face a dilemma. If they also decide to up the ante, their only option is to provide Houthi-Saleh coalition with maritime mines to cause panic at the choking point of Bab al Mandab that carries most commercial traffic from Red sea to Arabian sea. This can internationally isolate Tehran as international community will not like any hindrance of commercial traffic. A less costly option may be to use remote controlled boat based attacks on coalition military ships on Red Sea coast. If Tehran decides to increase costs for Saudi Arabia and provide Houthi/Saleh coalition with longer range rockets that can have serious re-percussions. Attacks on areas closer to holy places will inflame Sunni passions putting Tehran in a very difficult situation. Tehran’s interests in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are more strategic in nature while Yemen is a side show. Tehran may decide to concede in Yemen to protect interests in other important areas. However, it may still provide rebels with enough short range rockets to inflict a certain degree of pain to Saudis especially along Yemeni border.
Iran and Pakistan have serious differences on many issues. There is an environment of deep mistrust and suspicion. In 2007-10, extremist Sunni Jundullah group was operating from Pakistani Baluchistan and was involved in some devastating attacks on Iranian targets in Seistan-Baluchistan province. In view of close cooperation between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during that time period, Iranians believed that Pakistan was involved in this adventure. This was not true. Later, it was disclosed that Israelis made contact with Jundullah in London posing as American agents carrying American diplomatic documents. After this revelation, U.S.-Israeli relations were strained and incoming Obama administration significantly downgraded Israeli-U.S. intelligence cooperation. (Foreign Policy, January 2012). Pakistan had to go an extra mile and worked overtime to apprehend Jundullah operatives and handed them over to Tehran to convince Iranians that they were not in the game. There was some improvement in relations but in March 2016, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was visiting Pakistan, he was embarrassed. The arrest of Indian intelligence operative Kulbhushan Yadav in Baluchistan when he was coming from Iranian port city of Chahbahar was made public and General Raheel Sharif then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) read Rouhani the riot act. Army’s spokesperson dutifully contradicted Rouhani’s statement at a press conference and tweeted the text of conversation while Rouhani was still in Pakistan. This has not been done to even a visiting rival Indian high level dignitary. Iranians were furious as they had brought a large delegation including several cabinet members for wide ranging engagements. They left with the impression that Pakistan army had done this at the behest of Saudi Arabia. This incident brought Iran-Pakistan relations to another low-point. Now with the hindsight, we know that Raheel was negotiating his post-retirement lucrative employment package with Saudis at that time, it puts a question mark whether he did this to earn few ‘brownie points’ from Saudis.
Iranians are no boy scouts and they will look after their own interests. Osama Bin Ladin’s family members were kept for safe keeping in Iran. Now looking at the time line after Bin Ladin’s killing, it is clear that in 2010 Iran exchanged Bin Ladin’s family members for its intelligence operative Heshmatollah Atterzadeh. He was working under the cover of commercial attaché at Iranian consulate in Peshawar from where he was abducted by al-Qaeda operatives and kept in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Tehran didn’t bother to inform Pakistanis even after the exchange was done. Leader of Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansur was travelling on a Pakistani passport with an Iranian visa and coming from Iran when a drone sent him packing back to his creator. He was surely not going for a holiday trip to Iran. Pakistan’s involvement in Saudi led coalition will add to this existing deep mistrust. From economic point of view, there is not much between Iran and Pakistan and an angry Iran will simply further downgrade economic ties. However, everyone knows how to play the game. If you are unhappy with Pakistan then simply enhance your relations with Afghanistan and India. It is now certain that Iran’s cooperation with Afghanistan and India will expand and it may result in clash with Pakistani interests. Tehran will also increase its contacts with Pakistani Shia players as it will find a fertile ground of resentment against the state and its policies. There is clear risk that Tehran will try to cultivate its intelligence assets inside Pakistani security apparatus for situational awareness. This in turn will put extra load on an already overstretched Pakistani intelligence apparatus for counter-intelligence.
Coalition especially a military coalition is a tricky business. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with seventy years history, enormous resources and unrivalled diplomatic cover has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mutual incriminations, huge wastage of resources and uncertain benefits from a decade long involvement in foreign adventure by a well-established and well-resourced entity like NATO should make every sane person to pause and reflect. If General Raheel Sharif thinks that he can pull this thing up while serving as an employee of a royal ego like Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, then he needs serious counselling. In case he is not aware, Saudi Arabia has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization, Egypt has declared Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist entity and Turkey has labelled its own former mentor Gulen movement a terrorist organization. You don’t need a military staff college course on your resume to understand the dilemma.
It is important for Pakistani elite and general public to understand that if someone is giving them financial aid as well as bailing them out in their personal woes then payback is an essential element of this arrangement. They may have to then make decisions that may not be in Pakistan’s long term interests. This has been a pattern of Pakistani-U.S. relations and now Pakistan is expanding on this theme with its relationships with Saudi Arabia and China going on the same trajectory.
‘The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late’. Reinhold Niebuhr