Controversy laid to rest?


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, after attending a ceremony to rename Mianwali Air Base as M M Alam Air Base after the 1965 war hero who passed away a year ago, told newsmen that Pakistan was neither asked to, nor was sending any troops to other countries. His remarks were an attempt to put to rest the controversy that has broken out after visits from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain’s rulers and the $ 1.5 billion ‘gift’ from Saudi Arabia, allegedly in return for sending weapons and even troops to aid the rebels in Syria fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Admittedly, it makes no sense for Pakistan to even consider any move to send troops into the middle of the cauldron in Syria or for that matter in any other Muslim country. Pakistan has enough problems of its own on its plate and is in no position to indulge in any such ‘adventurism’. However, while the prime minister’s categorical assurance about no plan to send Pakistani troops abroad is reassuring, it did not touch upon the issue of possible weapons transfers via Saudi Arabia to the Syrian rebels. We have argued in this space that any such move would plunge Pakistan into the centre of the emerging sectarian conflict breaking out or ready to break out in the Arab and Muslim world. Every country has the right to formulate its policies in the light of its own interests, and that is what Pakistan must adhere to. Getting involved in other people’s quarrels is certainly a further aggravation the country does not need. In the meantime the Bahrain foreign and transport ministers accompanying the King on his visit to Pakistan stressed in a press conference in Islamabad that Bahrain had no intention to give Pakistan any Riyadh-type ‘gifts’ of money. Instead, 450 Bahraini business houses were poised to invest in Pakistan within the framework of the mutual cooperation agreements signed during the visit. Without naming Iran, the Bahraini ministers hinted at their country’s desire to normalise relations with Iran, perhaps with the hope that Pakistan can play a role in this regard. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson clarified in her weekly media briefing that Pakistan does not get involved in disputes between Muslim countries, always limiting its role to the desire to unify the Muslim world and play a non-partisan, helpful role in disputes without taking sides. Pakistan has its share of problems with Iran too, not the least the continuing slow genocide of Shias in Pakistan, the stalled Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and Tehran’s complaints about insurgent groups operating from Pakistani soil across the Pakistan-Iran border. The prime minister is expected to visit Iran before June. Whether Islamabad can help to bridge the gulf between Iran and its Arab neighbours, including Bahrain, remains a moot point given that support from one or the other side to sectarian groups is pushing the Muslim world towards our version of Europe’s 500 years of sectarian wars before the separation of church and state there finally put such conflicts to rest. Even if the dire prognoses of a wider sectarian conflict breaking out in various parts of the Muslim world comes partially or wholly true, hopefully it will not be a repeat of Europe’s 500 years if sectarian wars in the 21st century when communication and modern statecraft are available. All Muslim states will need to bend their backs to, in the first place prevent, and if that proves impossible, defuse such conflicts. Pakistan’s good offices will only be credible if it stays away from taking any partisan positions.
Pakistan needs economic investment and aid from all its friends, including those in the Muslim world. Given the serious crisis facing the country because of terrorism, which impacts negatively on economic development, Pakistan needs to focus on its internal problems, helped, wherever possible and in a manner compatible with good outcomes, by its friends in the Muslim world without even inadvertently slipping into any commitments that could end up exacerbating our problems.  *

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Aaj Kal