The visit of Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to Saudi Arabia comes at a defining moment in regional security. The two countries are renewing their brotherly bonds as they embark on a new journey of partnership and alliance.
The Indian pundits were whistling in the dark when they fancied not too long ago that Delhi, with able help from Washington, has hijacked the Saudi regime away from the Pakistani embrace. Some even fancied a US-Indian-Saudi regional security alliance in the making!
But the ground realities are that Afghanistan is once again becoming a common Saudi-Pakistani enterprise, as in the Taliban era in the 1990s.
The underpinnings of the Saudi-Pakistani partnership in the Hindu Kush are strikingly the same as twenty years ago — injecting Islamism as the leitmotif of politics in Afghanistan; envisaging the role of an Islamist regime in Kabul in regional politics; using Salafism to threaten Shi’ite Iran and so on.
Clearly, this latest Saudi-Pakistani enterprise enjoys American backing. But it has a raison d’etre of its own. The point is, a wide-ranging Saudi-Pakistani regional partnership is surfacing. Pakistani ‘volunteers’ are reportedly fighting in Syria at present.
They enjoy Saudi-Qatari funding and military assistance and are the foot soldiers of the campaign for ‘regime change’ in Damascus, which the US and its Arab allies expound.
Besides, in deference to Saudi wishes, Pakistan has rolled back its recent years’ dalliance with Iran and mothballed the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project despite Tehran’s extravagant offer to finance construction work on the Pakistani side. President Asif Zardari abruptly cancelled a scheduled visit to Tehran.
Pakistan is quietly dumping its ‘Iran connection’ and extracting reciprocal benefits out of Saudi Arabia. Khar met with the Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz who is also the deputy prime minister and defence minister. The two countries decided to ‘institutionalize’ their strategic ties. Now, what it implies will bear watch.
From the Saudi viewpoint, Afghanistan becomes a highly crucial theatre in its strategy to ‘contain’ Iran. The US military bases in Afghanistan have been used as training camps for the Jundullah group, which undertook terrorist strikes in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. The latest Iranian reports suggest that the camps in the US bases in Afghanistan are also training the Mujahideen-e-Khalq terrorists.
In the recent past, Tehran got some degree of cooperation from Pakistan in preventing the Jundullah’s cross-border strikes from the Baluchistan province. There will be growing unease in Tehran that the graph of Saudi influence on the Pakistani security agencies could be rising in the coming period.
The Saudis are obsessed with Iran’s rise as regional power and will try to counter Tehran’s surge, no matter what it takes. Islamabad’s partnership can be a potential game changer in the Saudi game plan vis-a-vis Iran. In turn, Saudis will be wiling to bankroll Pakistan.
The curious part is that the US is assembling virtually the same cabal of states in the Hindu Kush which are acting as its proxies and sidekicks currently in the upheaval in the Middle East — Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan’s gravitation toward this ‘axis’ of Sunni Muslim states as a hireling will have far-reaching implications for regional security — Pakistan being the biggest Sunni Muslim country on the planet.
The politics of 2013 in the Greater Middle East will significantly devolve upon the Sunni-Shia sectarian rivalry, because, from the US and Saudi perspective, it is a tactically useful (and necessary) digression away from the core issues of that region’s politics such as democratization and reform, Israel_Arab relations, Palestinian problem, etc.
Indeed, Pakistan will do well to stay clear of the US-Saudi regional agenda, given the history of sectarian rivalries within Pakistan itself — and the near-certainty that the Saudi attempt to impose Salafism as the state ideology in Afghanistan will be resisted by the Hazara Shi’ites and many regional countries.
Of course, the secretary-general of Iran’s National Security Council Saeed Jalili, who is a key figure in the foreign-policy establishment in Tehran, is on a visit to New Delhi at the invitation of NSA, Shivshankar Menon.
Alas, foresight is very often in short supply in the Pakistani policies and in this case, the Pakistani elites will find it all but irresistible to stay away from the honey pots that Washington and Riyadh hold in front of them. As the Americans would put it, ‘Have gun — will travel’.
– January 2, 2013