Posts by Benjamin Clarke


Islamic Warriors: Pakistani soldiers in Arab armies

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | South Asia


Every year thousands of Pakistanis leave their homeland to take up arms in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, enlisting in the armed forces of their wealthier Islamic neighbours. Driven by historical, economic and religious forces, Pakistan is now the world’s most prolific exporter of military personnel. So what drives them to do so, and how does the phenomenon benefit Pakistan’s foreign policy?

Pakistan has been deploying its own military to the region for decades. Pakistani pilots flew Saudi jets in combat and 15,000 soldiers were stationed in the kingdom during the turbulent 1970s and 80s. Personnel were also sent to train the militaries of numerous emerging Arab states which lacked the necessary experience and knowledge, and a force was sent to Kuwait during the Gulf War.

Pakistan’s strong Islamic identity and need for nearby strategic and economic partners has driven these commitments, and the resulting shared history and institutional links has forged close bonds between states and militaries alike.

However, the strongest flow of Pakistani power to the region is now unofficial and largely unnoticed, with many Pakistanis travelling to the peninsula of their own volition and donning the uniform of Arab countries.

One intriguing case is the recruitment of young men from Pakistan’s Balochistan Province into the Royal Army of Oman. The origins of the arrangement can be traced back to 1784 when Oman, then a significant colonial power, gained possession of the Gwadar region in what is now Balochistan’s Southwestern corner. Many Baloch people migrated to Oman and have played an important part in Omani history since that time. In 1958, Pakistan purchased Gwadar from Oman for US$3 million. The deal included permission for Oman to continue recruiting soldiers from Balochistan. The practice continues to this day with thousands applying for each intake, eager for opportunities which are hard to find in their underdeveloped region.

A more recent phenomenon is the influx of former Pakistani soldiers into the armed forces of Bahrain. The tiny gulf state suffers from internal conflict caused by a rift between its Shia majority and Sunni ruling elite, and has struggled to restore order. Lacking qualified personnel, its government has relied on Pakistan since 2011. Pakistani military foundations publicly advertise positions and up to 2,500 Pakistanis have joined Bahrain’s special forces, national guard and riot police, where they now comprise 30 per cent of the security services. Conditions are dangerous and many have been killed, but with pay exceeding US$1,140 a month it remains an attractive prospect when compared to Pakistan’s average of $162.

Several other countries on the Arabian Peninsula employ Pakistani soldiers. The majority of Qatar’s army comprises foreign soldiers, many of whom are Pakistani. Pakistanis are also recruited into the armed forces of the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where entire battalions consist of Pakistani manpower.

Why are Pakistani soldiers in such high demand in these countries?

The Arab countries desperately need effective soldiers. The combined population of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE is just 53 million, compared to the 79 million of Iran which some consider a major threat. Many of them have vast areas to defend as well as regional ambitions, and they simply can’t recruit enough soldiers. On top of this, their armies have notoriously poor records in combat which is ascribed to a lack of experience and cultural difficulties.

On the other hand, Pakistan has a large population and extensive military experience. Its army benefits from lessons learned during conventional wars with India, and modern soldiers have fought a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against extremists and achieved considerable success. The knowledge and skills this has produced is a valuable commodity and sorely needed in the region. This is demonstrated by the appointment of Pakistan’s previous army chief, Raheel Sharif, as commander of the beleaguered Saudi-led forces currently battling rebels in Yemen.

Low wages in Pakistan allow the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula to easily attract recruits. Religious considerations also factor in. As a Sunni-majority country, Pakistan provides soldiers who easily assimilate and provoke none of the outrage that US soldiers do. They are also neutral in potentially volatile tribal politics.

It is unusual for a country to allow so many of its citizens to join foreign armies. But for one in an awkward position such as Pakistan, it is a convenient arrangement. Pakistan needs good relations with stable Arab countries. However, it must also avoid provoking its influential neighbor Iran by giving its rivals too much support. Pakistan must walk a tightrope to maintain relations with both.  By exporting soldiers in an unofficial capacity, the government manages this by having a tangible impact on security in the Arabian Peninsula while also avoiding the political ramifications that excessively deploying its own forces would entail.

