How Pakistan Plans to Cash in on Conflict in the Middle East

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." 

– Army tweet

COAS emphasised need for maximum restraint and constructive engagement by all concerned to de-escalate the situation in broader interest of peace and stability. COAS also reiterated the need for maintaining focus on success of Afghan Peace Process.(2of2).

— DG ISPR (@OfficialDGISPR) January 3, 2020

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."

– Imran Khan tweet Jan 8

I have asked FM Qureshi to visit Iran, KSA & USA to meet with respective foreign ministers, Secretary of State; & COAS Gen Bajwa to contact relevant military leaders to convey a clear message: Pakistan is ready to play it's role for peace but it can never again be part of any war

— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) January 8, 2020

"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.