Pakistan provides troops for repression in Bahrain
BAHRAINI flags at London's May Day rally this year. Some have sought refuge here as regime clamps down.
TROOPS from Pakistan are being used to help suppress unrest in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.
Saudi tanks and helicopter gunships were sent into Bahrain in March, after mass demonstrations over political freedom and social justice, when demonstrators invaded the financial district.
In the ensuing repression, government forces went into the hospitals where wounded demonstrators were being treated, and attacked doctors and medical workers. More than 50 medical staff were reported missing afterwards. Many were detained after raids like that on Salmaniya hospital on March 17.
The security forces also seized the premises of the Bahrain trade unions, and clamped down on journalists.
It was about this time that advertisements started appearing in the Pakistani media.
"Urgent requirement - manpower for Bahrain National Guard," said one.
"For service in Bahrain National Guard, the following categories of people with previous army and police experience are urgently needed," said another, with "previous experience" and "urgent need" underscored.
The categories included: former army drill instructors, anti-riot instructors, retired military police, and former army cooks.
According to a report on al-Jazeera, Saudi and Bahraini officials visited Islamabad, and succeeded in bringing back at least 2,500 former servicemen, who have swelled the Bahrain national guard and riot police by as much as 50 per cent.
"We know that continued airplanes are coming to Bahrain and bringing soldiers from Pakistan," Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera. "We do not know the exact number, but we know that it is much more than 1,500 or 2,000 people."
One sad aspect of this is that apparently many of the Pakistani soldiers who have taken the bait are from Baluchistan, a poor region of Pakistan which has itself suffered repression by Pakistani governments in the past. Another is that, with a major cause of unrest in Bahrain being discontent by Shi'ites fed up with discrimination and inequality from their Sunni rulers, the use of Pakistani troops, who are predominantly Sunni,provokes sectarian bitterness.
"Our own Shia cannot join the security forces, but the government recruits from abroad," said Rajab.
In Pakistan, Shi'ites are a minority, and have suffered sectarian violence and terrorist attacks. In Bahrain, Shi'ites are a majority, and may look to neighbouring Iran for support (where to add to the complications, there is a Baluchi minority and aome armed groups opposing the Tehran regime). Anger has already been aroused by reported attacks on Shi'ite mosques and shrines in Bahrain. There is talk of the government naturalising Pakistanis who want to stay, so as to alter the demographic balance. The danger could be that people might take their resentment out not just on the Pakistani troops, but on other Pakistanis who only came to Bahrain to work.
In Pakistan, where it seems as hard to separate the army command from business as to see where the security and intelligence services stop and terrorist gangs begin, recruitment of personnel for Bahrain was handled by the Fauji Foundation,a big conglomerate with close ties to the military. In addition to the Overseas Employment Services, which is tasked with providing job opportunities for retired military personnel, the foundation owns large cereal and gas companies, sugar mills, security firms, as well as hospitals and universities.
"Pakistanis, particularly Baluchs, make up a large part of the Bahraini force," said Fahad Desmukh, a former resident of Bahrain who now lives in Pakistan."They are extremely visible on the streets - so visible that the protestors were recently responding to the police in Urdu, knowing they did not speak Arabic."
A small country of 33 islands, and roughly 800,000 people (including about 235,000 non-nationals), Bahrain has a Defence Force of about 12,000 and a National Guard of 1,200, according to the US State Department.
"What it shows is that the Bahraini government has little trust in its own citizens to conduct security operations," Michael Stephens, a Qatar-based Bahrain specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, told Al Jazeera. "So they rely on foreign recruits to unquestioningly carry out orders of violently suppressing protests."
Pakistani involvement in supplying personnel to the Middle East is not new, according to Mujib Mashal of al Jazeera. He quotes Hamid Hussein, a historian of the Pakistan military.
"In the 1970s and 80s, many Arab countries flushed with oil money bought state of the art equipment, but [the] local population lacked technical skills," ...
"A number of Pakistan army and air force personnel were deputed to several countries including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. "
The recruitments varied from a dozen advisors to thousands of trainers and operators of complicated equipment. In 1970 then Brigadier Zia ul Haq helped the Jordanian forces suppress Palestinians in what became known as "Black September".
Zia ul Haq went on to become the military dictator who introduced a swift process of "Islamisation" in Pakistan.
When the Saudi regime grew nervous about the "Arab Spring" spilling over its border from Bahrain, the chairman of the Saudi National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, made two quiet trips to Pakistan to seek their support. "Potential need for foreign troops in case protests spiral out of control has forced Saudis to work with current Pakistani civilian government for whom they have nothing but utter contempt," said Hussain.
The trip was followed by visits from the Bahraini foreign minister and the commander of their national guard. Then the adverts started appearing.
So even as US planes and forces go into Pakistan, appearing to treat it as a 'failed state', it appears the government finds employment for its citizens by providing them as mercenaries overseas.
"The president and prime minister of Pakistan, faced with grim economic situation of the country and army brass uncertain about continued US funding, are delighted at the potential of a cash windfall from Saudi patrons," said Hussain.
In Baluchistan, which has had its own movement for self-determination for some time, as well providing some recruits to clandestine left-wing groups, we can expect a different view.
"We call upon the Baluch nation not to become part of any tyrant or oppressive army, at a time when the Baluch nation is living in a state of war … and are struggling against the tyrants ourselves," Basham Baluch, a spokesman for Baluch Liberation Front said in a 2009 statement. "Instead of turning the young Baluch into hired killers, they should join the national armies [Baluch Liberation Front, Baluchistan Liberation Army] to make the independence of their homeland a reality.
"We do not want the Baluch people to be used and turned into mercenaries."
"What I wonder is how the Pakistani government allows this many people to be brought here and used as mercenaries," said Nabeel Rajab in Bahrain. "We know that many of these recruits are poor, uneducated, and are just looking for a job. They don't know what they are signing up for. But the Pakistan government certainly knows, so why are they allowing this?"
Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter: @mujmash
Pakistani troops aid Bahrain's crackdown - Features - Al Jazeera English
See also: Arrests force Bahrain's writers into exile - Features - Al Jazeera English