THE ongoing extraordinary joint session of parliament has produced at least one consensus so far: there is no enthusiasm anywhere along the political spectrum for sending Pakistani troops to Yemen.
In fact, other than the PML-N, the leadership of every party, be it from the religious right or secular left, has rejected the option of sending troops to Yemen.
Even Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could only bring himself to refer to the Saudi requests to Pakistan made public by Defence Minister Khawaja Asif on Monday, suggesting that the PML-N itself remains unconvinced of the merits of militarily interfering inside Yemen on the side of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis.
So far at least the sensible approach appears to be carrying the day inside parliament, reflecting the consensus in rational quarters outside the house that Pakistan should not be drawn into a conflict in which it has no discernible interests to protect and where the risks are many.
What though is to be made of Prime Minister Sharif’s reluctance to elucidate on his government’s policy on Yemen?
Instead of leading the debate, laying out a policy for parliament to focus on, the prime minister yesterday appealed to the house to guide the government.
In the political arena, such deference is usually meant more in spirit than in substance — surely, the prime minister has no intention of allowing parliament to make a choice for the government that he does not agree with.
More likely the government is juggling two other concerns: an inability to flatly reject the Saudi demands of military assistance in the Yemen campaign; and the need to give diplomatic consultations an opportunity to find a peaceful solution — at least before an expected land invasion led by the Saudis into Yemen begins.
The prime minister clearly hinted at the latter when he referred to the shuttle diplomacy being conducted by himself and the Turkish president possibly producing a breakthrough later this week.
Whatever the strategy of the government, it needs to heed the message of parliament: a military entanglement in the Middle East is not in Pakistan’s interest.
Not at this time when there is a war against militancy to be fought inside Pakistan first. Not in Yemen, where old, tribal enmities are being given a sectarian edge by outside powers. Not in the decades-old proxy wars of Saudi Arabia and Iran. And not when the Middle East itself appears to be teetering on the brink of catastrophe.
Pakistan does have interests in the Middle East and the relationship with Saudi Arabia is vital, both for security and religious reasons. But protecting one important relationship should not come at the cost of destabilising other ties.
Most of all, as underscored in parliament yesterday, Yemen is a potential quagmire that could rival Afghanistan. The public appears to understand this as does much of parliament. Will the PML-N too let better sense prevail?
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2015