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Welcome to Jihad Inc.

February 20, 2014


IT’S the season for our worst fears to bloom. As extremist discourse becomes more mainstream, it’s worth considering what price our future bailouts might come at.

For a useful illustration, consider the recent visit to Pakistan by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, a country that has played a pivotal role in bailing Pakistan out after the nuclear detonations of May 1998, and bankrolled some amount of cash assistance in the wake of the Kashmir earthquake and the floods.

But the communiqué issued after the last visit makes for puzzling reading, to say the least. There was fleeting mention of Palestine, which took up two whole paragraphs in the communiqué issued the last time a top Saudi royal visited a Pakistani head of state.

This time we have two paragraphs on Syria, in which Pakistan has clearly been persuaded to take sides in that conflict, and commit itself to the shape of a post-Bashar al-Assad political order.

“When contacted, a senior government official insisted that there was no change in Pakistan’s Syria policy. Sources, however, said that in return for supporting Saudi Arabia on Syria, Pakistan is expected to get defence contracts and other economic favours from the oil-rich kingdom,” said a report in a national daily — exactly the sort of language that you expect to see when your government is hiding something from you.

A quid pro quo appears to have been worked out. It doesn’t take a close scrutiny of the text of the communiqué to get the point. The season of toppling governments is drawing near, and everybody has their hit list.

Our establishment has its eyes on the government that Americans will be leaving behind in Afghanistan, and the Saudis have their eyes on the government of Bashar al-Assad.

For Afghanistan, the statement speaks of “support for Afghan reconciliation” as well as the political process and the forthcoming elections. ‘Let Afghanistan be,’ the Saudis seem to be saying, ‘Let’s go get Bashar.’

And why would we do that? Well, in return the Saudis will extend their usual pro forma support for Pakistan’s position on Kashmir, something that was there in the 2006 communiqué as well, except this time they actually mentioned the UN resolutions.

But more significantly, how about we “enhance bilateral cooperation in the field of defence” and work towards “expanding and improving investment, trade, energy, infrastructure” cooperation as well?

Already two deals have been announced, one for Rawalpindi and the other for Islamabad. Reports are appearing in various segments of the press that a deal on JF-17s and maybe even the Al Khalid tank could be in the offing.

Meanwhile state-controlled Saudi press is reporting that $125 million in credit from Saudi Basic Industries Corporation for import of urea fertiliser has been agreed on. Another $57m is being reported as contribution towards the Golen Gol hyrdopower project in Chitral (about 100MW or so).

I’m getting cynical with age. Whenever I see a defence deal in the offing, I think ‘kickbacks’. And when I think urea import, my mind goes to the fickle and troublesome landlords of southern Punjab, whose loyalties everyone wants to rent.

For a foreign power, getting your way in Pakistan means pushing the right buttons to put smiles on faces in both Pindi and Islamabad, and few tricks get that job done better than defence deals and import credits for commodities that have a triple advantage: support for the balance of payments and the budgetary framework, as well as plenty of patronage potential.

But there’s a lot more to come we’re told. The canvas on which this relationship is going to be built is very large. The 2006 statement, for example, spoke of the two country’s “solidarity in the service of their respective peoples and the entire Muslim ummah”, implying a very passive commonality of purpose that would seek to remain within its borders.

This year’s statement, however, speaks of the “promotion of the causes of the Muslim ummah”, which makes one wonder: what might these causes be? Sectarian harmony and protection of the rights of women and minorities? Is Pakistan being offered a handful of goodies for nothing more than diplomatic support for the Saudi position in Syria?

Is there continuity through all the change? My worst fear is this: as the superpower withdraws, and the curtain drops slowly on an era of geopolitical rents for Pakistan, other powers will step in and seek to rent out the services of the jihadi enterprise. After all, those guys know how to fight, and those are skills for which there is a growing market in our neighbourhood.

The only difference will be that where the superpower used to rent the services of our army, and then the jihadis, and then the army again, in return for big talk of dams and five-year plans and ‘big push’ grand models for industrialisation and growth, the new regional customers will speak of only of a few deals here and there.

Who knows, maybe diminished rents will lead to a growing military labour market, and help feed the whole enterprise. A vicious circle for a vicious new world busy being born before our eyes. You’ve heard of Military Inc. Now meet the 21st-century version: Jihad Inc.

Like I said, I’m getting cynical with age, but I hope my fears are unfounded.

The writer is a business journalist and 2013-2014 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington D.C.

Twitter: @khurramhusain