Less than a year into his role, Pakistan's new army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, sets a fresh course for the country's defence diplomacy in the Middle East
News that Pakistan chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif was taking over the newly formed, Saudi-instigated, Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) – nicknamed the "Muslim Nato" - has dominated the discourse in Pakistan over the past month.
The general impression since has been that the appointment of a Pakistani general to head what is primarily seen as an anti-Iran alliance gives credence to the view that Pakistan is a Saudi puppet.
The biggest change has been that, as seen in the Qatar crisis, Pakistan shall not follow Saudis blindly
At the same time, however, Pakistan’s current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has been busy shuttling around the Persian Gulf, doing defence diplomacy.
In contrast to the previous two army chiefs, who did not disabuse anyone of the long-held view that the Pakistani military is firmly in the Saudi camp with regard to regional rivalries, Bajwa has set his eyes firmly on balancing Pakistan’s relations with the GCC - with Iran.
Why now? Being perceived as a Saudi puppet has harmed Pakistan’s relationship with Iraq, Egypt, Algeria and other military-dominated states in the Arab world. Also, almost all of Pakistan’s sectarian problems are linked to Saudi Arabia and Iran which both fund religious leaders in the country. The army is seen as balancing these issues domestically.
Now Bajwa’s pro-active approach takes the balancing act to Pakistan’s foreign policy and is a harbinger of a completely new relationship between the army and the Gulf, one in which Pakistan aims to be a force of stability rather than a gun for hire.
First stop: The Gulf
After taking command of the army in November 2016, Bajwa’s first three foreign visits were to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and he has now announced a forthcoming visit to Tehran.
Pakistani Army General Qamar Javed Bajwa (AFP)
Over the last decade, Pakistan’s relationship with the various GCC states has been rocky, while its relationship with Iran hit an all-time low with constant border skirmishes and public diplomatic spats.
But in his first six months, Bajwa has made it a priority to fix both and is making his orders top down to other generals. He has also refused to be drawn into taking sides with Saudi Arabia in the crisis against Qatar. He has given comfort and support to Qatar and told the Saudis that he will assist, but not serve them.
Bajwa is the first Pakistan Army chief to reach out to Iran publicly and look to reassure it that Pakistan shall be a force for stability and not a spoiler in the Iran-Saudi rivalry over the Middle East.
The army has also put an official trip to Iran at the top of its agenda and has had two very public meetings with the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan and similarly two meetings with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javed Zarif.
Healing tensions over Yemen
The Pakistan Army has had a rocky relationship with some GCC countries since it declined to fight in the war in Yemen in 2015. The UAE and Kuwait, in particular, lashed out at Pakistan for refusing to participate.
The Pakistan Army has had a rocky relationship with some GCC countries since it declined to fight in the war in Yemen in 2015
Saudi Arabia reacted in a more muted way and continues to see Pakistan as one of its key defenders and as a fundamental pillar of its defence doctrine.
This more positive relationship is reflected in reports, as yet unconfirmed, that Pakistan is sending a combat brigade to Saudi Arabia to protect the Yemen border. This echoes the experience from a few years ago when Pakistan provided security to the Saudis along their border with Iraq.
However, despite tactical level troop assistance, there was no clarity in what the relationship with the Saudis and the GCC actually meant in terms of strategy.
In December, Bajwa spent three days in Saudi Arabia meeting with the kingdom’s leadership to discuss regional issues and the bilateral defence relationship.
Weeks after Bajwa’s visit, then-Saudi defence minister and now crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, visited Pakistan to discuss further Saudi-Pakistan cooperation in both IMAFT and defence procurement.
Emirati troops have been serving as part of the Saudi-led, anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen (AFP)
Then in March, for the first time, Saudi Special Forces participated in a non-GCC military parade in Islamabad. There has also been talk about Saudi Arabia potentially buying the jointly Pakistan-China made JF-17.
Bajwa's Saudi trip was quickly followed by visits to the UAE and Qatar. In Dubai, Bajwa reportedly assured the Emiratis, who felt particularly aggrieved over Pakistan’s refusal to send troops to Yemen, that Pakistan would continue to support the country in the event of any further conflict in the region.
Bajwa and the Pakistan Army are keen that India does not replace it as the UAE’s provider of defence logistical support and counter-terror training.
During his March visit to Doha, Bajwa spoke of a new impetus in Qatar-Pakistan defence ties and the Qataris have hinted at Pakistan Army’s involvement in looking after the security of the 2022 World Cup. Bajwa also stressed that the Qatar-Pakistan relationship was one that could bring regional stability.
Allaying Iranian fears
All these positive noises build on a deep historical relationship between the Gulf and Pakistan that has traditionally made Iran uneasy. Cognisant of this, Bajwa has made active moves towards placing Pakistan’s dealings with Iran on a new footing.
First, he called on the Iranian ambassador in Islamabad to allay fears about Pakistan’s role in IMAFT, explain Pakistan’s role in it while also assuring Tehran that Pakistan-Iranian ties are strategically important and vital.
The official Pakistan Army spokesperson also formally announced Pakistan’s strong desire to maintain a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But the big sea change to the approach of previous Pakistani military leaders has been that Bajwa has made sure Iran is not seen as isolated. Pakistan’s premier military institution, the National Defence University, celebrated Iran’s national day with a visiting Iranian military delegation. Also the leading Iranian-backed Shia scholar in Pakistan publicly thanked Bajwa for his support of persecuted Shias.
Not a gun for hire
For too many decades, the Pakistan Army’s relationships have been purely transactional – providing material support and training to Arab armies especially those in the Gulf – without any diplomatic benefit to Pakistan.
Since the days of Musharraf and Kayani, the leadership of the Pakistan Army has been at pains not be seen as a Saudi stooge
Bajwa has introduced the concepts of strategy and stability with a renewed focus on cohesion between Pakistan’s policies in the Middle East and sharing the Pakistan Army’s own experience learned in its war on terror, not just tactical training or how to fight in conventional wars. He has made it clear to the GCC countries that Pakistan will not fight for them, but rather assist them in their rocky relationships with Iran.
Most remarkably, Bajwa has allayed legitimate fears that Iran had over Pakistan’s role in the Middle East. He has both in private and public reached out to Iran to work with them and strengthen bilateral military ties.
Days gone by: Billboards of Musharraf and Saudi's King Abdullah go up as Pakistan prepares for a 2006 visit (AFP)
By making official announcements, Bajwa has also set a new precedent of openness in Pakistan’s involvement in IMAFT and its relationship with Iran simultaneously.
Since the days of Musharraf and Kayani, the leadership of the Pakistan Army has been at pains not be seen as a Saudi stooge and instead balance the Saudis off against Iran.
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In the last six months, the army has given public statements of support both for its strategic relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia. There have been more Iranian visiting defence delegations in the last six months and a strategy within General Army Headquarters not to think of Iran in isolation.
With the growing tensions and multiple conflicts in the Middle East, the Pakistan Army and its leadership are going to great lengths not to take sides and further, under Bajwa, has widened its remit to balance power with ties with Qatar, Turkey and Iran. But the biggest change has been that, as seen in the Qatar crisis, Pakistan shall not follow Saudi Arabia blindly.
- Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He specialises in contemporary military history of the Arab world and Pakistan, he is a Fellow for Syrian Affairs at The Institute for Statecraft, and is a visiting lecturer at several military staff colleges across the Middle East, Pakistan and the UK.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Pakistani troops from the Special Services Group (SSG) march during a Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad in March 2017 (AFP)