Pakistani Security Policymaking in Light of the IDF’s Assertive Participation in USCENTCOM Activities

Over the past few months, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has become visibly assertive in the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) theatre of operations. This is beyond the traditionally close relations between Israel and the US, bolstered by the Abraham Accords, which paved the way for Israeli-Arab rapprochement. The UAE and Bahrain are among the signatories that fall within USCENTCOM’s Area of Responsibility.

The geostrategic bonhomie between Israel and the Gulf Arab countries in the USCENTCOM region is based primarily on the common threat perceptions from a belligerent Iran, helping Washington retain its regional influence as a peace facilitator simultaneously. It was clear to observers that the Abraham Accords were centred around larger security cooperation flowing from high-level political understanding among state leaders.

Despite these developments, Islamabad has not articulated any proper policy response. Political scientist Salman Rafi Sheikh rightly proffers that the Abraham Accords have placed Pakistan’s foreign policy in a quandary. The country’s undeclared opposition places it at odds with its large Gulf Arab patrons; continued opposition could incur long-term economic consequences.

Thus far, Pakistan has tried to maintain its historical relations with UAE and Bahrain while conveniently ignoring any public mention of their “understanding” with Israel. One cost of this ignorant passivity is the strengthening relations of these Arab states with India, which has never shied away from professing its regional security orientation.

Israel’s Foray in USCENTCOM

Israel was formally absorbed into USCENTCOM on 1 September 2021; however, just two days prior, in late August, the Israel Navy and the United States Naval Forces Central Command (USNAVCENT) conducted their inaugural maritime security patrol in the Red Sea. This involved guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey, sailing alongside an Israel Navy corvette INS Eilat, two patrol boats and a US Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.

In October, Major General Ibrahim Nasser Muhammed al-Alawi, Commander of the UAE Air Force and Air Defence, paid a landmark visit to Israel to witness Exercise “Blue Flag 2021”, which involved participation from air forces of the US, the UK, Israel, Germany, India, Greece, and Italy. By the end of the month, the IDF appointed its first Liaison Officer at USCENTCOM headquarters, identified only as “Major Aleph”. In parallel, a senior IDF ground forces delegation visited United States Army Central (USARCENT) headquarters to discuss avenues of collaboration.

Details about participating assets from countries except the US have not been publicised and are likely intentionally withheld due to the sensitivity of the drills.

In early November, the IDF participated in a bilateral amphibious exercise with 500+ troops from USNAVCENT’s 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Israeli waters; these comprised a logistics battalion detachment, an infantry rifle company, a light armoured reconnaissance company and a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) platoon. When these exercises were concluded, naval forces from the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, alongside USNAVCENT, conducted their first combined exercise in the Gulf of Aqaba (Red Sea)/Western Indian Ocean. The drills involved at-sea training onboard the amphibious transport dock vessel USS Portland and covered tactics and techniques related to search and seizure. USNAVCENT noted that the drills would “enhance interoperability” between maritime interdiction forces of participating nations. Details about participating assets from countries except the US have not been publicised and are likely intentionally withheld due to the sensitivity of the drills.

As if there were “doubts” about the symbolic significance of these manoeuvres, an unnamed senior Israeli naval official stated that they were intended to send “a direct message” to Iran and its regional “power projection” activities by “increasing the operational range of the (Israeli) Navy”.

Amidst the quadrilateral naval drills in the Red Sea, the Israel Air Force chief Major General Amikam Norkin reciprocated Al-Alawi’s tour by visiting the UAE. Norkin participated in the 10th Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference (DIACC), which brought together air chiefs, commanders and senior air force officers from dozens of countries, including Pakistan and India, besides participating in the Dubai Air Show.

Air Power Cooperation takes the Lead

The Israeli Navy and Army’s foray into USCENTCOM are relatively recent and were preceded by extensive engagements between Israel Air Force and the United States Air Force Central (USAFCENT) more than a year prior.

In March 2020, several months before the Abraham Accords with the UAE were signed, F-35I jets belonging to the Israeli Air Force and American F-35As from USAFCENT participated in their inaugural bilateral exercise “Enduring Lightning” involving air-to-air and air-to-surface missions over Israeli skies.

