An oft-repeated joke about Pakistan is that it is run by three A’s- Allah, Army and America. Whether or not you agree with this depends on your nationality and political leaning. But it is worth remembering that truth is often best conveyed through humour.
General Qasem Soleimani’s sudden assassination near Baghdad International Airport at the hands of an American drone operator earlier this week has triggered a flurry of reactions across the international community. As of today, January 8, 2020, it has brought the world to the edge of war. And nowhere, with perhaps the sole exceptions of Iran and Iraq, will the consequences be more dire than on the wrong side of the Wagah border.
Pakistan recognises the impact a US-Iran War will have on herself, and despite Major General Asif Ghafoor’s impassioned declarations that Pakistan will take no sides in such a scenario, facts prove otherwise. It is interesting to note that just a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telephoned Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Bajwa to brief him about Soleimani’s death, the US re-extended its military technical assistance programme, the International Military Education and Training programme (IMET) to Pakistan, which had been barred from such assistance since 2018. That Pakistan accepted it in such a tense environment between America and Iran is an indication that it knows its loyalties in the hypothetical situation of war between the two countries.
Indeed, the history of Pakistan-Iran relations over the 2010s suggests that the theory of Pakistani support for the USA against Iran is not exactly unfounded. In 2010 Iranian authorities arrested Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of Jundullah, a Sunni terrorist organisation, and hanged him the same year. Iran has claimed that Rigi was supported by the CIA to destabilise Iran, while many others within the Iranian security apparatus pointed to Jundullah’s bases in Pakistan and the support provided for the group by the ISI. Senior Iranian military officials have also accused the ISI of supporting other such Sunni terror groups such as Jaish-ul Adl, which carry out acts of terror in Iran.
In such an environment, and given Rawalpindi’s rationale of using terror as state policy in order to achieve ‘strategic depth’, it becomes clear that behind the sweet talk, Pakistan is violently anti-Iran and in the case of war, won’t make any bones about its opposition to its western neighbour. The fact that in December 2018 Ansar al-Furqan, another Pakistan-based Salafi terror outfit with links to Jaish ul-Adl conducted a suicide bombing in Chabahar, where India and Iran are building on a port project, killing numerous IRGC soldiers, shows that Pakistan’s Iran policy is also deeply linked to its designs to weaken India and diminish the latter’s international stature.
But what really proves the fact that Pakistan is deeply pro-US on the matter of Iran is its growing closeness with Saudi Arabia. In 2016, after a public falling out with then-Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif, General Raheel Sharif resigned as the country’s COAS and was appointed the Commander of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), the latter being a tool of the Gulf states to stall the increasing influence of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and thus in the Arabian peninsula. With Nawaz Sharif’s fall in 2017 as a result of what was effectively a bloodless coup, the possibility that the new establishment in Rawalpindi/Islamabad has made amends with General Sharif who is fighting the Iranians in Yemen cannot be discounted. In September 2019, the Houthis declared that they had forced three of Raheel Sharif’s Pakistani brigades to surrender in Yemen after having inflicted heavy casualties on them. Such developments show that Pakistani forces are now already directly fighting Iranian proxies in the region for the USA/Saudi Arabia/UAE.
It is not that Iran has not recognised this threat. Over the second half of the 2010s, Iran conducted various acts of military aggression against Pakistan, aimed at sending a signal to Pakistan to stop its meddling in Iranian affairs. On the same day in 2016 that our special forces conducted surgical strikes in PoK, Iran fired mortar shells into Balochistan in Pakistan. Similar incidents were reported in 2017, after Iranian border guards were killed by Jaish ul-Adl. Interestingly, Qassem Soleimani himself had repeatedly threatened Pakistan with dire consequences for supporting terror against Iran, as has Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. With Soleimani dead, Pakistan is silently jubilant- an alliance with the Americans and Saudis will give them a free hand to continue conducting acts of terrorism in Iran to further its vested interests.
No matter what Islamabad may want the world to believe, the fact of the matter remains that this is yet another Pakistani ploy to pull the wool over the international community’s eyes. Pakistan is ready to jump into the tense geopolitical environment on the side of the USA and its Middle Eastern allies. America, as we see, is not going anywhere. And in the cloistered corridors of power in Rawalpindi, AAA- Allah, America and Army- remains the golden word.