The hypocrisy and the charade on parade would stick in throats more capacious than ours. The defence of the Holy Mosques is every Muslim’s sacred duty, we are breathlessly informed. But who is threatening the Holy Mosques? Certainly not the Houthis of Yemen who are being attacked by Saudi warplanes. It is they who are the victims of aggression, not our Saudi friends. But for obvious reasons, we can’t bring ourselves to say this.
Item number two in the list of frothy declamations: any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity will elicit a forceful Pakistani response. But where is the threat to this integrity? Who is planning to attack Saudi Arabia?
Of course Pakistan – the world’s original Islamic Republic, plus in its more charged moments, the Fortress of Islam – faces a dilemma. Its heart and its emotions are in one place, its mind – when it chooses to work – in another. Pakistan knows the risks involved in committing troops to Saudi Arabia’s uncertain adventure. So it is not saying an open yes. But for fear of upsetting the Saudis, for whom this is a matter of life and death, it cannot bring itself to say no.
Yemen may turn into a nightmare for the Saudis in the days to come but it is already a minor nightmare for Pakistan, especially its military, which is being called upon to choose between the devil and the sea.
There is a third fabrication, that this is somehow a Sunni-Shia war. It is not. The Houthis are Zaydi Shias, whatever that means. But their allies, troops loyal to the former strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, are Sunnis. Where does this leave the sectarian divide?
As George Galloway, the thorn in many a sensitive skin, points out in a diatribe which you can access on YouTube, the people of Gaza are all Sunnis. But when the Israelis were slaughtering them last year, the great House of Saud lifted not a finger to stop the Israeli aggression. So much for the defence of Sunni Islam.
The issue in Yemen is altogether different. It is about influence and control, about Saudi Arabia being able to control the affairs of its impoverished and conflict-racked neighbour. The Houthis are trying to right ancient wrongs. They do not fit into the Saudi scheme of things because their uprising and bid for power set a bad example for Saudi Arabia’s own restive Shia population which is concentrated, unluckily, in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing regions.
The Saudis were concerned about the Shia uprising in Bahrain for the same reason. It was setting a bad example. So they sent their troops into Bahrain to quell the unrest.
As we all know, retired Pakistani defence personnel are a vital component of Bahrain’s security forces. Shorn of rhetoric and doublespeak, the Saudis want Pakistan to play a similar role in Yemen. What they are seeking, and demanding, are not sentries to stand guard at the gates of the Holy Mosques, but an expeditionary force to help turn the tide against the Houthis and their allies.
The funny thing is that despite being the fourth highest defence spenders on the planet – after the United States, China and Russia – Saudi Arabia is still unable to defend itself or, as we are seeing in Yemen, sustain a war of aggression on its own. Hence the looking to Pakistan to fill this need.
Going by the contours of their chequebook diplomacy, however, the Saudis should really have made the first request for troops to Field Marshal El-Sisi of Egypt. They’ve given him much bigger largesse than anything given to Pakistan – 5 billion dollars President Mohamed Morsi was deposed, and a 12 billion dollars package, along with other Gulf contributors, pledged recently. But the field marshal has announced sending four warships, that’s all, which, come to think of it, is smart thinking.
Pakistan, receiving an advance of 1.5 billion dollars – a gift gratefully received by a cash-strapped government – is being asked for much more: the manpower, the boots on the ground, the special forces, for victory on the battlefield. No other country fits this bill. No other country has the same history of rushing in where angels fear to tread.
Pakistan, in effect, is being asked to do in Yemen what Iran is doing in Iraq. General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite A-Quds force, is in Iraq leading the Iraqi war effort against the Islamic State. He helped stop the Islamic State’s advance on Baghdad. He was in command of the battle for the recapture of Tikrit. He is involved in the fighting in Syria in defence of the Assad regime.
When Pakistani officials talk of the defence of the Holy Mosques and threats to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia whom are they trying to fool? Saudi Arabia wants a Pakistani Gen Qasem Soleimani in Yemen – or a Brigadier Ziaul Haq (yes, the same who later rose to become our Commander of the Faithful) to do in Yemen what he did in Jordan against the Palestinians during the Black September uprising in 1970.
But Iran has deep interests in Iraq. What interests do we have in Yemen? No one calls the Iranians involved in the defence of Baghdad or the recapture of Tikrit mercenaries. We’ll be called that and will be seen as that if our civil and military leadership take the fateful step of sending troops to Yemen.
Whether the Saudis gain anything from their attack on Yemen or find themselves in a quagmire time will tell. But let us not take them for fools. They don’t want lollipops from Pakistan. They don’t want hollow statements about laying down our lives for the defence of the Holy Mosques, rhetoric which comes so easily to us in Pakistan. They want something tangible – troops on the ground, troops to do their bidding, to fight for them and, if need be, die for them.
For us it’s not just a question of having enough problems of our own and of our army and air force being over-stretched. The fundamental question is a bit different. Why should we become foot-soldiers in a war which is of no concern to us? True, as a close friend of Saudi Arabia we have an obligation to help it, short of getting directly involved. But even thinking of sending troops is folly.
Trouble is that the Saudis, having got themselves in this mess, are not likely to be impressed by our logic. For them the stakes are high. If they fail in achieving what they have set out to do, their prestige is seriously damaged. And there may be – who knows? – internal repercussions.
The Hapsburgs of Austria triggered the series of events which began the First World War. By the time it ended their empire was lost and they had become part of history. The Saudi monarchy rests on unstable if not shifting sands. They should have confined themselves to diplomacy and to the formidable power of their deep pockets. If they are already looking to allies for military succour it shows that they had not fully thought through the details of their adventure.
Yes, we have sold ourselves cheaply in the past. Yes, we have served the interests of outside powers and hurt ourselves in the process. But hopefully we have learned something from those travails. Even the army is questioning doctrines and dogmas and strategic theories earlier considered as self-evident and as the gospel truth.
Yemen, however, is a test case and will show whether we have fully imbibed the lessons from our own disastrous adventures. Helping Saudi Arabia within our limits is one thing. But humouring the House of Saud, dancing to its tune and serving its strategic interests at the cost of our own…you don’t have to be a Clausewitz or a Metternich to see that it makes no sense at all.
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