PoliTact has been pointing out to the decisive shift in the Middle East balance of power since the Gaza aid flotilla incident in May 2010. After Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak was the second causality to shock the region, and now Libya and many other autocrats of the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, fear a similar fate. This article examines the premises of the evolving American and Israeli policy, with potential implications and scenarios for the AfPak region, as the face of Middle East changes.
According to statements emanating from US officials and media analysis, PoliTact has been able to discern the following goals:
- To manage the transformation in Middle East
- Prevent Al Qaeda and Islamist to exploit the situation
- Avoid the disruption of oil supplies
- Preventing Iran from extending its influence
- Observing the reaction of China and Russia to changes in the region
- Using Saudi vulnerabilities to divide Taliban in AfPak and obtain support of Pakistan
The Shape of American Policy
From the American perspective, and keeping aside the causes of unrest in Middle East, the change underway in the region represents an opportunity. Additionally, the autocratic rulers of Middle East have outlived their usefulness, as has been demonstrated recently by the collapse of Middle East Peace Process. Most of the aging and ailing leaders of the region have been mired in succession issues and have generally paid scant attention towards the welfare of its people. However, the stakes for US in oil rich and non-oil producing countries are starkly different.
Additionally, the recent events in the region have pointed towards the rise of Iran and Turkey in the politics of Middle East. The three pillars of American security apparatus in the area; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, have increasingly looked meek. Their deceasing clout made them less reliable when dealing with difficult issues such as the future of Palestine and Afghanistan.
At the same time, the tradtional role of US in keeping these governments afloat has negatively impacted its image in the world. A fresh look at the politics of the region was much needed, and these revolts have presented such an opportunity. Therefore, US has selectively supported people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However, this is a delicate balancing act. If it appears that long-time rulers would be able to handle the uprisings, the American approach is likely to be less aggressive. The emphasis is on avoiding the conditions to move towards anarchy, and prevent adversaries to exploit the void if these governments suddenly collapse. Thus the US military-to-miliatry relations with these countries have taken on added emhpasis.
One overriding reason to avoid a major upheaval is to protect the oil supplies that originate in Middle East. The disruption of the energy supplies can profoundly affect not only the US economy, but also that of the other global players, such as China and Russia. As the crisis widens, the concerns of BRIC nations are also increasing. Furthermore, the rising oil prices can speed up the worsening economic situation of key allies against the war on terror, like Pakistan.
Geopolitics of Middle East and AfPak
The geopolitical implications of events in Middle East have already begun to impact China and its relations with Pakistan. As General Kiyani met with senior American military officials in Oman on February 23rd, chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Khalid Shamim Wynne, was holding talks with Chinese People’s Liberation Army chief General Chen Bingde. These talks have taken place in the aftermath of Raymond Davis incident and the stress created by it on US-Pakistan relations.
In Pakistan-Chinese defense talks, the two sides agreed to further strengthened their strategic dialogue and cooperation. The process of defense and security talks was initiated in 2002. It was also announced that the two countries would be holding joint army and air force exercises, besides participating in multinational naval drills in March.
No word has yet come out from Pakistan-American military-to-military talks. However, one can be certain that in addition to the AfPak region and Raymond Davis issue, the situation in Middle East would have come up for discussion. However, the US-Pakistan strategic partnership appears to be stagnating and the vision of both countries on the future of Afghanistan, remains divergent.
In the face of continued NATO and US ambiguity about the end game in Afghanistan, particulalry related to the interests of Pakistan, the country seems to be going ahead with its own version. This was reflected by the peace agreement reached in Kurram Agency this month, with support of the Haqqanis. Despite the American pressure, Pakistan does not appear to be letting go of Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. If media reports around the mission of Raymond Davis and the recovery of the kind of sensitive documents from him are true, then the very premise of US pressure on Pakistan for operations in FATA seems to have fallen apart.
Israeli Threat Perception
The most influential determinant of the shape of future Middle East would be the threat perception of Israel. The country at a minimum would like:
- Peace treaty between Egypt and Israel to hold.
- Prevent any alliance to develop in the region that can threaten Israeli security.
- In addition to other tactics and strategies, use the Shia-Sunni tussles to contain Iran and other Sunni countries.
An intriguing scenario that can play out is connected to the situation in Saudi Arabia, and the Shia-Sunni tussles of the Islamic world. The scenario can play out with the folllowing developments:
- After Bahrain, the situation in Saudi Arabia also begins to deteriorate.
- Furthermore, Al Qaeda seeing an opportunity starts to make matter worse on the Saudi Yemen border.
- As public unrest spreads to the Shia population of Saudi Arabia, it calls for help from Pakistan Army.
Pakistan Army has in the past assisted a number of Arab countries in the Middle East:
- In 1969, training personnel from Pakistan armed forces helped beat back attack from South Yemen on Sharoora province of Saudi Arabia. South Yemen at the time was under a communist regime, strongly supported by USSR.
- During the Six Day War (1967) and Yom Kippur War (1973), pilots from Pakistan’s air force were involved in helping Jordan, Syria, and Egypt in conflict with Israel. Military advisers and trainers were also helping the armed forces of these countries.
- King Hussein of Jordan used Pakistan’s training mission under Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq to suppress the Palestinian uprising in the 70s.
- More recently, during the Gulf War of 1990, Pakistani forces were deployed along the Saudi-Yemen border, as coalition forces expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
- In 2006, President Musharraf sent a contingent of Army personnel to Lebanon for demining areas bombed by Israel.
Such a request would put Pakistan in a daunting bind: to support either the royal family or the wishes of the people. The circumstances currently existing on Pakistan’s eastern and western flank would make the prospect of assisting other nations of the Gulf region unlikely. However, the involvement of India to further weaken Pakistan and the potential of NATO’s engagement in Middle East as a stabilizing force, is likely to push China in to action. If China decides to step in, then we could enter the realm of a truly global conflict.