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Editorial

February 20, 2018

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Troops in the kingdom

A sudden and unexplained missive from the ISPR that Pakistan will be sending troops to Saudi Arabia for a training and advice mission has reignited fears that we may be getting ourselves involved in the Middle East’s regional wars. To do so would go against the letter and spirit of the unanimous resolution passed by a joint sitting of parliament in 2015 which called for the country to play a neutral role in the Yemen conflict. So far, the ISPR press release has raised a lot of questions and provided few answers. We do not know how many troops will be sent to Saudi Arabia, what their mission is and how long they are expected to stay in the kingdom. It has been clarified that Pakistani troops will not be involved in military action or be placed outside Saudi borders. We are left, however, to wonder what they will be doing given that Saudi Arabia essentially faces no internal threats. Its military problems are with Yemen. This is why, despite Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir telling parliament on Monday that we are not going to be fighting in Yemen, there is still some scepticism. Iran had already made obvious its disapproval of any sign that Pakistan may be allying ourselves with Saudi Arabia in its proxy wars when Raheel Sharif was permitted to take up his position as head of the Saudi anti-terrorist force; Qatar and Turkey – both of whom are allied to Iran – will be equally wary.

It is possible that this decision had been brewing for some time. Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa has visited Saudi Arabia twice in the last two months. Bajwa is also believed to have travelled to Doha last week and recently met with the ambassadors of Turkey and Iran too. Clearly, all these countries are worried about our looming troop presence in Saudi Arabia and will need to be mollified. The Saudi proxy war in Yemen has become a quagmire and the kingdom itself has been targeted by Houthi missiles. The stance taken by parliament in 2015 had been a courageous one. The failure to respect it will be damaging. In addition Pakistan would surely desire no increase in geopolitical complications. Currently, relations with India and Afghanistan are already tense. Pakistan needs to maintain good relations with Iran both given the large Shia population it houses and the potential Iran has to meet its growing needs for energy. Becoming embroiled in a battle that is not our own can only cause damage. Of course, good relations with Saudi Arabia are desirable but these should not come at the cost of our own interests. We have also always maintained that we would only consider sending troops if the holy sites of Makkah and Medina were threatened. At the moment, what is needed is unequivocal clarity by the government on this issue – and the sooner the better.

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