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. On one hand the Prime Minister emphatically stated that “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.” While Khwaja Asif, the Federal Defence Minister watered down the zeal and treated matters more circumspectly, saying “no decision has been taken yet” and “Pakistan will not exacerbate divide in the Muslim world”. As it stands, the 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, the religious leaning of most of the ruling party and the fact that the Kingdom has economically propped up Pakistan several times, one might be able to reasonably discern the direction the government might be leaning towards. But is that direction the correct one?
It is a completely separate thing to rush to the aid of a valued ally who is in danger, and a separate one to facilitate an ally in playing the ‘great game’ in another country – like in Afghanistan. The question is: Do the Houthis present a tangible threat to the Saudis? Even if we ignore the justifiability of the cause itself, our country’s domestic condition should give the government pause. Pakistan is in the middle of an extensive –and a hard fought – war against militancy; Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Kyber One are still in progress and the military has just begun targeting militants in urban centres. Furthermore, our eastern border still witnesses sporadic cross-border violations. How can we spare troops or resources to send to Yemen? We will be dividing the military’s focus and weakening its capacity; jeopardizing the success of war in which we have already lost so much. Much more important is the socio-political fallout of such an action. Saudi Arabia – and for its part, Iran – has painted this conflict as a Sunni-Shia one. If the government rushes to the aid of an orthodox Sunni state against Shia rebels in another country, it would exacerbate the already serious sectarian violence in the country. The state is already seen as a biased institution when it comes to prosecuting sectarian groups, especially those following the Wahabi tradition. If Pakistan decides to participate in the war, it would reinforce such notions and deepen social fault lines. Furthermore, such a decision would anger Iran, which remains an important neighbour and a potential trade and economic partner.
Unlike the operation against the Taliban – which despite being a full-scale assault remains a domestic law enforcement operation – this decision needs to be made by the parliament, not the executive. Only the people’s representatives can make the decision to go to war.