A SEEMINGLY settled debate has been reopened in a surprising manner.

In April 2015, a historic joint session of parliament debated Saudi Arabia’s request for Pakistani troops to be sent to Yemen to fight on behalf of the Saudi side of the conflict there. Courageously, the Pakistani parliament passed a joint resolution that emphasised the need for Pakistan to maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict, not be drawn into regional conflicts and act only if the territorial sovereignty of Saudi Arabia or the holy sites in that country come under attack.

Read: Don’t dare mention Yemen

It was a brave and principled decision. But in the months and years since that historic resolution, it has become clear that Saudi Arabia continues to lean on Pakistan to align itself more fully with the kingdom’s ambitions under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Now, the Pakistan Army has suddenly announced that an unspecified number of troops are to be sent to Saudi Arabia for a so-called train-and-advise mission. The brief ISPR statement has sparked concern that a secretive decision-making process is being used to override a public declaration by parliament.

Inside parliament, there is justifiable anger at the sudden announcement to send a fresh, unspecified contingent of troops to Saudi Arabia, even as the ISPR has insisted that Pakistani troops will not be deployed outside that country. The defence minister has been summoned by the Senate, while the National Assembly has asked the Foreign Office to explain why Pakistani troops are being sent to Saudi Arabia and on what terms.

The federal government and the military leadership must address parliament’s concerns forthrightly and quickly. If not, the potential for misinformation, especially when Pakistani troops are stationed abroad in a region rife with conflict, is significant. Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia are important to this country and where greater cooperation is possible, and in the interest of both countries, it should be pursued. But all of Saudi Arabia’s national goals are not necessarily aligned with Pakistan’s interests.

A Pakistani entanglement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen or military participation in the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, which has positioned itself as an anti-Iran alliance, are surely not in the national interest of Pakistan. The latter shares a border with Iran and has mostly had cordial ties with it. Similarly, when it comes to the Saudi-led GCC pressure on Qatar, it is in Pakistan’s interest to maintain balanced ties with the countries involved.

Perhaps there are justifiable and limited reasons for sending a military mission to Saudi Arabia to assist and advise. The ISPR’s assertion that the decision is based on considerations of bilateral security cooperation suggests that neither the IMCTC nor the Yemen conflict is directly involved. But then a frank and open debate should have been held in parliament. Secrecy gives rise to conspiracy theories and speculation.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2018

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