Yemen’s quagmire

Published April 9, 2015
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

HERE are some questions not being asked about our potential participation in Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen. What exactly is the objective of the Saudi intervention there? Is it simply to pave the way for the return of Hadi’s government? If so, how long can that government last on its own? Will the Saudis, after paving the way for the return of Hadi, commit themselves to a long-term state-building enterprise in Yemen? If so, how long will the occupation last?

Secondly, if we assume for a moment that Pakistan is indeed to commit troops for a ground operation, what will be their rules of engagement? What will be their instructions on how to tell friend from foe? What legal cover will they be given, in the event they are drawn into a firefight that results in the deaths of large numbers of non-combatants? What will be their chain of command? Who will direct them on where to go and who to fight? If the chain of command is to remain entirely within the Pakistan Army, then how will it be coordinated with the other forces involved in the air campaign?

Simply put, it looks like the Saudis have launched an ill-conceived campaign that has plenty of precedents from the recent past. Air campaigns against militia forces on the ground have not yielded results to brag about. The Americans tried it in Libya and look at what they created. They tried it in Kosovo, but ultimately had to settle for an agreement the terms of which were practically identical to the terms offered by Milosevic before the start of the campaign. The Saudis don’t have the military wherewithal to sustain this type of a campaign for very long, and no clear exit strategy either. It would be folly of tremendous proportions to join in.

Collapsing state power, of which Yemen is only the latest example, is presenting us with unique challenges to which nobody appears to have found any credible solution. Supporting one militia against another risks making one a party to the atavistic hatreds that typically fuel such conflicts. Going in with overwhelming force, and committing to a large state-making function has been tried by the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hasn’t worked.


Our thirst for reserves has taken us all over the world in search of patrons who will give in exchange for some sort of geopolitical role that we agree to play for them.


It hasn’t worked for a simple reason. Modern states stand on at least two legs: arms and revenues. You can invade and occupy a country. You can instal a ruler of your choice, and even build for that ruler an army with which to protect his realm. You can recruit large numbers of fighters, drill them into fighting units, train an officer corps to command these units, then equip them with high-tech battlefield weaponry and vehicles and other gear and open up a line of supply to keep them provided with ammunition.

But there is one thing you cannot build as an outside force. And that is a revenue machinery to pay for the upkeep of this force, and the army of attendants and administrators that is required to keep it functional. After all, armies don’t run on men and guns alone. It takes money. There are payrolls to run, the families of those killed to look after, the injured to care for, gear and ammunition to purchase. And these costs add up.

That is the principal advantage that militia groups have over modern standing armies. They are small, light, flexible and low cost. By themselves they are no match for any modern force, but their ability to live off the land, to hide on the terrain, to replenish their ranks is very robust to disruption.

Militias can be scattered easily, but they regroup equally easily if states are not quick to take their ground and build on it. The Pakistan Army has discovered that chasing militias off a patch of land is easier than preventing their return. To make that land and its inhabitants durably yours, you’ve got to resurrect livelihoods, recapture hearts and minds. Do the Saudis have a plan for this too? Would the Pakistan Army now be asked to clear, hold and build not only in Swat, Bajaur and Waziristan, but also in Yemen? I should hope not.

At the risk of repeating myself it must be emphasised that we find ourselves in this position mainly because we have failed to build a durable basis to accumulate foreign exchange reserves. That sounds odd to most people’s ears, but not to those who follow our reserves and the actions they spur us to.

Our thirst for reserves has taken us all over the world in search of patrons who will give in exchange for some sort of geopolitical role that we agree to play for them. Conducting such a foreign policy in secret has been even more damaging because it masks from the public the real causes of our weakness. As a result, the public discourse is full of views that we lack ego, spine, self respect, pride.

In reality our weakness has nothing to do with emotional attributes of this sort. It has everything to do with the way we have run our economy.

It was a mistake to take that money from the Saudis last year. It was a mistake to ask them for another oil facility immediately after the swearing in of the Nawaz Sharif government. Watching all this, one wonders if we are repeating this same mistake all over again in our dealings with the Chinese, which are also driven by emotion, by a thirst for a big patron to help us tide over our infrastructure weaknesses, build our foreign exchange buffers. The Saudi bill, when it came due, drained all the colour from Nawaz Sharif’s cheeks. I really wonder what will happen once we see the bill the Chinese serve up, whenever that happens.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2015

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