Pakistani Mercenaries Arrive in Bahrain

Aug 2013

General Zia ul-Haq in Jordan.

General Zia ul-Haq in Jordan.

News comes from Bahrain that a detachment of Jordanian troops has arrived in Manama to work alongside Bahraini forces. They plan to quell the Tamarod movement, which takes to the streets on August 14, the 42nd anniversary of Bahrain’s independence from Britain. It is also one more bout in the long-running campaign for political rights in a principality run, since 1783, by the House of al-Khalifa. Generations have taken to the streets on behalf of liberal rights and political rights, having won for themselves two constitutions (1973 and 2002) that guaranteed a National Assembly. These promises have come to naught, as the al-Khalifa regime holds fast to its feudal prerogatives, untouched by a century of British rule and by a half century of the presence of a mammoth US base in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. In February 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, unrest took hold of Bahrain. It was crushed, once more with help from outside – not only the Bahraini forces but also the Jazeera force of the Gulf Cooperation Council (mainly Saudi troops with mercenaries from elsewhere).

It is in mind of these mercenaries that I write my short note. In 2011, al-Jazeera’s Mujib Mashal reported the presence of as many as three thousand Pakistani troops in the Bahrain armed forces, including the National Guard and the Special Forces. Bahrain’s own troops number only twelve thousand, with a twelve hundred body National Guard. The Pakistani detachment is a significant emolument for the Bahrain troops. Today, Manama Voice reports that amongst the Jordanian troops that have arrived in the capital, a significant number are once more Pakistanis. This is not the first time Pakistani troops have been involved in the internal struggles in the Arab world – most spectacularly, it was Brigadier Zia ul-Haq, as a “trainer” from the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), who led the 40th armored brigade of the 2nd Division of the Jordanian armed forces to crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and to hold off a Syrian attack in northern Jordan. A proper study is needed of the role of Brigadier Zia in these battles. What is clear is that his is the antecedent for the current role of Pakistani mercenaries in Bahrain, poised to crack down on the protesters.

Tragically, the regime in Bahrain has depicted the democracy struggle as a Shia-Sunni battle, with al-Khalifa as the shield of the Sunnis and the al-Wefaq party as the political device not only of the Shias but also of Iranian interference in the Arabian Peninsula. This is a corruption of the facts on the ground. From the first protests in February of 2011, the crowds chanted, “No Sunni, No Shia. We are one.” Bahrain’s feudal regime has, however, played up the Shia-Sunni divide. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, it used a general religiosity to cut down the rise of Nasserite and Communist groups such as the widely successful National Union Committee and the National Liberation Front. The March Intifada of 1965 was the high-point of this left-wing thrust. It was from its ashes that the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain emerged in 1981, opening the door to a religiously-defined political space – but not reducible to a Shia one. It is a cruel act of history that al-Khalifa turns to Pakistani troops at the time when a widening anti-Shia tendency opens up in Pakistan, with the attacks on Shia shrines and on Shia places of gathering. It provides fertile ground for a regime that wants to attract this anti-Shia thrust, properly fierce in its crackdown against what the regime depicts as a Shia political uprising. Or at least that’s the plan.

The other great irony is that Pakistan and Bahrain share an independence day. It is today, August 14 that the Pakistani troops will oil their guns and march out near the Pearl Monument to fire at Bahraini protesters. One hopes that a splinter of patriotism for their own August 14 would still the hands of the troops. One hopes that the sounds of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’ admonishment to monarchs will ring out in their ears:

sab taaj uchhaale jaayenge
sab takht giraaye jaayenge


Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut. He is the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012) and the co-editor, with Madiha Tahir and Qalandar Memon of Dispatches from Pakistan (LeftWord, 2012).

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