IT goes without saying that any decision to participate in the on-going, multi-state military action in Yemen would be a senseless move. It would be senseless to send ‘trainers’ and pilots, it would be senseless to send naval support, and it would be doubly senseless to commit ground troops to what is surely a messy, and thoroughly complex conflict space. At the time of writing, the official stance — thankfully — has been a somewhat firm ‘no’ in parliament, and lots of rhetoric laying out Pakistan’s unwavering solidarity and lifelong commitment to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia.
The reasons for why the Pakistani state needs to avoid getting involved beyond simple sloganeering are patently clear, but can and should be restated for the sake of clarity. First and foremost, the armed forces are already engaged on several fronts in the fight against an insurgency in the northwest, intelligence gathering and security duties in Punjab, and with an ancillary ‘operation against criminality and terror’ in Karachi. All these official assignments remain further burdened by their off-the-record duties of handling foreign policy vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan, along with routinely boosting the nation’s morale through public relations exercises. Even for what one is told is a supremely competent and well-functioning institution (which by Pakistani standards leaves much to be imagined), this must be a trying list of tasks.
At a societal level, the murky nature of the Yemen conflict — which remains somewhat congruent with a regional tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia — may have serious implications in a country like Pakistan that is already violently fractured along sectarian lines. Moves to support a chauvinistic Sunni armed coalition in Yemen would simply provide fodder to the host of violent Sunni organisations already busy flexing their muscles against imagined Shia conspiracies in the country.
Pakistan has very little to offer that it can leverage.
Whether the conflict in Yemen corresponds directly to a sectarian clash is less clear. There have been reports suggesting that various Sunni powerbrokers within the country have backed the Houthi rebels, and that Iran’s interfering role remains driven more by an expansion of influence rather than any overt notion of Shia solidarity. Regardless of facts on the ground, far-right Islamist organisations in Pakistan have a history of using homespun, convenient versions of international conflicts as tools for recruitment, ideological dissemination, and cadre mobilisation. At this volatile point, emboldening Sunni extremism domestically is probably the last thing even a moderately rational state would want to do.
In the face of such a clear case against any involvement, the fact that queries of military commitment refuse to go away entirely deserves further analysis. Why does the country find itself in such difficult predicaments on such a regular basis?
Part of the answer behind this international cornering of the Pakistani state emanates from its historical relationship with expansionary powers, namely the US and Saudi Arabia.
Domestically, the current government, like others before it, remains beholden to the Saudi and the US states for financial needs. Getting booster shots for foreign exchange reserves by way of the monarchy’s assistance, or outsourcing a portion of development and military spending to American dollars, comes at a price, and the price often takes the shape of geostrategic support or favours. Naturally, no one government can be blamed for this skewed relationship. All since the Baghdad Pact have participated in reproducing dependence — either for ensuring regime continuity or as an insulation policy against difficult domestic decisions (like increasing tax collection and improving governance).
Complementing such material compulsions is a personal-cultural affinity with the Saudi ruling family that goes back to the years of Sharif’s exile under Gen Musharraf. Even as secondary authorities in such situations (the military being the final judge), such affiliations weigh heavily on the minds of the civilian government, and surely influence their cost-benefit analysis of such situations.
Most decisively, however, it is the relationship of the actual decision-maker — the Pakistan army — with both Saudi Arabia and the US, which contributes to the Pakistani state’s perceptions of costs and benefits, and its assessment of its own interests. Many rightly talk about Nawaz Sharif’s clientelist relationship with the house of Saud, but very few will talk about the Pakistan Army’s clientelist relationship with the Americans and the Saudis — a relationship that institutionally spans 60 years, several collaborative military conflicts, and three long periods of military rule in the country.
Discourse manipulators and hyper-nationalists present the army as the country’s only hope against American-Israeli-Indian conspiracies. They conveniently, however, look away when the COAS is seen touring the US, looking very pleased standing with all the important Americans he’s meeting along the way. They stop listening when figures of direct American financial assistance to the army are cited, and they certainly close their eyes to the history of three lengthy martial law regimes being very understanding of American geo-strategic interests in the region.
The Pakistani state is a dependent state, both fiscally and politically, in a hierarchical world system. As an economically and administratively weak state, it has very little to offer that it can leverage to gain a better, slightly higher foothold. And history tells us that the state-elite (both civil and military) have compounded and reproduced this weakness by historically acting in favour of parochial, narrowly defined interests.
Today, Pakistan may have declined the request made by the Saudis to participate in this latest military incursion, but this is not where it shall end. The next request, on some future campaign, may not be as polite, and it may not come as an inquisitive request at all. And when that happens, a dependent state will be forced to take decisions running counter to the long-term interests of its people and its own stability.
The writer teaches political science at LUMS.
Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2015