ISLAMABAD: After the government informed a stormy joint session of parliament on Monday of Saudi Arabia’s request that Pakistan join a coalition fighting rebels in Yemen by contributing jets, navy ships and ground troops, parliamentary foes and allies alike demanded more details.
Speakers from the main opposition PPP and PTI and the government-allied Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) labelled a prepared statement, read out by Defence Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif, as ambiguous, though none of them asked the government to say “no” to the Saudi demand while calling for a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the crisis in Yemen.
But the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) was more explicit, demanding that Pakistan refrain from jumping into what it called “an internal power struggle in Yemen”.
Referring to the talks between Saudi authorities and a Pakistani civil-military delegation he led to Riyadh last week and the assurances conveyed to them, the defence minister said: “In response, the Saudi leadership appreciated Pakistan’s unreserved support to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity and expressed hope that Pakistan would join the coalition for Operation Decisive Storm by contributing aircraft, naval vessels and ground troops.”
Though Saudi state media has been citing Pakistan as one of more than 10 mainly Gulf countries in the coalition, the defence minister’s statement was the first time Pakistan officially confirmed the Saudi request and specified the three services from which help is sought.
Opposition members decry lack of specifics in defence minister’s policy statement
Reiterating Pakistan’s previously stated pledge that any violation of Saudi Arabia’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity will evoke a strong response from Pakistan” and that “our concerned authorities will stay engaged with their Saudi counterparts in this regard”, Khawaja Asif voiced confidence that the debate in parliament “would enable the government to formulate our policy in a manner that would reflect the aspirations of the people of Pakistan and also protect our vital national interests”.
“What will be that strong response?” PPP senator Aitzaz Ahsan, opposition leader in the upper house, asked while opening his remarks. Accusing the defence minister of giving nothing concrete in his statement and of not telling the house “what was your response” to Saudi Arabia’s request for troops and military equipment, as well as an explanation of who would command them and meet their operational expenses.
Yet, he said, “We cannot leave Saudi Arabia alone,” at a difficult time, but added: “For God’s sake, take us into confidence. Tell us if you have sent forces or not.”
“You help them, but will you ask them if it is done, will they not oppose the (planned) pipeline to bring (natural) gas to Pakistan from Iran,” he asked.
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman said helping Saudi Arabia was justified, but first “we should try to go for peace. If the situation becomes inevitable, Pakistan will have to play its role”.
He said Islam enjoined upon Muslims to make peace between two Muslim groups fighting each other and that “if one party violates a peace agreement, it must also be punished”.
PTI vice-chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi asked the defence minister to clarify Saudi media reports that Pakistan had already committed to provide military support and said Pakistan must “tread very carefully” and with wisdom.
He suggested that Pakistan opt for diplomacy and call upon the Yemeni rebels not to seek confrontation and instead seek the good offices of their neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia.
“We should go as peace-mongers”, he said, adding that if the government followed such an approach, “we will support it”.
MQM parliamentary leader Farooq Sattar opposed Pakistan’s participation in what he called a civil war and said “Yemen’s sovereignty is dear to us as much as the Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty”.
“There should be a difference between Khana Kaaba (house of Kaaba) and Khana-i-Saud (house of Saud),” he said.
The debate, which will resume on Tuesday, came during the second sitting of the house, following the morning session where Khawaja Asif read out his statement. That part of the proceedings was marred by hostile shouting against PTI lawmakers following their return to parliament after nearly eight months of a boycott.
Even in the second sitting, which was partly attended by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as well, the MQM and later the JUI-F staged separate walkouts to protest the presence of PTI members of the National Assembly, whom they called “strangers” for having submitted their resignations from their seats in mid-August at the start of a protest campaign against alleged rigging of the 2013 general elections.
The opposition had refused to participate in the debate in the morning session sitting unless the PM, who was in talks with visiting Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena at the time, came to the house, which compelled National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq to adjourn the session for more than four hours to allow the prime minister to attend. And he sat in the second sitting only briefly.
Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2015