The political pot is coming to the boil again in Pakistan -- with much graver implications for the United States and the West than might at first appear. The reason for concern about Pakistan's stability is the country's growing role in the security of the broader Persian Gulf region.
In particular, Saudi Arabia is turning increasingly to Pakistan to make up for its own relative military weakness. (The Saudi royal family apparently trusts non-Arab Pakistanis more than fellow Arabs -- at least when armed and called on to protect the monarchy.)
There now are reliable reports, for instance, that Pakistani Air Force and Army units already are stationed in Saudi Arabia. The Air Force units are based toward the northern end of the Saudi Gulf coast, between the oil fields and the head of the Gulf where Iraq and Iran are locked in stalemate after five months of war.
The presence of the Pakistani Air Force units raises the question of whether they are plugged into the AWACS (airborne warning and control system) that the United States has been operating with four planes from Saudi Arabia at the Saudi's request ever since the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war.
Pakistani Air Force flight crews usually are not only fluent in English but also are familiar with US hardware -- from Central Treaty Organization days. This would facilitate cooperation with US flight crews.
The Pakistani Army units reportedly are based in the Saudi Eastern Province, site of the oil fields that produce one-sixth of all the noncommunist world's oil and beneath whose sands and offshore waters lie up to one-third of all the noncommunist world's known oil reserves.
The province is also home of Saudi Arabia's Shia Muslim minority. The latter is more susceptible than the rest of Saudi Arabia's Muslim population to the appeal of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary Shia Islam from across the Gulf in Iran. Pakistani troops in the Eastern Province would therefore help to ensure against sabotage of oil installations while contributing in a broad sense to the security of the Saudi royal family.
This Pakistani military presence in Saudi Arabia is Pakistani President Zia ulHaq's quo for the quid of political, moral, and particularly financial support he has been getting from the Saudi royal family. One figure quoted for Saudi aid to Pakistan is $1 billion a year. Pakistan also benefits from the remittances sent home by up to a quarter of a million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia.
The co-opting of Pakistan by Saudi Arabia suggests that the Saudi royal family is including Pakistan as a key element in the Saudi- organized regional security arrangements in the Gulf area, which are now being openly promoted by the Saudi government.
The Saudis are doing this very much with an eye on the US. Apparently they hope that the Reagan administration will not only support the Saudi effort but will supply the resulting Saudi-led collective security grouping with the modern arms it needs. The Saudi decision this week to free 21 Americans held in Saudi jails can be seen as a nudge to Washington in the same broad context.
It is clear therefore that the US, as well as Saudi Arabia, has a huge vested interest in the stability and integrity of Pakistan.
It is not simply that Pakistan is abreast of the entrance to the Gulf, where the vital oil flow is threatened by the Iran-Iraq war. But also, along Pakistan's entire western border, is an Iran still in the throes of revolution. On its northern border is Afghanistan where, for the first time in history, are now troops of a Russia that has sought to expand in that direction for 300 years.
And on the eastern border there is the threat, at least in Pakistani eyes, of an India hostile to Pakistan ever since the latter's founding nearly 34 years ago.
Hence the concern over President Zia's mounting trouble at home.Now well into his fourth year as Pakistan's ruler, he has just turned down a renewed demand from civilian politicians for free elections. Twice since he came to power by coup in 1977 he has promised elections and then canceled them at the last minute -- in 1977 and 1979.
On both those occasions, he contained the protests that his actions evoked. This time, a combination of events suggests that below the lid of martial law a broader ferment may be brewing. It remains to be seen whether the buttress of outside support from Saudi Arabia -- not in place in 1977 and 1979 -- will help him once again contain the building pressures.
General Zia invoked the dangers on Pakistan's borders to support his rejection of the latest call by a grouping of nine political parties for elections within three months. He said Feb. 15 that Pakistan could "ill afford elections at this juncture in view of the situation around the country."
The finding of common ground by these nine outlawed parties is in itself significant. It marks a consolidation of civilian opposition to General Zia. Other recent events, before and after the negative exchange on elections, suggest that General Zia recognizes he is being squeezed onto the political defensive. These events include:
* The stiff sentences of hard labor passed on a retired Army major general and two other officers last week on charges of trying to subvert the armed forces. The Army remains the base of General Zia's power, and presumably he feels obliged to strike hard at any sign of military disaffection.
* The reported arrest of four men, each a representative or leader of parties within the group of nine asking for elections, and the cutting of telephone lines to the homes of leaders of two other parties in the group.
* Student demonstrations, which began in Multan Feb. 12 and have since spread to Rawalpindi, Lahore, Bahawalpur, and Sahiwal.
* A Pakistani initiative, endorsed by Saudi Arabia, which looks to many like being at least a gesture of flexibility toward the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan. What Pakistan has suggested is a United Nations- convened three-way meeting involving Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.
To some, this could be a Pakistani move to stroke the Russians as insurance against Moscow's exploiting of General Zia's current difficulties, compounded by the presence of well over a million Afghan refugees. But there are ambiguities in the scenario.Pakistan took the lead at the recent nonaligned conference in New Delhi in insisting on a "Soviet troops out of Afghanistan" resolution.
To outsiders who have watched Pakistan in recent decades, General Zia has neither the flair nor the charisma of the country's earlier military rulers. Yet during his initial years at the helm, he has skillfully turned to his advantage the present resurgence of Islam.
At home, he introduced Muslim Sharia law alongside the secular court system inherited from the British. Abroad, he wooed and won the support of the Saudi royal family. But this trend has alienated the literate, politically articulate classes and left him more dependent than ever on the military from whom he emerged to take over by coup in 1977.