Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities are toying with the idea of making its navy available for the Saudi plan to blockade sea access to Yemen under the cover of the UN Security Council resolution so that the Houthis and their allies are not able to get weapons from outside. Though the council has neither asked Saudi Arabia to enforce the blockade nor called upon other nations to support such a move, Saudi Arabia intends to pursue its regional agenda under the cover of this resolution. This will be an entirely new role for the Pakistan military, which has so far played five types of extra-territorial roles.
First, since 1960, it has joined a number of UN peace-keeping missions in various African and Asian countries. Police personnel have also taken part in some such missions. Currently, its troops are officially engaged in UN peace-keeping missions in over 10 countries. Second, it played training and advisory roles in most Gulf states in the 1970s and the 1980s, as well as in some Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. This role has declined now but Pakistan’s military trainers and advisers are still present in some Gulf/Middle Eastern states. Pakistan’s security-related cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Jordan goes back to 1967-68. Third, Pakistan’s troops have in the past undertaken active internal security assignments in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. It is publicly known that a Pakistan Army contingent was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1980-81 against the backdrop of the siege of holy sites by unknown terrorists in November 1979, and in 1990-91, in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Fourth, the most active and long-lasting involvement of the Pakistan Army and the intelligence establishment has been in Afghanistan. Going back to 1979-80, Pakistan has been involved in the conflict inside Afghanistan in one form or another. In addition to the desire of our leadership to shape the power architecture in Afghanistan, the spillover of Afghanistan’s internal strife into Pakistan made it impossible for the country to stay aloof from what was happening next door. In a number of ways, Afghanistan’s internal strife became an internal problem for Pakistan. The role of several other states, especially the US and Saudi Arabia, was important in encouraging Pakistan to stay militarily engaged in Afghanistan or provide logistical and intelligence support to global efforts to dislodge first, the Soviet troops and then the Taliban from Afghanistan. Fifth, the Pakistan Navy has participated in various international efforts for countering terrorism and checking high sea piracy.
Pakistan is on the verge of another new role for its military. Saudi Arabia wants Pakistan to provide ground troops, air force and naval ships to bolster its military intervention in Yemen in pursuance of its regional agenda. In the past, Pakistan supplied ground troops to Saudi Arabia for active duty inside the Kingdom. Pakistan had made it clear that its troops would not play any role beyond Saudi territorial boundaries and that they would not get involved in any armed conflict with any other Arab state. Now, the Saudi call to Pakistan is to provide military support in aid of its role in the strife in Yemen.
This has put Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a difficult situation. Being obligated to the Saudi royal family at a personal level, he gave it an understanding that there would be full support from Pakistan. However, Nawaz Sharif did not make a decision on the issue on his own. He passed on the matter to parliament, which did not resolve the issue. The military wants to send troops to Saudi Arabia but on its terms and it is not clear whether it will stick to its old stipulation of staying away from intra-Arab conflicts.
Pakistan’s parliament, as well as informed public opinion, has adopted three clear postures on Saudi Arabia’s demand for military support. First, there is widespread support for protecting Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity and for providing security to the holy sites there. Pakistan is willing to provide military support for that purpose. However, no such threat exists at this stage. Second, there is hardly any support for Pakistan’s direct involvement in the Yemen crisis. The opinion ranges from employing restraint to having ‘no role’ in Yemen. Third, Pakistan may help to defuse the Yemen crisis by diplomatic means in cooperation with other Muslim states.
The response of religio-political parties makes for an interesting study. The parties that have electoral standing, like the Jamaat-e-Islami, are advising caution when it comes to military involvement in Yemen. Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the JUI-F supported the parliamentary resolution but he later changed his position by demanding that Pakistan fully support Saudi Arabia. Religio-political parties and groups that share religious denominational identity with Saudi Arabia are generally supportive of that country’s role in Yemen and want Pakistan to extend military support for that role. Other religious parties are talking of restraint and for the need to help cool the situation down and are advocating no military engagement in Yemen.
If Pakistan participates in the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen or sends even token troops for any role there or the Pakistan military takes up security of the Saudi-Yemen border, this will be Pakistan’s first partisan military involvement in an intra-Arab conflict. This will be a ‘Leap Forward’ in the Pakistan military’s extra-territorial roles and whose diplomatic fallout could be negative in the long run.
Pakistan has remained engaged in wars and conflicts in Afghanistan and within its boundaries since 1980, which has caused ‘war fatigue’ in Pakistan. This deters most people from getting embroiled in a conflict almost 1,700 miles away. The Pakistan military should continue assigning the highest priority to fighting terrorism in Pakistan, clearing the tribal areas from violent groups and stabilising its relations with Afghanistan. Any direct or indirect role in the Yemen conflict will expose us to the criticism of fighting others’ wars for money.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2015.