Pakistan ready for Middle East role
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - With a broad Sunni Muslim bloc of countries lining up against an
emerging Shi'ite crescent in the Middle East, Sunni-majority and nuclear-armed
Pakistan could play an important - albeit somewhat reluctant - role.
A step in this direction is Pakistan's decision to keep two army divisions on
standby for deployment to Saudi Arabia in the event of trouble there. This
followed a visit by Saudi Prince and secretary general of the National Security
Council Prince Bandar Bin Sultan to Pakistan.
Earlier, Pakistan's Fauji Foundation, an armed forces entity, organized the
recruitment of over 1,000 ex-army personnel for service in Bahrain's National
Guard. The small Persian Gulf state, which is headquarters to the United States
5th Fleet, is
suppressing protests with the help of Saudi invasion forces. Bahrain's ruling
elite is Sunni, although about 70% of the population is Shi'ite.
The advertisement for Pakistanis to join Bahrain's National Guard was published
about three weeks ago in a mass-circulation Urdu-language newspaper. Since
then, the process of recruitment has continued unabated.
According to investigations by Asia Times Online, the recruits have been
promised 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US$1,174) a month, beside other perks
including free medical and accommodation. People with names that have a
traditional Shi'ite ring - such as Syed, Abbas, Ali and Hussain - are being
Iranian media have broadcast stories predicting a strong Pakistani role in the
Gulf region; this resulted in Iranian-sponsored agitators in Bahrain killing
several Pakistani workers for "collaborating with the Sunni rulers of Bahrain".
A calibrated response
A senior Pakistani politician and a former member of the senate who is known
for his closeness to the military establishment told Asia Times Online on the
condition of anonymity that immediately after the Tunisian and Egyptian
uprisings earlier this year, Pakistan carefully positioned itself both
domestically and at the diplomatic level to act as a "frontline state" for
In another sense, Pakistan has been a frontline state in the "war on terror"
ever since the invasion of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 -
an uneasy role at the best of times.
In backroom moves, the military briefed rightwing political parties - including
the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, the Pakistan Muslim
League Q, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf and the Jamaatut Dawa - on what
is believed will be a showdown within the Muslim world.
Exactly at this time, Pakistan's powerful foreign minister Shah Mehmood
Qureshi, from the spiritual Qureshi family of Multan - the all-season favorite
of the Pakistani military establishment whose changing political allegiances
have always directed the course of Pakistan's political history - suddenly
He then began a powerful campaign against his own leaders in the ruling
Pakistan People's Party. After a long break, Pakistan's military establishment
and the old bloc of pro-establishment political parties were on the same page.
This time, though, the aim was not a military takeover but a future positioning
This development had a trickle-down effect in the insurgent-hit tribal areas,
where militants held their fire against the Pakistan army (a partial ceasefire
agreement was already in place).
In this whole situation, restive Balochistan province, where a separatist
movement festers, remains the only problem if Pakistan becomes involved in the
Middle East crisis. The province is adjacent to Iran and has always been
amenable to Iranian intervention.
Backchannel talks on Turkey's position are the most important component before
Pakistan jumps into the Middle East crisis. Turkey's ruling Justice and
Development Party had been in favor of the Arab uprisings, but the Libyan
crisis has forced Ankara to think again.
Libya is now a haven for militancy in North Africa and the Middle East. Like
all Sunni Muslim states, Turkey is dedicated to working for the supremacy of
the Sunni orthodoxy that ensures the maintenance of the current regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed in Libya, has sprung up as a
strong and organized political force and is actively collaborating with the
Jamiat al-Muqatala, an armed opposition group that is not shy to show its
affiliation with al-Qaeda.
Strengthened with looted weapons of the Libyan armed forces, these Islamists
have apparently smuggled a large cache of weapons to Tunisia and Egypt, where
the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers of armed groups have also
Recently, former military intelligence colonel Abdul al-Zamar and a relative,
former major Tariq al-Zamar, who were arrested in September 1981 over a failed
coup against the regime of president Anwar Sadat, only 10 days before his
assassination, were released along with several top leaders of the Jamaat
al-Jihad (led by al-Qaeda deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri) after strong popular
demand on the streets of Cairo and other cities.
In this quagmire, Iranian-influenced Shi'ite Islam will play a big part.
Significantly, it could influence Turkey's Nusayri population (self-proclaimed
Shi'ites), who, according to some estimates, make of 18% of the population.
Along with Iranian-sponsored Kurdish rebels in Turkey, the Nusayri have always
been a potential threat for Turkey. The Turkish army, a flagbearer for Sunni
Islam, has built many Sunni mosques in far-flung villages in an attempt to
drown out the Nusayris.
Following the Saudi-supported agitation in Syria, the Iranian-sponsored proxy
war in the Middle East is likely to gather speed, and first Pakistan and then
Turkey are likely to play a proactive role on the side of Saudi Arabia to
retain the supremacy of Sunni Islam in the Arab world.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and
author of upcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban, beyond 9/11 published
by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at[email protected]
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