Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, made a one-day visit to the Middle East kingdom of Bahrain this week. Substantive details of his meetings with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa were not made public. But Bahrain has been gripped by anti-government protests, part of the “Arab Spring” sweeping across the region. The Bahraini government has been soliciting help from Pakistan to put down demonstrations.
According to analysts and Bahraini human rights activists, Bahrain's government has been recruiting former soldiers and policemen from Pakistan at a steady rate to bolster the security forces.
Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who has extensive experience in South Asia, says Bahrain has been recruiting Pakistani veterans for decades. But he says the eruption of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Gulf state in March has sparked a sharp increase in the recruiting.
"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," said Riedel. "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."
The ads placed in Pakistani newspapers call for ex-riot police and riot control instructors, military police, non-commissioned officers, and other military and security specialists - as well as cooks and mess hall waiters - for the Bahrain National Guard. The ads were placed by the Fauji Foundation, an organization set up to help veterans and their families. Calls to the foundation seeking comment were not returned.
A senior Pakistani source says President Zardari and King Hamad discussed the issue of recruitment during the Pakistani leader’s visit to Bahrain Wednesday. But asked to comment on the matter, a Pakistani embassy spokesman said the recruitment of veterans is done through private channels and has nothing to do with the Pakistani government.
Riedel says hundreds, if not thousands, of unemployed Pakistani military and police veterans were hired. Most have come from the province of Baluchistan in southwest Pakistan.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, says the Pakistani recruits have behaved with a heavy hand toward demonstrators.
"They’re uneducated," he said. "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. They have their own settlement, away from local citizens. And those are maybe responsible for a lot of killing and a lot of systematic torture and human rights violations committed in the past months and years."
Asked how he knew they were Pakistanis, he said the recruits speak Urdu instead of Arabic. In fact, he says, demonstrators would insult the policemen and guardsmen in Urdu.
Rajab says that although the government has lifted the state of emergency and instituted a commission of inquiry into the human rights abuses, the anti-government protests have continued.
Bahrain is a monarchy ruled by Sunni Muslims, a minority in the kingdom. Shi’ite Muslims make up the majority of the population and have been in the forefront of the pro-democracy protests, calling for reforms and more equitable treatment.
Nabeel Rajab, who also serves as deputy secretary-general for the International Federation for Human Rights, says Bahrain's government is wary of Shi’ites serving in security positions.
"Because of their Shia religious background, the government or ruling family, they don’t employ them in the army," he said. "So always they have a gap in the army or the police. They need to employ somebody. The second thing is that to deal with the protesters, to deal with those democracy and human rights protests, the government of Bahrain imports or brings in mercenaries from several countries, mainly from Pakistan."
Bruce Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says the Bahraini policy has aggravated the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide.
"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," he said.
Repeated calls and e-mails to the Bahrain Embassy in Washington seeking comment got no response.
Riedel adds that for Bahrain's rulers, there is a side agenda to the recruitment.
"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. And that only intensifies Shia frustration with the way things are governed in Bahrain," he said.
The issue also has diplomatic repercussions. Iran, a Shi’ite nation, has voiced concern about the Bahraini government’s response to the demonstrations. In March, a 1,600-man Gulf Cooperation Council force, led by another Sunni monarchy, Saudi Arabia, went into Bahrain. In April, Iran summoned the Pakistani ambassador to hear official concern about Bahrain's recruitment of Pakistani mercenaries to help put down the protests. According to Iranian press reports, Iranian officials warned of “serious ramifications” for Pakistani-Iranian relations if the recruitment continued.