The second and third iterations of this exercise were also held in Israel in August 2020 and October 2020, respectively.

Assessment

The on-off engagements of the IDF with the US and Gulf Arab allies within the USCENTCOM operational paradigm are aimed at expanding options in case of a full-blown conflict with Iran. Prior to the Abraham Accords, the US was concerned that a conflict with Iran would incur dangers for Israel’s own stability. It was imperative that a mechanism of regional political alliances help in burden-sharing without necessarily subtracting Washington from the equation. Israel, in and of itself, would be unable to counter Iranian threats relying solely on American support.

Conversely, USCENTCOM’s threat calculus also takes into account the implications of an Israeli first strike on Iran. In March 2012, during one of its biannual theatre-wide exercises called “Internal Look”, the USCENTCOM assessed that an Israeli strike on Iran would plunge the US, alongside the region, into a wider war whose escalatory dynamics would be unmanageable. In the prevailing circumstances, boosting material and political support for Gulf Arab allies directly reinforces the US and Israel’s own bilateral security interests.

It is unlikely that the UAE and Bahrain could have engaged with Israel Navy in regional waters without American patronage. In fact, if USCENTCOM was not involved, the chances of Saudi Arabia ignoring trilateral Israeli-Gulf naval manoeuvres near its waters would have been very bleak and might have triggered a strong response from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). At a domestic level also, the US headship of regional military initiatives carries lesser political risk for Emirati Arab monarchs.

Future Outlook

Broadly, a growing number of countries are warming up to the idea of Israel’s entry into the USCENTCOM theatre. India has already appointed its Liaison Officer to USNAVCENT and maintains strategic relations with Israel, the US and UAE. A new ‘quad’ involving Israel, the US, UAE and India emerged, which is likely to manifest in the form of a high-level Foreign Ministers’ meeting. It is unclear how Iran would view India’s growing centrality in these new groupings.

Whatever the political and economic makeup of this new ‘quad’ may be, the new regional security alliances, however politically convenient they may be for multiple stakeholders, would indubitably be dominated by the USCENTCOM.

This scenario begs an important question: would Islamabad be open to engage with the IDF in multilateral exercises organised by USCENTCOM? Gulf Arab states may have taken the lead, but others (read: non-Arab) in the theatre would also be open to such prospects.

In the emerging circumstances, Pakistan can either choose to join the larger GCC camp (in discreet acceptance of the Abraham Accords) or opt for a standalone (read: isolated) path that promotes strong relations with Iran at the unwarranted expense of politico-economic relations with the US and Arab Gulf countries.

Pakistan’s most visible regional multilateral engagement occurs through USNAVCENT’s Combined Maritime Forces (CMFs). A future, near-term scenario could involve Pakistani command of task forces against piracy involving naval forces from Israel. In the absence of diplomatic relations, such a predicament would be extremely awkward for both Islamabad and Tel Aviv.

Even if Pakistan maintains indifference toward Israel, merely sharing a platform with it under American patronage would incur domestic political liabilities. Externally, the fragile relations with Iran would be further strained since Tehran would view Pakistan’s continued active participation in the US-led regional security frameworks as “partisanship”.

Conclusion

Security policymakers in Pakistan can no longer ignore Israel’s entry in the USCENTCOM theatre. A regional security policy would clearly need to elaborate Pakistan’s geostrategic posture during peace and conflict in the Persian Gulf while addressing the elephant in the room in a manner that removes ambiguities among regional allies.

Islamabad’s continued ambiguity keeps accumulating woes on its foreign policy (diplomatic) front; the thaw in  the Pak-UAE relations is among the prominent outcomes of such a ludicrous policy.

In the emerging circumstances, Pakistan can either choose to join the larger GCC camp (in discreet acceptance of the Abraham Accords) or opt for a standalone (read: isolated) path that promotes strong relations with Iran at the unwarranted expense of politico-economic relations with the US and Arab Gulf countries.

The Pakistan Armed Forces have historically relied on continued material and training assistance from the US within the larger USCENTCOM framework. Neither Turkey nor China can fulfil the role of alternating patrons, at least till the foreseeable mid-term future.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

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