[Featured map: Courtesy BBC]
During difficult hours Saudi Arabia, as indeed other Middle East countries, have been looking up to Pakistan for security cover. Bilateral agreements are in place with most of these countries that bind Pakistan to provide necessary support when asked for. Most of these agreements carry a clause that Pakistani troops shall not take part in war on behalf of requisitioning states. Mostly such military assistance by Pakistan has been in the training role, and sparingly, in domestic law enforcement role. As an exception, small number of Pakistani military personnel participated in purely defensive operations during Yum Kippur war—that too only on the soil and within the air space of hosts. Pakistani troops have never fought offensively against a third country on behalf of any country to which they have been deputed. Pakistan has in the past provided military assistance to Saudi Arabia, notably during taking over of Holy Mosque of Ka’aba by radicals in 1979, and when Iraq captured Kuwait and adopted threatening gestures towards Saudi Arabia. In both these occasions, activities of Pakistani military personnel remained confined within Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is a population scarce country with very low density of people to area ratio. This limitation does not permit availability of enough of personnel to raise adequate ‘son of the soil centred’ standing armed forces. Personnel from neighbouring countries form a substantial portion of Saudi National Guards; nearly 40 percent Guards are of Yemeni origin. This composition of National Guards is the underlying reason for current Saudi nervousness.
Within Pakistan, there is an overwhelming support—almost national consensus— to align with Saudi Arabia during all sort of crisis, including providing military assistance, with a caveat that such force is not used against any other country—especially Iran. Another concern is that such military deployment may embroil Pakistan in the sectarian wars going on in entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. If the government of Pakistan is able to address these concerns, a national consensus is likely to evolve, barring some sectarian outfits. As the time is passing major political parties are withdrawing their reservations against sending of troops to Saudi Arabia and are aligning with government’s point of view.
Unraveling of Middle East has thrown up precarious situations. The fissures in MENA are threatening the security of the Arab world as a whole. This landscape is in its most dire hour, Since World War I. Realizing the enormity of the situation, Arab leaders at their summit in Sharm el Sheikh on March 29-30 have voiced their support to the Saudi led operation against Houthi rebels, saying the overthrow of the government in Yemen is a threat not only to the security of the Gulf Cooperation Council but also to the Arab world and to international peace. Arab league also decided to raise a joint force comprising 40,000 troops drawn from member states; it is indeed too little too late. A months-long Houthi rebellion has escalated into a regional conflict that threatens to tear apart the state of Yemen. Previous decades have seen decimation of one Muslim country after the other; now Yemen has thrown up the latest open-ended conflict after Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan.
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. 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. Though official stance is that decision to participate is still under discussion; the decision, in all probability, has already been taken—Pakistan’s military contingent would proceed to Saudi Arabia
However the point of concern is that 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 big-man-ship in another country. Are Houthis really posing a territorial threat to Saudi Arabia? It is difficult to sell the proposition to Pakistani public at this point and time that they do. Houthis are Shite citizens of the areas that comprised former North Yemen, and as of now their struggle may have only intra-Yemen objectives. So while a political consensus may emerge in Pakistan to send the troops , public opinion would stay divided—especially with regard to necessity and ownership of war.
Much more important is the socio-political fallout of such an action. Saudi Arabia and Iran are painting this conflict as a Sunni-Shia one. If the government of Pakistan rushes to the aid of a Sunni state against Shia rebels in a third country, it would exacerbate the already serious sectarian violence in the country. Even if Pakistan decides to participate in the war, considering it to be a remote activity at a far out distance, it would deepen a sectarian fault lines back home. Unlike the operation against the Taliban which remains a domestic law enforcement operation, military action in Yemen, in support of Saudi Arabia would have regional and global connotations.
Saudi Arabia’s state run news agency SPA has reported that five Muslim countries including Egypt and Pakistan want to participate in the Gulf-led military coalition.
Another Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel said that Egypt and Pakistan would dispatch jet fighters and warships to take part in the campaign. CNN erratically reported that 15 Pakistani jets are already engaged in operations in Yemen. The kingdom’s ambassador to the United States has announced from Washington that a coalition of 10 countries, including the five Gulf monarchies, had been set up to protect the Yemeni government. The United States said it would provide “logistical and intelligence support” to the operation. Britain’s Foreign Office has said that Britain supports Saudi Arabia’s decision to intervene militarily in Yemen. All ingredients of a prolonged stalemated conflict are in place—the death dance is poised to continue for quite some time.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, are vying for influence in countries across the region. Iran has condemned Saudi Arabia for launching air strikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen, saying it was “a dangerous step” that violated “international responsibilities and national sovereignty.” It is interesting that Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting on the same side in Syrian theatre while dealing with IS; they could now be pitchedagainst each other in Yemeni theatre. Iran, a long-standing Saudi contender for ideological influence in the Middle East, is stepping up support for the Houthis, their fellow Shiites.
As of now Pakistan continues to bleed— proverbially through thousand wounds—due to fallout of Afghan conflict. Pakistan is not prepared to take part in any conflict that could divide the Muslim world on sectarian lines. Pakistan should, however, assist and be a part of the peace process rather than being a participant in military alliance. An intriguing mosaic of sectarian strife, topped off by the presence of ISIS and AQAP, with their real and mythical connotations, points towards an open ended conflict with a potential to spread to South Asia.
Pakistan’s involvement in Afghan conflict brought home terrorism, and Pakistan’s involvement in Yemen would accentuated the sectarian violence which is already on boiling point. Pakistan is already in the cross fire, feeling the heat of Saudi-Iran proxy war, on Pakistani soil, in the form of sectarian violence stressing the societal fabric at its seams.
People of Pakistan deserve better, they need a break from war fatigue— especially from others’ wars. At this point and time, Pakistan must not be on the wrong side of history.