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Engaging Iran: Time for a new approach

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | Central Asia


Iran and the US have been at loggerheads since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Despite concerted efforts to force Iran into submission, the Islamic Republic has persevered and grown even stronger. It is now a major player in Middle Eastern geopolitics and wields substantial influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As the regional power structure undergoes pivotal change amid the fallout of the Syrian war, the US is making renewed attempts to weaken Iran. However, threats and demands are counterproductive. Instead, the US must swallow its pride and engage with Iran respectfully to reduce confrontation by allaying its fears.

Simply put, Iran feels threatened by a hostile US and its regional partners after military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, combined with anti-Iran rhetoric. Its political and military interventionism stems from a need to maximise its own security. So long as it perceives an existential threat, Iran will continue to bolster its military capacity and counter its rivals’ interests.

Whether the US likes it or not, Iran is here to stay as an influential power, and regional stability requires its assent.

Iran’s fears and resentments did not emerge in a vacuum. A seminal moment was the 1953 coup engineered by the CIA, when a democratically elected Iranian government was toppled for trying to establish control over its own oil resources. This sordid affair contributed to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and remains a source of national indignation.

Relations were further strained by the destructive Iran-Iraq War. Invaded by Saddam Hussein, Iran faced embargoes while Iraq was funded and armed by Western and regional states. Particularly bitter memories surround the many chemical weapons attacks Iran suffered. Not only did the international community fail to reprimand Iraq for their use, but US intelligence helped target Iranian forces. Iranian deaths from chemical attacks rival those inflicted during World War 1, and many still live with permanent health problems.

Despite these grievances, moderates in Iran have since tried to establish better relations with the US. After 9/11, Iran and the US found a common enemy in the Taliban. Then under a reformist government, Iran hoped to adopt a new foreign policy and align with the US. It supported the US invasion of Afghanistan and pledged to help rebuild the country. Yet in return, George Bush infamously condemned Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”, imposing sanctions and threatening invasion.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Afghanistan’s game of horses and headless goats"]

With the sanctions and the sabre-rattling, a golden opportunity to repair relations was lost and domestic indignation returned a hardline government to power. Relations between the two countries have since been tense, with Iran’s nuclear program a major sticking point.

However, there is now another window of opportunity for a rapprochement. As in the days after 9/11, there is a moderate government in power and a common enemy in violent extremism.

The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal saw sanctions lifted, with Iran eager to break its isolation and economically engage with the world. If there is to be any hope for a lasting thawing of relations, the US must now honour the nuclear deal, understand Iran’s security concerns and engage with it in a respectful manner. This should include easing remaining sanctions, consulting Iran on Syria’s future and recognising Iran’s right to develop missiles for self-defence.

Taking these steps would improve the perception of the US inside Iran and strengthen the platform of reformists who seek to steer Iran away from confrontation. Iran’s population is young, urbanised and educated, with many having little or no recollection of the revolution or the Iran-Iraq War. While patriotic, many dislike the conservative aspects of their country and there is much potential for this new generation to respond well to positive treatment from the US.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen, though. The US still refuses to constructively engage with Iran. Instead, hatred of Iran seems institutionalised within US politics and at times borders on irrational. The new Trump administration has threatened Iran and branded it the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism. This spurious claim ignores that even many in the US believe the worst forms of extremism and jihadi violence are financed by US partners like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran actively fights against such forces. Including Iranians in US travel bans on the pretext of preventing terrorism is simply illogical.

Of course, Iran has also been involved in some dubious activities (including holding US diplomats hostage and attacks on Israeli personnel) - but few countries haven’t, and dwelling on these will not serve any constructive purpose.

This latest aggressive rhetoric has raised tensions and fanned anti-US sentiment. It certainly hasn’t persuaded Iran to change its course, and there is no reason to expect it would. Iran has proved remarkably resilient, managing to defend and develop itself for decades even as an international pariah. The current US stance serves only to legitimise hardliners and the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s aggressive outlook. This is especially important with Iran’s presidential election looming this month.

If the US wishes to defuse tensions and protect its own interests in the Middle East, it needs to improve relations with Iran. This can only be done by building confidence through sustained positive engagement.

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