For five days after the most far-reaching crisis of Imran Khan's tenure had struck the wider region - the killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike – the prime minister's response was conspicuous silence.
The reasons for his strangely delayed reaction reveal much about who really holds the reins of power in Pakistan – both within its borders and outside of them, and how that could impact the proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The country's first official response came not from the executive branch or any civilian political leader, but, unsurprisingly, from the military: in a call from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa "emphasized the need for maximum restraint."
In the days that followed, the Army spokesperson hyperactively trotted out rhetorical flourishes backing the claim that in the fight between Iran and the U.S., Pakistan chose both neutrality, and clichés: We "won’t allow our soil to be used against anyone," "We’re on the side of peace," and "We will not take any sides."
Khan finally found his voice Wednesday, as the immediate crisis was already subsiding, tweeting that he'd "asked" Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to "visit Iran, KSA [Saudi Arabia] & USA to meet with respective foreign ministers," and for army chief Gen Bajwa to "contact relevant military leaders to convey a clear message: Pakistan is ready to play it's [sic] role for peace but it can never again be part of any war."
"Neutral" is the go-to word Pakistan uses – with equal measures of populist instinct and real-world deceit – to describe its position in the Saudi-Iran conflict. Having now spent four decades training Saudi troops, and supplying its own to Riyadh and its proxies, there's already no need to explain the Middle Eastern adage, "Saudi Arabia will fight until the last Pakistani."
Over the years, Pakistan-backed Saudi proxies in the Middle East have directly confronted their Iranian counterparts orchestrated Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), lately commanded by Qasem Soleimani. Over the last decade, the battlefields have extended ever further - into Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.
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Iran's proxies, too, have found recruits from within Pakistan’s Shia population, with the Syria-based Liwa Zainabiyoun claiming to have "thousands" of Pakistani volunteers, trained by the Qods Force in Mashhad. The Shia recruits largely come from the border area of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, where Iran-bound Salafi military groups like Jundallah, and its reincarnation Jaish ul-Adl, maintain their presence.
Camped on the opposite end of the Middle East's proxy warfare from Pakistan, Soleimani was a harsh critic of his Pakistani counterparts’ allegiance to Tehran's enemies. As recently as February 2019, he had accused Pakistan of "taking Saudi cash" to "stir insecurity" in Iran.
In 2017, Tehran had threatened to strike "terrorist safe havens" in Pakistan after Jaish ul-Adl – based in Pakistani territory - killed 10 Iranian soldiers. In February 2019, a suicide bomber killed 27 Revolutionary Guards just over the Pakistani border; Tehran announces that Iran would "take revenge for the blood of the martyrs of this incident."
Despite Pakistan’s support for Saudi-backed Middle East militia - which enjoys popular support within the country as well - Islamabad has had to be careful how it voices its allegiances, owing to a sizeable Shia population, estimated to be around 40-45 million – the second largest Shia community in the Muslim world.
On the Sunday after the Soleimani strike, there were nationwide protests led by Shia organizations against his killing, with banners echoing holy Shia slogans, chants against the U.S. and Israel – customary targets for protests in Pakistan, across ideological and sectarian divides.
Even though, like any other religious group, the Shia Muslims in Pakistan aren’t a monolith, they’re still perceived as "Iran-sympathizers," just as their Sunni counterparts are supposed to instinctually back the Saudis. While radicals from both sects have been recruited on either side of the Saudi-Iran military conflict, the proxy warfare of the 1980s has gradually evolved into the mass killings of Pakistani Shia Muslims, resulting in the local Shia querying whether it can survive in safety in Pakistan.
Khan has traditionally enjoyed the support of large sections of the Shia population, mostly thanks to the contrast with his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, whose party formed alliances with groups calling for the genocide of Shia, and who is still considered a stooge of Saudi Arabia, where he has spent many years in exile.
However, in his year and a half as premier, Khan’s cozying up to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has evolved from a position of geopolitical acquiescence to the virtual establishment of Pakistan as a Saudi client state.
Not only was Khan in Riyadh to provide diplomatic support to MBS amid global outcry over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he recently backed out from attending an international Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur last month, after Saudi Arabia complained that the Malaysian conference was intended to rival the Saudi-friendly Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
But there's another reason why Khan, who has largely reduced himself to trolling the Indian government’s abuses against minorities – often amidst parallel violations in his own country – took so long to respond in public to the Soleimani crisis, and it's the same reason that both Pompeo and the U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper spoke with Army Chief Bajwa without any need for the façade of a diplomatic channel with the civilian leadership.
During that five-day period, Khan had been busy spearheading amendments to the Army Act, For many, the controversially worded bills have formalized a "controlled democracy" managed entirely by the military establishment, with even the self-avowed custodians of civilian supremacy among opposition parties falling completely in line.
The recent escalation of the perpetual conflict with India had bizarrely been used as a rationale to extend Gen Bajwa’s tenure, one key part of the legislation. But then the killing of Soleimani and the ensuing "new regional situation" was cited as additional justification on the day the bill was bulldozed through the National Assembly.
With that formality out of the way, the country's real – military – rulers can shout "neutrality" and "Pakistan first" as much as they want at home, while negotiating rates for Pakistani troops to serve Saudi Arabia. The same two-faced tactics were used by former military dictators Gen Zia-ul-Haq and Gen Pervez Musharraf, who signed up for lucrative U.S.-sponsored assignments in Afghanistan in 1979 and 2001 respectively.
Khan’s subservience to MBS is the consequence of a skewed policy carved out by Pakistan's military rulers, not its elected leaders, based on what they see as a perfect symbiosis between Pakistan’s economic needs and Saudi military requirements. A similar correlation is permanently scribbled on the drawing board at Pakistan's army HQ in Rawalpindi, with regards to the U.S. and its ambitions in the region.
And Pakistan's real rulers are keen to cash in on the post-Soleimani turmoil. Its ex-Army Chief General Raheel Sharif commands the so-called Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) –formed to counter precisely the kind of threats that Tehran has been making in the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing. Washington resumed military training with Pakistani troops this week.
Pakistan indeed has boots on the ground and expertise to offer the Saudis. It can offer intelligence sharing – despite its duplicitous past – and swathes of territory near its western border, to the U.S. for any period of deployment.
Pakistan needs the payback. In addition to funds earmarked for military assistance, Pakistan would expect bailouts and investments from Saudi Arabia, and U.S. backing for consolidating financial support from the International Monetary Fund and to relax its fiscal crackdown on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The Soleimani aftermath provided a very clear reminder that Pakistan's military is the country's undisputed hegemon – and now its first-amongst-unequals is enshrined in law, the army has no qualms about how publicly that status is confirmed.
And for both Washington and Riyadh, a military-run Pakistan, with the window-dressing of a democratically-elected prime minister, is their preference: it facilitates direct coordination with those who are actually in charge of the country.
What remains of Imran Khan’s remaining credibility – if not his seat in the PM's office – is the ultimate victim of the military's power-grab and its particular view of geopolitics, given that almost the entirety of his political career has been founded on the now-quixotic and fantastical idea of an autonomous Pakistan that would no longer be a mercenary for the U.S. or for Saudi Arabia.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph , MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune