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Saudi card in Osama kill
‘Advice’ turns Pakistan around

San Francisco, May 5: Saudi Arabia and Turkey separately played significant roles in persuading Pakistan to give up Osama bin Laden and facilitate his elimination by the US, according to pieces that are slowly fitting the puzzle of Sunday’s anti-terror operation in Abbottabad.

In limited, highly classified briefings for key Congressional leaders, the Obama administration has shared some of its assessments that the Saudis advised Pakistan that it was necessary to take the al Qaida bull by its horns as part of a bigger strategy to manage “the Arab Spring” which is threatening established governments from Oman to Morocco.

The briefings for key men on Capitol Hill dealing with intelligence, defence, foreign affairs and homeland security, which have begun in Washington, are not entirely designed to share highly sensitive information with those who are outside the operational perimeters of the successful plan to eliminate Osama.

They are aimed at building a case for continued American support for Islamabad in the US Congress, including military and financial assistance, on two grounds. One, that Pakistan has unhesitatingly co-operated in the operation to kill Osama. Two, Pakistan has a critical proxy role in managing problems in the strategically crucial Arab world.

It has become necessary to build such a case since clamour is growing in the US among the ill-informed and rabble-rousers that Pakistan must be held accountable for having enabled Osama to live in a “safe house” close to Abbottabad’s military facilities, according to aides of Senators and members of the House of Representatives who have attended some classified briefings.

The Saudis, the Turks and the Pakistanis have all concluded that President Barack Obama is most likely to be re-elected next year. That conclusion implies that a big investment in Obama is worth the effort.

Indeed, it would be even better if they can help him win re-election. The end of a decade-long hunt for Osama — in fact, a 15-year hunt, if Bill Clinton’s failed attempt to kill the Saudi terrorist is counted — with an order under Obama’s hand will be a highly favourable factor for the President in the re-election campaign which is getting well under way.

Obama will be beholden to the Saudis and the Pakistanis, and to a lesser extent to the Turks, for this huge political capital that they have enabled him to amass.

What the Saudis are seeking is to translate a broad convergence of their own survival instincts with US interests in an Arab world which is in ferment. That convergence cannot be achieved without a greater role for Pakistan in putting down the uprisings in countries like Bahrain and helping preserve the status quo in the Arab world, making way, perhaps, for nothing more than cosmetic changes.

It is well known that Pakistanis serving in Bahrain’s police brutally put down the recent Egypt-style Shia protests in the island kingdom. The forces sent in by Saudi Arabia to reinforce Bahrain’s security forces were also reportedly made up of significant numbers of Pakistanis.

As the Arab world gets into deeper ferment, Riyadh is counting on Pakistan — both Islamabad’s regular forces and Pakistanis already employed by security forces in every Gulf country — to provide the last stand for Arab rulers in case the democracy movement in West Asia gets “out of hand” as the Saudis see it.

It is a role that Pakistan has historically engaged in. During “Black September” in 1970, when Palestinians nearly brought down King Hussein’s monarchy in Jordan, it was a unit of the Pakistani army led by none other than the late Gen. Zia-ul Haq that brutally put down the revolt and preserved Hashemite rule.

Similarly, elite units of Pakistan’s army protected the Saudi royal family for decades because the Saudi rulers did not fully trust their own citizens or even those from other Arab countries.

By all accounts, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, would not be averse to reinventing Pakistan’s role in global security affairs on these lines.

After all, that is how Pakistan has all along remained relevant to the world: in July 1971, Islamabad was the secret gateway for the then US national security adviser Henry Kissinger’s visit to China to open Sino-American relations. Pakistan’s involvement in Cento and Seato, the US-sponsored defence arrangements, predates such efforts to remain relevant.

But such a restructuring of the existing order in West and South Asia would not be possible without the acquiescence of Washington. Which was why the Saudis decided to lean on Pakistan to give up Osama.

Saudi Arabia has always been a factor in Pakistan’s domestic politics. No Pakistani leader, either from the military or from among civilians, can ignore Saudi “advice”, although Riyadh’s plea to spare Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s life was a rare instance when such advice was rejected by Gen. Zia.

In an understandable effort to publicly distance himself from the US operation to kill Osama, Kayani warned today that any repetition of such action, violating Pakistan’s sovereignty, would call for a review of military and intelligence co-operation with the US.

What is more interesting than Kayani’s bravado in issuing such a warning is the instant response to it from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a statement issued on behalf of Mullen, his spokesman said: “The small number of US military trainers in Pakistan are there at the invitation of the Pakistani government, and therefore, subject to that government’s prerogatives.”

More of such symphony in the US-Pakistan orchestra is to be expected in the coming days with the two sides disagreeing in public, even to the point of behaving like adversaries, for popular consumption but working together behind the scenes to advance their common interests in South and Central Asia and the Arab world.

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