A Pakistan-Saudi-U.S. Triangle

By J. Millard Burr and Rachel Ehrenfeld
Wednesday, April 15th, 2015 @ 12:00AM

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Left: Rival Pakistani rallies have been held for and against the Saudi-led campaign on Yemen [Reuters]

In the first few months of 2015, Pakistan has made news regarding its relationship with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. And as usual, one is left to wonder how Islamabad manages to make or keep favorable alliances given its history of distrustful dependability.

The United States Angle

Following the visit of Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif to the Pentagon in January 2015, Pakistan defense officials reported that the United States had agreed to give Pakistan $1 billion through its Coalition Support Fund (CSF). The officials added that in addition the USA would “further give Pakistan used defense equipment to meet its security challenges for which the process had already begun.”

And so there continues the annual Pakistan military perigrination to Washington where Uncle Sugar was almost sure to provide his usual handout to an ungrateful nation. Since an aid program was instituted in 1951 the US has obligated more than $70 billion for military and civilian purposes — and neither the Pentagon nor Department of State can trumpet their successes, if any.

Historically, the U.S. “Development-Related Assistance” to Pakistan, which includes admitted funding authorized by the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, has had its ups and downs.

Following 9/11 General Tommy Franks, the commander of US forces Afghanistan, arrived in Pakistan in October 2002 to review Pakistan-US military exercises; the first held since Washington’s 1998 suspension of military ties with Islamabad after Pakistan carried out nuclear tests. As it was then put blithely, “This new cooperation clearly stems from Pakistan’s help in the war on terror.” That “new cooperation” has certainly had its downs. (See, for example, Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.)

Most recently, under the Obama administration Pakistan has certainly has had its ups. Annual US appropriations in support of Pakistan reached $4.5 billion in FY2010, $3.5 billion in 2011, and most recently a miserly $1.2 billion in 2014. The figure is sure to rise significantly in 2015 thanks to military programming.

More military aid should be forthcoming if we can believe Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif and his propaganda minions at Army intelligence (the notorious ISI). After all, over the last few months the Pakistan army is reported to have scored a series of victories over the Taliban and a plethora of terrorist organizations operating in its seven tribal agencies — Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, North and South Waziristan — and six frontier regions (e.g., Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province).

Unfortunately, claims for such victories are issued by the military and cannot be verified. Thus one is left to wonder if the US Embassy in Islamabad is better informed than the Pakistan electorate. Since the Fall of 2014, it has been led to believe that victory has followed victory in Pakistan’s umpteenth war declared against terrorism in the 21st century.

Ironically, just as Islamabad was beginning to feel comfortable that the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency had approved the required certification, and the arms transfer was a done deal, sat a Press briefing on April 10, State Department’s Acting spokesperson Marie Harf was asked to defend the shipment of $1 billion in military aid to Pakistan. As she put it, the American weapons systems that including Hellfire missiles and attack helicopters, will provide Pakistan with military capabilities in support of its counter-terrorism operations inside the country.” Moreover, she reasoned, “the Pakistanis have a serious problem still, and that’s why we’re trying to help them. This (provision of military equipment) is in our national security interest to do so.”

Contrary to information provided by more than a decade of books on Afghanistan, untold news articles, and literally hundreds of reports from military in the field, the spokesperson claimed, “We have a very close counter- terrorism relationship with Pakistan for a very – for very good reasons.” Harf noted that Pakistan had a serious insurgency problem (a product of the war in Afghanistan, and which the Pakistan military itself had allowed to fester in the north). Belaboring the obvious, Harf concluded, “the Pakistanis have a serious problem still, and that’s why we’re trying to help them. [It] is in our national security interest to do so.”

Unfortunately, in recent years the government of Pakistan has projected little influence in the north, or in Baluchistan and Azad-Kashmir. For that matter, it also has practically no control over Karachi, likely the most dangerous city on earth. (See Burr, “The Worst City in the World,” ACD Exclusive, 30 April 2013.) Thus, one is left to assume that next to the definition of “failed state” in dictionaries is a map of Pakistan.

