PAKISTAN has floated the idea of creating a pan-Islamic force that could eventually phase out the bulk of United States-led military forces in the Gulf. The proposal comes from an interim government whose tenure in office expires in 30 days, when general elections are scheduled to be held. Officials, however, say that they are confident of the present government's victory next month against former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was dismissed from office Aug. 6 on corruption charges. The idea is very much in the conceptual stage, but Pakistani officials are talking of a force that could include troops from Turkey and Egypt in addition to their own. The three countries have the largest armies in the region, apart from Iran and Iraq.
Senior military officials say that the size of the Pakistani contingent could reach 100,000 troops. ``We are not short of manpower in the Pakistan armed forces,'' says an Army source.
Pakistani Prime Minister Ghulam Mustapha Jatoi and Foreign Minister Yacub Khan discussed the idea with the Saudis during a visit to the kingdom last week, Pakistani officials say. The Saudis expressed interest in the concept, say Islamabad officials.
Little discussion on the specifics of such a force appears to have occurred with the US, Egypt, or Turkey. Given Turkey's colonial history in the region, a Turkish presence could face opposition.
Pakistani officials, however, argue that US troops in the Holy Land of Islam will become more and more controversial. Their presence also bolsters Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's efforts to rally support as an Arab nationalist and supporter of Islam.
With an Islamic force in place, military officials add, the US-led forces could make a graceful exit.
``We are not talking about replacing the Americans,'' a senior official says. ``Initially, this would mean only an augmentation of the Western forces, followed by a gradual `Islamicization' of the troops safeguarding the kingdom.''
For the Pakistanis, the idea of a Saudi or Western-financed Islamic force would offer much-needed foreign exchange. The country's economy has been hit severely by the Gulf crisis. The cost of the loss of Kuwait remittances and higher oil prices could reach $1 billion, officials say.
Unless something is done to replace the foreign exchange, Pakistan faces certain economic depression and possible collapse, a leading industrialist says.
Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, however, say that the dispatch of such a large Pakistani force to the Gulf could generate opposition within the country.
Although there would be support for an Islamic force to replace Western troops in Saudi Arabia, many Pakistanis might ask why troops were not being sent to the border with troubled Indian-controlled Kashmir, says Agha Poya, spokesman for the Islamic Democratic Alliance.
Another question that might emerge, Mr. Poya says, is why Pakistani soldiers were being sent to protect Saudi royalty, which is viewed by many Pakistanis as corrupt and pro-American.
An Islamic military presence is supported by Pakistan's powerful armed forces, which many believe support the existing caretaker government. They point out, however, that reserves would have to be trained first to fill the gap left by the Saudi contingent.
Such an arrangement would have to be guaranteed by the US if Pakistan is to be assured that it would not be attacked from India, say military officials. As the separatist uprising in Kashmir worsens, Pakistan faces a threat of war with India.
Pakistani officials also argue that US pressure on New Delhi would help contain India's deepening relations with Iraq. Military officials claim the two nations are cooperating on missile and chemical warfare technology.
``There is a Saddam-Singh axis already in place, which is of great concern to Pakistan,'' an official declares, referring to V.P. Singh, India's prime minister. India is attempting to curb Pakistan's influence in the region, just as it did with its support of the Najibullah regime in Afghanistan, the official says.
The Saudis, meanwhile, are looking for a substantive commitment from Pakistan, officials here claim. Some 2,000 troops of a 5,000-strong force have already been dispatched to the kingdom by Pakistan, and the Saudi authorities have made a further request for an armored brigade.