IT is probably the biggest foreign policy test for the government, but sadly our prime minister is averse to making tough decisions. After weeks of deliberations, he has thrown the ball back to parliament. A clever move it may be, but it will be hard for parliament to accede unconditionally to the Saudi demand for joining the 10-member military alliance that the kingdom has assembled to fight rebel forces in Yemen.
One cannot agree more with Aitzaz Ahsan and other opposition leaders that the government must first shed its ambiguous stance and clarify precisely what assistance the Saudi government is seeking from Pakistan. Contradictory statements made by the government ministers have caused confusion. It is also a valid question whether the government has already made any commitment to the kingdom without taking parliament into confidence.
Since the start of the Yemen conflict the oft-repeated phrase used in official statements is that any threat to Saudi territorial integrity would evoke strong action by Pakistan. But there is no clear answer as to where the threat lies. The kingdom is certainly not facing any foreign aggression. How does the bloody power struggle in neighbouring Yemen threaten Saudi territorial integrity?
Any decision to take sides in the Yemen conflict will have disastrous consequences for Pakistan.
It would have been more prudent for the government to have laid down all the facts and clearly articulated its own stance on which it is seeking the mandate of parliament. One is not sure if even the treasury benches have any idea of the government’s own thinking on the issue.
The remarks made by the defence minister on the first day of the joint session have only added to the confusion. With no clear leadership to guide the debate it is more likely to have a messy end, leaving the nation bewildered and more divided on the country’s stand on the Yemen crisis and the new anti-Iran ‘Sunni alliance’.
While the government has not made any formal announcement, the Saudi defence ministry’s spokesman Brig Gen Ahmed Asiri was quoted by the Saudi media that Pakistan has not only offered to join the coalition, but would also be sending troops to the kingdom. The ambiguous and often contradictory statements made by senior government officials give credence to the reports appearing in the foreign press.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who headed the delegation of senior civil and military leaders to Riyadh, said they have returned with a better understanding of Saudi Arabia’s concerns. The delegation was sent to assess military requirements in the conflict with Yemen. Why was the assessment needed if there is no decision to provide military support to the kingdom?
A major predicament for Islamabad, perhaps, is the financial support it has long been receiving from Saudi Arabia. Last year, Riyadh ‘gifted’ the Sharif government $1.5 billion. Many believed it was advance payment for military services required by the Saudi government.
Besides, more than 1.5 million Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia are contributing around $8bn, half the total annual remittances received by Pakistan. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis are working in other Gulf countries which are also part of the Saudi-led coalition. Surely, it requires tremendous diplomatic tight-roping to maintain a balance between the country’s economic and security interests.
It would not be the first time that Pakistan will be sending troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom’s security installations. But there has always been a red line to ensure it did not get involved in an external conflict on the behalf of the host country. The situation this time is completely different when Saudi Arabia is already engaged in a military campaign in Yemen. Any kind of military commitment will make Pakistan a party to the conflict.
Whatever compulsions there may be, the decision to take sides in the Yemen conflict will pull Pakistan deeply into a wider regional power game with disastrous consequences for our own national security. Getting involved in someone else’s war is the last thing Pakistan can afford as it fights against militancy and religious extremism.
Even if Pakistan does not commit itself militarily in Yemen, the very notion of being part of the so-called Sunni alliance could fuel sectarian tensions and encourage religious extremism.
A more serious concern is that the Saudi-directed offensive is not limited to restoring the ousted Yemeni president, but also to protect the Gulf rulers. What is described as the Salman doctrine is meant to counter the threat to the status quo of the allied states around the Arab world. The danger is that Pakistan’s becoming a coalition partner could suck it into fighting the internal unrest in the Gulf countries.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of military involvement in Yemen which Riyadh considers its soft underbelly.
Interestingly, in the 1960s, Saudi forces came to the aid of the Zaydi Shia rulers in North Yemen after they were ousted by a coup backed by pan-Arab nationalist forces. Saudis fought on the side of the same Shia clans who are now part of the Houthi rebel forces.
Also in 2011, Saudi Arabia provided refuge to deposed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh after he was seriously injured in an assassination attempt. Saleh has now entered into an alliance of convenience with the same Houthi rebels that the Saudi forces are fighting.
Even if the Saudi-led military action is able to restore the ousted Yemeni president to power, it is not going to end the crisis. The military intervention would provoke more anti-Saudi resistance with various factions jockeying for influence in strife-torn Yemen.
There is no military solution to the power struggle in Yemen which has been going on for decades. It will be a slippery slope for the Saudis in Yemen with so many actors. It is the Saudi military involvement in the Yemeni civil war that has created greater security problems for the region. Can we afford getting into this messy affair? It is certainly not our war.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2015