Saudis step into Pakistan's quagmire
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Washington, in an attempt to generate mass support for the United
States-led "war on terror", helped plan the rise to power of liberal, secular
political parties in Pakistan, culminating in the installation early this year
of the administration led by President Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan
People's Party (PPP).
The idea was backed by economic packages for the uplift of the local population
and military aid to strengthen the Pakistan army in its fight against
Within nine months the whole plan has fallen flat; the pro-Western coalition
government is visibly divided and not ready to formulate
any official strategy on the "war on terror" and it has ceded all
responsibility in this regard to the military.
In response, General David Petraeus, the new head of US Central Command with
responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has turned to Saudi Arabia
to act as an middleman between Washington and Pakistan.
Previously, Washington dealt directly with former president General Pervez
Musharraf. A London-based Pakistani diplomatic told Asia Times Online on
condition of anonymity, "All aid packages will be routed through Saudi Arabia
as a result of Pakistan's performance in the 'war on terror'. The Saudis will
deal directly with Pakistan to resolve disputes, and that's why Pakistan's
Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Ashfaq Kiani visited Saudi Arabia. These
kinds of visits will be seen frequently in the near future."
The envoy continued, "You can see a new campaign emerging of fatwas [religious
decrees] against terrorism [recently, one of the most influential and
prestigious seminaries in South Asia, the Darool uloom Deoband of India, issued
a policy statement condemning terrorism]. This debate will be enhanced by Saudi
Arabia for damage control in Muslim countries as well as to safeguard Western
This week, the United Nations General Assembly held a session entitled "Culture
of Peace" to promote a global dialogue about religions, cultures and common
values. This was at the initiative of King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud of
Saudi Arabia as a followup to an interfaith conference staged in Madrid that
was organized in collaboration with King Juan Carlos of Spain in July.
Clearly, Washington has accepted that militancy, at least in Pakistan and
Afghanistan, can't be tamed only through the barrel of the gun, especially
given its resurgence in these countries - something that promises to make next
year very tough for security forces.
The difference between the Saudi approach and Washington's is that the Saudis
are tolerant of the conservative student militias and their tribal brand of
Islam, while Washington is not. On the issue of al-Qaeda, the Saudis are as
tough, if not tougher, than the Americans as they feel more threatened than the
West. Nonetheless, the Saudis are on talking terms with al-Qaeda, directly and
through various mediators, which has enabled them to resolve the problem of
militancy within the kingdom, which only three years ago faced a monster that
threatened to destabilize the monarchy.
Problems in Pakistan
This Saudi involvement, as stated above, is the result of the elected
government failing to provide the strong political will to back military
operations in the tribal areas, let alone outline a consensus national policy
through parliament. The government has left the military to make its own
decisions, which means it will not necessarily follow Washington's script.
The PPP, meanwhile, has focussed on strengthening its grip on power, including
the incorporation into the cabinet of ministers with decidedly suspect
backgrounds - from allegations of debauchery to honor killings.
The government has also cracked down on money changers, who are legally allowed
to transfer money abroad. According to the advisor to the Ministry of the
Interior, Rehman Malik, initial inquiries showed that about 40 billion rupees
(US$500 million) had been shifted from Pakistan in just the past one month,
with much more over the previous months.
One reason for the crackdown is to take control of the financial markets and
the billion-dollar giants which influence politics. It is also specifically
aimed at a Karachi-based political party which has sent millions of dollars to
Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and London. Although the party is a coalition
partner, the PPP-led government wants to keep it under its thumb, especially
over the issue of privatization.
This quagmire apart, the secular Pashtun sub-nationalist Awami National Party
(ANP), which leads the government in restive North-West Frontier Province, has
also failed to deliver on the "war on terror" front. A recent attack by the
Taliban on Asfanyar Wali, the head of the ANP, resulted in him fleeing to the
capital Islamabad, where he stayed in the president's residence to get maximum
protection before heading for Europe. He returned to Pakistan on Sunday, but
only after sending a message to the Taliban that he had nothing to do with the
"war on terror".
This means the emerging nexus of Washington, Riyadh and Islamabad, through the
Pakistani military, will deal directly with the militants on a case-by-case
basis, and according to strategic contacts who spoke to Asia Times Online, a
breakthrough is expected within the next few months.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]