[Featured Image: Courtesy Reuters]
Seriously bruised from the spillover effects of Afghan conflict, with no signs of early and safe extrication in sight, Pakistan has jumped into another fray, the Yemen conflict. Participation in Afghan conflict brought terrorism to Pakistan’s territory and the new found (mis) adventure is likely to accentuate the sectarian violence. In all probability decision has already been taken to commit Pakistan’s military in Yemen on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Only regularization through Parliament and or APC is pending. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has assured an all-out support to Saudi Arabia in the operation ‘determination storm’ reiterating that any threat to the territorial integrity of the kingdom would evoke strong response from Pakistan. King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz had telephoned the prime minister on March 28 to update him on the situation, including the proceeding of then ongoing Arab League meeting. Arab League summit has taken a belated yet prudent decision to set up a joint force to handle the crisis. Force would compromise 40,000 personnel drawn from member countries; this would help in retaining the conflict to the region. During the call, PM Nawaz re-emphasized that Pakistan attached utmost importance to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia, as two of the most sacred monuments of Islam and the Muslim world were present in the Kingdom. In his telephonic conversation with Saudi King, Premier Sharif discussed recent developments in the region with specific reference to the escalation of ongoing military operation against rebels in Yemen. A Pakistan government delegation will soon go to Saudi Arabia to discuss further developments on the issue and sort out specifics; delegation will comprise Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, PM Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Satraj Aziz and representatives of the armed forces. In another development, Prime Minister himself has talked to Pakistan’s Ambassador in Yemen and directed him to take all possible measures to ensure safety and security of each and every member of Pakistani community till their evacuation. Saudi Arabia has declared a no-fly zone over Yemen; however, Pakistan has been given a safer air route by Saudi authorities to facilitate safe air route for the PIA fights. Evacuation by road and air has already begun. Currently, there are around 3,000 Pakistanis residing in Yemen, of which around 1,000 are trying to leave the country and come back to Pakistan. “At present we are waiting for the turmoil to subside so that we could be able to safely evacuate Pakistani people”, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary said. Naval ships are also participating in evacuation operations.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, and the subsequent Saudi announcement of a coalition against Houthi rebels, involving Pakistan, has drawn a mixed reaction at home. Defence Minister watered down the matter, saying “no decision has been taken yet” and “Pakistan will not exacerbate divide in the Muslim world”. Though official stance is that decision to participate is still under discussion. If one considers the government’s special relationship with the Kingdom, Pakistan’s history of military support to the Saudis, bilateral defence agreements, and the fact that the Kingdom has economically propped up Pakistan several times, it is not difficult to ascertain the direction of the government.
However the point of concern is that: Is the threat perception correct? It is a different thing to rush to the aid of a valued ally who is in danger than facilitating an ally in playing its regional game in another country. Are Houthis really posing a territorial threat to Saudi Arabia? It is difficult to sell this proposition at this point and time to Pakistani public. Houthis are Shite citizens (Zaidis) of the areas that comprised former North Yemen till unification in 1990; and as of now, their struggle may have only intra-Yemen objectives. By jumping the gun Saudis may portray them larger than their life size. Moreover, it will be hard for the government of Pakistan to sell to its public that by actively participating in offensive operation (specially aerial bombing) in Yemen, Pakistan is defending the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia.
Much more important is the socio-political fallout of such an action. Saudi Arabia – and for its part, Iran – are painting this conflict as a Sunni-Shia conflict. If the government rushes to the aid of an orthodox Sunni state against Shia rebels in a third country, it would exacerbate the already serious sectarian violence in the country. If Pakistan participates in the war militarily, it would deepen social fault lines. Pakistan should focus of conciliatory role and try to cool down the warring parties rather then embroiling itself in the conflict. It will be an uphill task for the government for the government of Pakistan to accrue national consensus on this divisive issue. However, consensus or no consensus, executive appears poised to go ahead with its decision.