ISLAMABAD: Taking a major decision, the army on Thursday announced that it is deploying troops in Saudi Arabia under an existing bilateral security pact.

“In continuation of ongoing Pak-KSA bilateral security cooperation, a Pakistan Army contingent is being sent to KSA on training and advice mission,” the Inter-Services Public Relations announced after a meeting between Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and Saudi Ambassador Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki at the General Headquarters, which was said to be about “regional security situation”.

Gen Bajwa had earlier this month quietly visited Saudi Arabia, where he stayed for nearly three days and his only known meetings were with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Commander of Ground Forces Lt Gen Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz. This was his second visit to the kingdom in two months.

Saudi Arabia has been demanding deployment of Pakistani troops since the start of the Yemen conflict in 2015, but Pakistan has been struggling to evade the demand despite a unanimously adopted parliamentary resolution affirming the country’s “neutrality” in the conflict.

ISPR insists soldiers will not be employed outside kingdom

Last year Pakistan sent its retired army chief Gen Raheel Sharif to lead a Saudi coalition. Therefore, it was always speculated that the deployment would take place even though it could not happen as quickly as the Saudis wanted.

The ISPR insists that the new deployment and nearly 1,000 Pakistani troops already stationed there would not be “employed outside KSA”.

There was no word on the size of the deployment.

However, multiple sources hinted that it might be the size of a composite brigade. Another version is that the numbers are still being worked out.

When contacted, ISPR Director General Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said the deployment would be much lesser than a division, and he would give the details at a press conference.

The deployment is being made at a time when Saudi Arabia’s Yemen woes are aggravating. The kingdom’s air campaign against Houthi militias has failed to achieve victory, whereas on the ground local Yemeni allies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have turned the guns on each other, further complicating the conflict. The Houthis have, meanwhile, intensified missile attacks on Saudi targets, though most have been intercepted by the Saudi air defence systems before they could hit the targets.

The phrasing of the last Foreign Office statement condemning the Houthi missile attacks had clearly shown that a shift in Pakistani policy was in the offing.

The FO had said that the Houthi attacks posed a threat to the security of the kingdom and holy places there. Threat to holy mosques was always mentioned as a red line.

The decision to deploy troops is expected to ruffle feathers in Pakistan’s neighbourhood.

The ISPR statement, therefore, made it a point to reassure that the Pakistan “Army maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other GCC/regional countries”.

It should be recalled that the ambassadors of Iran and Turkey had earlier this week met Gen Bajwa, and it is believed that they were briefed about the army’s decision. A day before the meetings with the Turkish and Iranian envoys, Gen Bajwa reportedly made a secret trip to Doha to meet Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Since the eruption of a diplomatic row between Riyadh and Doha and subsequent blockade of Qatar, Turkey and Iran are considered on one side of the alignment in the Middle East, while most of the Arab countries on the Saudi side. Kuwait and Oman, meanwhile, appear to be playing neutral.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2018

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