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April 6, 2015

Pakistan’s Yemen dilemma


April 6, 2015


For nearly two weeks now, the government has been agonising over its response to a Saudi request for Pakistan’s participation in a military operation by a Saudi-led coalition of predominantly Sunni Arab states against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels known as Houthis who have seized control of large parts of Yemen.
The prime minister has so far held three ‘high-level meetings’ with the military leadership to thrash out a policy on the Yemeni crisis that would satisfy the Saudis and preserve Pakistan’s vitally important strategic ties with Riyadh but without at the same time putting the somewhat uneasy relationship with Iran to excessive strains. He has also paid a surprise visit to Ankara to coordinate Pakistan’s position on the issue with Turkish leaders.
The importance that the Saudis attach to Pakistan’s participation in Operation Asifat al-Hazm (‘Storm of Resolve’), as the campaign to target the Houthis has been dubbed, is evident from the fact that the matter was taken up personally by Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin with the prime minister in telephone conversations in the last couple of weeks. Last week, the prime minister despatched his defence minister and foreign policy adviser to Riyadh to find a mutually acceptable way to meet the Saudi expectations from Pakistan without jeopardising the country’s relations with Iran or endangering internal sectarian harmony. Not surprisingly, the task has not been easy.
The gap between the Saudi expectations from Pakistan and Pakistan’s ability, in view of compelling considerations of domestic and foreign policy, to fulfil those expectations, is evident from the discrepancies and contradictions in official and semi-official statements from the two countries. To the surprise of the Pakistani public, SPA, the official Saudi news agency, on March 26 named Pakistan as a country which had declared its willingness to participate in the anti-Houthi operation together with nine members of

the Arab League. The Saudi ambassador in Washington also said that Pakistan was among 10 countries ready to join a coalition to prop up the collapsing Yemeni government.
These claims, if not formally refuted by Islamabad, were questioned by Pakistani officials. The spokesperson of the foreign ministry confirmed only that a request from Saudi Arabia was under consideration. The next day, in a speech in the National Assembly, the defence minister all but ruled out the possibility of Pakistan’s participation in the fighting in Yemen. Pakistan, he said, was ready to defend Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity” but had not yet decided to join in the fighting against the Houthi rebels. Pakistan's “only pledge is for the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” which he said would be defended “at any cost”. “We don’t want to be part of any [expansion of the conflict], we will try to contain it”, Asif told parliament, adding that there was concern it could fan sectarian tensions in Pakistan and the Muslim world.
Despite Khawaja Asif’s denial of Pakistani participation, the Saudi defence ministry’s spokesman restated two days later that Pakistan was part of the anti-Houthi coalition, and added, according to the Saudi news agency, that “coordination is taking place between specialists of the two sides to determine the time and size of participation”. The Saudi spokesman also referred in this connection to a joint military exercise named Samsam-5 between the two countries near the city of Taif in Saudi Arabia in which 292 Pakistani troops were taking part.
Reports from Saudi Arabia following the meeting of the defence ministers of the two countries in Riyadh last week suggest that Pakistan has now agreed to send troops to Saudi Arabia. This was also stated publicly by the spokesman of the Saudi defence ministry last Wednesday at his daily media briefing on the operation.
But the Pakistan government is still not confirming it – at least not publicly. A statement issued by the government last Thursday following another “high-level meeting” again skirted the issue of deployment of Pakistani troops in Saudi Arabia. After saying, quite superfluously, that “Pakistan’s national interest will remain the guiding principle of Pakistan’s policy”, the government’s statement continued that any “violation of Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity will evoke a strong response from Pakistan” and that the concerned Pakistani authorities “will stay engaged with their Saudi counterparts in this regard”. What it means in plain language is that Pakistan will be sending some troops to Saudi Arabia and their number, mission and place of deployment will be discussed further with the Saudis.
In another gesture of support to the Saudis, the statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office condemns the Houthis, who are referred to obliquely – and somewhat inappropriately – as “non-state actors”, for having overthrown the “legitimate government” of ousted President Hadi. The statement then goes on to call upon the “warring factions” to resolve all issues peacefully.
In a further tilt intended to please the Saudis, our defence minister has since called for an end to foreign interference in Yemen. He did not specify where this interference was coming from, but was clearly pointing to Iran.
It is obvious that the Nawaz government has convinced itself that it has no real option but to give in to the Saudi demand. “We are walking on very thin ice”, the defence minister warned the Pakistani public in a TV interview last Friday.
Having taken a decision to send Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia, the government’s main concern now is to limit the negative fall-out both internally and in its relations with Iran. The joint session of parliament that the government has called this week will likely help protect its domestic flank but managing the foreign policy aspects might prove to be trickier. The key to addressing both the internal and external aspects lies in making it clear to all sides that Pakistani troops will not engage themselves in the fighting in Yemen and will not be otherwise deployed in that country.
Fears that Pakistan’s support to Saudi Arabia on the question of the Houthi rebellion in Yemen will sharpen Shia-Sunni divisions within Pakistan have no doubt been deliberately exaggerated. The probability is that as long as our soldiers do not take part in a shooting war against the Houthis, there will be little reaction among the Shias in Pakistan to the stationing of our troops on Saudi territory.
The Zaidi branch of the Shia sect to which the Yemeni Shias belong has no adherents in Pakistan. The Zaidis recognise only the first five of the 12 imams of the mainstream Ithna Ashari branch to which most Pakistani Shias like those of Iran and Iraq belong. Also, most of the holy places visited by Pakistani Shias abroad are located in Iran, Iraq and Syria and hardly any are in Yemen.
As regards the external aspects of Pakistani deployment in Saudi Arabia, we must of course reject any suggestion that we are taking sides in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war for influence in the region or in the wider Muslim world. In a statement last week, the government called upon the UN and the OIC to play a constructive role in finding a political solution of the Yemeni crisis. The government has, quite sensibly, not pursued this course further. It would be more useful to give bilaterally any assurances that Tehran might need. Iran’s links with the Houthis are in any event not as close as with the Shias of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
The most important condition that Pakistan must attach to sending any troops to Saudi Arabia is that they will not become a party in the Yemeni civil war. The Pakistani armed forces must never get embroiled in an intra-Arab conflict or in-fighting between different sects of Islam.
Besides, the terrain of Yemen is such that any outside troops fighting a Yemeni force on its home turf are at a big disadvantage, as the Egyptian army units sent to Yemen learned to their cost in the 1960s. Because of the ongoing military operation in Fata and the perennial threat from India, Pakistan is in any case hardly in a position to spare its troops in any large numbers for overseas deployment.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: [email protected]




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