Saudis step into Pakistan's quagmire

Posted in Broader Middle East , Pakistan | 13-Nov-08 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrives at a meeting of the General Assembly on the Culture of Peace at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

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 militancy.

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 interests."

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