August 19, 2011

Bahrain’s Crackdown: Where U.S. and Pakistani Interests Unite

The roots of discord plaguing U.S.-Pakistani relations can be traced to a simple source: diverging interests. Genuine alignment is unlikely, if not impossible, because both governments are pursuing regional influence over peace. But change the sphere of influence and interests begin to shift with the geopolitics.

Far from Afghanistan’s chaotic border, Washington and Islamabad have found unity in Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution.

Last month Al Jazeera’s Mujib Mashal documented an alarming contractor ring orchestrated by the Pakistani and Bahraini militaries. Recruited after Saudi and Bahraini officials visited Islamabad for security talks, an estimated 2,000+ former servicemen have bolstered the island’s forces by 20%. Roughly 9,000-12,000 soldiers make up Bahrain’s active Defense Force, leaving the government undermanned in its crackdown against the Shia-majority opposition. Saudi troops stamped with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s logo (Peninsula Shield Force) had already entered the country in March, along with UAE police and a Jordanian unit operating under a Saudi false-flag. Jordan’s King Abdullah recently met with Bahrain’s King Hamad Ben Isa Al Khalifa, who offered his “full support” for Jordan’s GCC bid.

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, cannot believe that “our own Shia cannot join the security forces, but the government recruits from abroad.”

Islamabad’s close relationship with Riyadh, coupled with a robust military apparatus, has paid large dividends to Manama and opened the door to further security cooperation. This week a smiling King Hamad held court with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to promote, “the existing Pakistan-Bahrain bilateral ties through enhanced economic interactions, promotion and facilitation of business community.” Although Pakistan’s weak economy naturally steered the conversation in this direction, “stability” underlined their meetings without ever mentioning Islamabad’s direct involvement in Bahrain’s crackdown.

According to Al Jazeera’s July report, a Pakistani conglomerate called the Fauji Foundation has handled most of the recruiting. The company - billed as a charitable trust - maintains a variety of legitimate business interests, but also outsources ex-military personnel through its Overseas Employment Services, including Special Forces, the national guard and riot police. Rajab and other protesters identified the majority of recruits as Pakistani after they understood Urdu instead of Arabic; Balochs supposedly make up a sizable portion of the recruits.

Now a second, odder source is vouching for what is still considered a suspect report in Pakistan. Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, author President Barack Obama’s initial “White Paper” on Afghanistan and propagator of “AfPak,” recently told Voice of America that Bahrain has recruited Pakistani veterans for decades. 2011’s uprising “sparked a sharp increase,” says Riedel, who may be exaggerating for effect but doesn’t appear to be completely lying.

"This winter, when the very serious demonstrations began and it looked like the regime might even be toppled at a certain point, their hiring of mercenaries went up substantially," he said. "And they began sending out basically want ads in major Pakistani newspapers advertising well-paying jobs in the Bahraini police and the Bahraini National Guard for any experienced soldier or policeman in Pakistan."

Worse still, Rajab warns that Pakistani troops often possess the heaviest hands and may be involved in torture cases. With the risk of defection running high, the King has followed past generals by deploying his mercenaries to the front. But the use of Sunni troops also appears to be a calculated political offense to the Shia opposition, an open attempt to inflame social tensions and justify suppression of the uprising. The use of foreign soldiers and police has become a main grievance on top of political and judicial reform; Bahraini Shia view the pattern - Sunni bonding, Saudi loyalty, high pay and miseducation - as a systematic attack.

"Many of these Sunni Pakistani troops, if they’ve served well and served long enough, will also be offered Bahraini citizenship at the end of their career - an offer that is intended to try to increase the demographic size of the Sunni minority on the island,” Riedel explains. “And that only intensifies Shia frustration with the way things are governed in Bahrain.”

"They’re uneducated," adds Rajab. "They’re told they are going to go to a holy war in Bahrain to kill some non-Muslims or kafir [infidel] or Shias. They are paid well, maybe. They are staying in isolation in Bahrain.”

The widespread use of this strategy leaves little doubt of a connection between Riyadh and Islamabad, and thus Washington by extension. While quick to voice caution, U.S. officials have justified Saudi Arabia’s deployment (and Jordan and UAE) as an internal matter. No one is stopping Pakistan’s flow of ex-military or even reacting to the story. Amid these developments, the Obama administration has failed to respond to Bahrain’s collapsed dialogue after hailing its pompous opening in June. Al Wefaq, the main opposition group, left the dialogue in silence, while Wa'ad stayed to the end to prove its worthlessness.

Three weeks ago Human Rights First unsuccessfully called out the Obama administration, bluntly stating, “The U.S. government should clarify its position on the discredited Bahraini National Dialogue that failed to address fundamental issues of reform or human rights. Its recommendations have been met with widespread disappointment from human rights activists within the country.”

“At the start of the dialogue President Obama described it as ‘an important moment of promise for the people of Bahrain,’ and he commended the Bahraini King for his leadership in initiating the process. This praise baffled many Bahrainis because six weeks earlier President Obama had told the Bahraini government, ‘You can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.’ Bahraini pro-democracy protestors wonder where the U.S. stands now, and it’s time it made its position clear.”

Unfortunately Bahraini protesters know where Washington stands in their country - in the Naval Support Activity Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and in Riyadh. One of the administration's mentions came from Hillary Clinton in July, when the Secretary of State optimistically asserted “we’re trying to encourage dialogue in Bahrain.” After the dialogue crumbled into illegitimacy, the administration reportedly re-upped Bahrain’s defense pact through 2016. Weeks of counter-demonstrations ensued, including a “No Retreat Festival,” and Wefaq leader Sayed al-Mousawi told his audience during a protest against the National Dialogue, "The government thought the results were great. We thought they were nothing. There's no fully elected government, no reforms to the voting system. It's a one-sided deal."

Although Obama officials vigorously defend U.S. policy as upholding the universal right to protest, Bahrainis attempted to stage protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Manana only to face a security cordon and riot police.

Washington is unquestionably aware of Bahrain’s present environment. Riedel’s testimony, though unusual, is sufficient proof given the multiplicity of reports. A lie of this caliber is too grand even for him or VOA, whose editorials often defend the government's efforts to reform. While the ex-CIA analyst has participated in the U.S. media campaign against Pakistan, notably its “loose” nuclear weapons, Riedel toes the Saudi line too closely to falsify what verges on condemnation: "The fact that the [ruling] Khalifa family is importing Sunni Pakistani mercenaries to repress the Shia majority only underscores the perception of the Shia majority that the regime is not interested in genuine reforms, not interested in building a constitutional monarchy, but interested in repressing the majority simply because they are Shias.”

Riedel isn’t inactive in the White House - if he knows the truth so does the Obama administration. Finally, a cover up that Washington and Islamabad can agree on.


  1. '....he commended the Bahraini King for his leadership in initiating the process.' He hadn't seen this:

  2. Wonder what pressure Iran will be giving Pakistan over Bahrain?

  3. Exactly, reports of direct royal involvement have also been ignored for months now.

    Given how long Bahrain has recruited Pakistanis, both before and after the uprising, the Iranian effect appears surprisingly minimal. Tehran seems to have decided that Bahrain isn't worth jeopardizing relations with Islamabad, which it would like to improve. But the operation is probably causing friction somewhere in each capital.