One way or the other throwing money down the Pakistan rat-hole always seems to have been in our vital “national security interest.” Sure, they have nuclear weapons, but so too does India. But in the case of Pakistan, there is the possibility that somehow nuclear weapons may find their way to terrorists. Should that happen, Pakistan would most likely kill off the US golden goose that annually lays its golden egg. Is that what Washington needs to realize once and for all that Pakistan is an untrustworthy ally?

The Saudi Arabia Angle

The breakout of Yemen v Houthi rebels from their northern homeland that began in 2014 reached its climax on February 24 this year, when the rebels overran a special forces army base in Sana’a, the capital.

The Houthis were no longer a rag-tag operation but had managed – with Iran’s backing- to acquire tanks and heavy weapons. With that success a Houthi spokesman warned that they would soon capture Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and all cabinet members and, if necessary, try them for treason. The Yemen military soon folded like a house of cards, and the Houthi threatened the unthinkable — the occupation of Aden port. With that, Saudi Arabia decided to act to save Yemen from occupation by Shiite Houthi, and/or by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Within hours Saudi Arabia had called in its allies from the Gulf Cooperation Council to support its action in Yemen. The Saudis also called in its Pakistan markers, requesting military support. But the Pakistani parliament refused. As one Pakistani source saw it, “Ever since the Saudi-led alliance began its offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen, Pakistan has been under immense pressure from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council for military support in the region.” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was indeed under pressure, especially after a joint session of the Pakistan Parliament voted to maintain a “neutral stance,” concerning the war in Yemen, while expressing “unequivocal support” for the kingdom and vowed to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with it if its territory or people came under threat.”

While the majority of the population in Pakistan is Sunni, the government fears unrest and besides, it signed.

The Saudi response was diplomacy personified, but the United Arab Emirates was not so kind. It’s Foreign Minister accused Pakistan of “choosing Iran over the Gulf nations at a time when they face an “existential confrontation” in the Yemen conflict.”

For the moment, Pakistan has managed to avoid the Yemen trap. But how long that will last is questionable.

Recent Saudi Assistance to Pakistan

Saudi Arabia seems to be learning a lesson that has often stung Washington: foreign aid from a wealthy to a mendicant nation does little to ensure friendship, no matter the good intentions of the donor state:

  • In February 2014 Saudi Arabia loaned Pakistan $1.5 billion to halt the decline in its economy. The money was to be used to rebuild its foreign exchange reserves, meet debt-service obligations and assist in badly needed energy projects. Saudi assistance contributed to the resuscitation of the Pakistani rupee. (The possibility that Pakistan would repay Saudi Arabia was, as is the case with the United States, near zero.
  • In late March 2014 Saudi Arabia announced that it would provide a $1.5 million grant to Pakistan. While the gift raised questions in Pakistan’s media, which felt it might be a bribe of sorts to have Pakistan provide military aid to Middle East elements favorable to Saudi Arabia, that was not proven.
  • Since 2011 Saudi Arabia provided some $500 million to assist Pakistan following a series of natural disasters.
  • In 2010 Saudi Arabia donated more than US $360 million for the Pakistan flood relief operation alone, topping the list of all donor countries.


It is hard to say who has received less in return for its largesse to Pakistan, the United States or Saudi Arabia. Still, there is no denying that the Saudis have gained appreciably with the gift of untold millions, if not billions, to spread the precepts of the very Islamist Saudi Wahhabi movement through Pakistan’s religious schools (madrassas).

Originally, the 18th century Wahhabi Islam that emerged in Arabia was devoted to the concept of jihad, or war with unbelievers. More recently, Wahhabism has been softened by Riyadh and is defined as the literal interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith.

Some would argue that by matching the quintessence of Jihad with a literal interpretation of Islam the Saudi funding of Pakistan madrassas has worked counterproductively. Some Pakistanis see the madrassa system as a threat to the unity of Pakistan itself. Yet, until recently the government seemed either incapable or unwilling to attack the problem of revolutionary Islam as taught in many of its madrassas. Time will tell whether the new National Action Plan to halt the spread of hate speech and Islamist revolutionary thought would work.

The Wahhabi (thus the Saudi) influence in Pakistan cannot be gainsaid, and it will be the subject of another article: Pakistan: The Madrassa Education Debate.

Categories: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Policy, U.S. Policy

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