Islamabad, Pakistan — In Pakistan's modern capital, official denials are flying as thick as the rumors of an impending Pakistani troop dispatch to Saudi Arabia. Diplomats acknowledge there is little hard evidence to be had.
Yet signs point to the amassing of a new Pakistani force, which, either from Saudi shores or on a standby basis at home, will help protect the Saudi royal family and bolster the security of the strategic Gulf area.
Pakistan government officials acknowledge that 1,500 to 2,000 military men are on duty in Saudi Arabia in what they describe as engineering and training assignments. But they repeatedly deny that there is any move afoot to send additional troops to augment the small 30,000-man Saudi Army in exchange for economic aid that Pakistan would spend to modernize and re-equip its own armed forces.
Nevertheless, ordinary Pakistanis relay tales of officers and enlisted men rushing to volunteer for Saudi Arabian duty at salaries up to 10 times their pay at home. Diplomatic observers speculate on the number of new Pakistani troops on hire to the house of Saud, with estimaes ranging from 6,000 to highs of 20, 000 to 25,000.
Some sources believe that the larger number is already stationed in Saudi Arabia. The notion is considered unlikely by others who note there have been no reports of large-scale troop movements either out of Pakistan or into Saudi Arabia.
However, there are reports that a vanguard of senior officers and barracks-builders is in place preparing for the arrival of men now being recruited and trained for duty in the desert kingdom. The commander, reportedly now in Saudi Arabia, is identified by sources in Pakistan and India as General Shams Ur-Rahman Kallu.
A middle-of-the-road estimate is that the Pakistanis and Saudis have agreed or are on the verge of concluding an agreement for a Pakistani rapid deployment force, which would be on readiness at home to go to Saudi Arabia's aid in case of internal or external threat.
"A rapid deployment force keeps it much less visible from a Saudi point of view," notes a Western analyst. Another agrees, "it's not a thing the Saudis want very much publicity about -- not about their hiring a mercenary army."
The Saudi ruling family is known to be concerned about bolstering security -- both internally, following the siege of one of Islam's holiest shrines in Mecca by dissident Muslims in late 1979, and externally, in the wake of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the threat to Middle East stability from the Iran-Iraq war.
The amount the Saudis would pay for Pakistani troops is not known, although estimates range as high as $1 billion. Observers believe that the two countries also have not yet agreed on the issue of command and control of Pakistani troops based on Saudi soil or available at quick notice.
"I suspect they haven't sorted it out yet," says a knowledgeable diplomatic anaylst. "It's a sensitive question. Would they operate under a Pakistani commander who has some discretion who he shoots against, or under the Saudis? The Pakistanis are too proud to be flat-out mercenaries."
Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq has dismissed reports of a secret troop supply deal with Saudi Arabia as "totally false." In a lengthy interview published by the Times of India this past week, he noted that Pakistani has understandings with Saudi Arabia and 27 other countries "where we have some training missions, military missions, air force, some army, some combined together, and it is in that respect that we have some elements in Saudi Arabia in training assignments."
Yet, as with reports of a clandestine Pakistani nuclear bomb-building effort which officials fervently deny and Western intelligence sources insist are true, sweeping Pakistani denials are viewed with skepticism.
Less than three months ago, for example, the Pakistan Embassy in New Delhi issued a bulletin denying there were Pakistani troops anywhere outside of Pakistan's borders. It also denied that Pakistan had military agreements with any country, including Saudi Arabia, for the stationing of troops outside Pakistan.
But Pakistani military contingents have been stationed throughout the Middle East for years, most prominently in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan, and Abu Dhabi. And Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have had a cooperative agreement on military training and the exchange of military experts since 1967.
Shortly after one of his top aides told Western journalists that Pakistan had only "a few hundred men" in Saudi Arabia, Zia himse lf set the figure at 1,500 to 2,000 men.