Resisting Saudi

Updated April 05, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

Decisions, decision-makers and deciders — there’s so much going on, it’s hard to remember who’s supposed to be doing what. Or why.

Nawaz is supposed to be the chap who asks ‘how high’ when the Saudis ask us to jump, but there he is heading a government that keeps talking about peaceful solutions in Yemen while the Saudis are pounding on his door demanding their due.

Read: Turkey, Pakistan back peaceful resolution to Yemen conflict

That’s some sterling stuff. You’d expect Nawaz to just capitulate: he’s surrendered everything national security and foreign policy-ish to the boys, so why not side with an external benefactor in its self-created hour of need and throw that grenade into the boys’ camp, letting them deal with the fallout of having to say no.

The strangest thing about the Yemen crisis so far is this: slice through the spin and you’re left with the puzzle of Pakistan behaving sensibly.

A perfect faecal storm, as it were, with Nawaz grinning from the sidelines. Comeuppance, Pakistani-style.

Ah, but Nawaz has been restrained by the army. If it weren’t for Raheel and his boys, we’d already be pounding Yemen and preparing to receive body bags from the vanguard of a ground invasion.

Which is interesting because, if you think about it, the boys surely understand the need for protecting the army’s institutional relationship with the Saudis.

Also read| Pakistan backs Ummah’s unity without sectarian or racial considerations: FO

After all, what are a few planes and a handful of boots as marginal contributions to a mission that means so much to the Saudis? And so what if the boys are busy in Fata? It’s not as if Black September and the East Pakistan crisis didn’t clash.

Besides, what are those Houthis going to do anyway? Send boatloads of terrorists to Pakistan in retaliation? Or is Iran going to start a sectarian war inside Pakistan, for the sake of a bunch of Houthis Iran isn’t particularly close to and when Iran already has a volatile border with us?

The strangest thing about the Yemen crisis so far is this: slice through the spin and you’re left with the puzzle of Pakistan behaving sensibly when the situation suggests it need not.

The basic facts about Yemen that matter here: it’s not a sectarian conflict; Iran isn’t that involved; the Saudis are being paranoid; the intra-Yemen conflict is only a small part of a wider Saudi-Iran power struggle; and it’s hard to see Yemen — this conflict at this time with so many others proliferating — as a trigger for some imminent regional catastrophe.

If we provisionally — provisionally — accept that, then we’re left with two of the Saudis closest allies here — Nawaz and the boys — resisting the fiercest of Saudi demands when acquiescing would be so much easier.

The Saudis have a new king. They have an inter-generational heir to the throne for the first time. They have a new defence minister. New leader, new team, new generation — all just months old.

If the Saudis aren’t exactly renowned for forgetting a slight, what’s the incentive for Pakistan to resist a new Saudi leadership so publicly so early into the new leadership’s life?

There are also, unusually, a surfeit of options for Pakistan. If we were to contribute to the aerial bombardment, it would be at the margins anyway. Nobody, not even the Saudis, expects Pakistan to lead when there’re all those rich Arab countries with their squadrons of imported jets.

Or if Pakistan wants to contribute but doesn’t want to bomb, there’re all kinds of non-combat roles for planes in an aerial campaign — Pakistan could be on site without doing any fighting.

Or if Pakistan doesn’t want to get involved in the aerial fight, it could promise to send troops — if an invasion were to materialise.

Of if Pakistan wants to send troops, but not wage aggression, it could pledge to send a few troops to the Saudi-Yemen border, driving up the cost of invasion for the Houthis.

Or if Pakistan wants to send troops, but not get into a firefight — it could send troops to the capital, maybe a big military base, as a symbolic show of support.

Yet — so far nothing but sensible talk of diplomatic solutions and political support.

What gives? Since when has Pakistan started doing the sensible thing in the face of a raging ally who it ordinarily dare not disappoint? The system seems to be winning — so far.

Nawaz or the boys, it’s still Pakistan, where a defensive doctrine reigns supreme. The framework for assessing and projecting power is essentially about the physical terrain of Pakistan and two of its borders.

Straying from that framework requires a colossal incentive, a geopolitical earthquake and a transcendental leadership willing to risk change — none of which are present at the moment.

Sure, Pakistan may once have had kooky ideas about Central Asia and still fiddles around in Bangladesh, but for the most part it’s all about Pakistan, East of Pakistan (India) and West of Pakistan (Afghanistan).

To change that, everything would have to change: the world outside, the system inside and the men who lead it. Like a Bhutto inspired by and responding to the dramatic changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like a Zia taking advantage of a superpower invasion in our backyard under the umbrella of the Cold War.

With Yemen, one critical variable could change: the Saudis may drive up the cost of defiance for us, making it intolerable as compared to the cost of acquiescence — relatively low to begin with.

In which case, there’s still the least-worst option: some troops to Saudi for defensive purposes, either along the border with Yemen or relatively far from the warzone.

Conservative Pakistan led by conservative men making conservative choices — who’d have thought that combination may produce a sensible decision one day?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2015

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