Fast becoming increasingly dangerous for the region, and for Pakistan, the Yemen situation has inherent contradictions and complications that need to be addressed. The Saudis have not minced words in claiming our (Pakistan’s) help – and fast. We can understand their impatience, for them it is a pretty straightforward transaction. They pay us for the manpower that we provide, ours is not to reason why, ours but to do and die! Millions of our fellow countrymen work very hard under difficult conditions to earn their bread and butter in Arab countries and we are very grateful for it. Notwithstanding the apparent bonhomie of religious affinity our client-patron relationship across the civil-military broad spectrum is basically transactional in nature.
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif’s statement in the National Assembly (NA) lacked clarity, probably deliberately so, with dangerous connotations inherent in its ambiguity. Pakistanis, Sunni and Shia alike, are passionate about defending the holy lands, the fundamental contradiction being that defending the Kingdom is quite different to what the Saudis are asking, to become an integral part of the Coalition attacking (“Operational Decisive Storm”) the Houthi-led rebel forces in Yemen. Supported by Iran the Houthis are (more akin to Sunnis despite being of the Zaidi Shia Sect), joined by Army units (mainly Sunni) loyal to former President Abdullah Saleh (North Yemen 1978-1990 and unified Yemen 1990-2012). Reasoning out all the ramifications, we need to unambiguously define the fail-safe lines. The unfortunate hometruth is that the sectarian connotations (inspite of friend Mushahid Hussain’s best attempt to give it a spin of being a proxy war between nations rather than of sects) make it seem increasingly a proxy sectarian conflict between the “Sunni coalition” and Shia Iran. Just before the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to Pakistan, the PM cautioned Iran about Yemen. Was that prudent or responsible to give the impression of taking sides?
Parliamentarians have almost unanimously endorsed the inherent danger in aggression against someone not our enemy, this could well split apart our community. Our Armed Forces are truly well integrated without even a hint of a divide or differentiation on sectarian or ethnic basis, look at what happened to the Iraqi Army. When asked to remove Shias from our “Main Task Force” at Tabuk in the 80s, Gen Zia ul Haq’s reference to his Corps Commanders was immediately vehemently objected to, thus avoiding the disintegration of the fabric holding our armed forces together. While Gen Raheel Shareef insists that Parliament will decide and devise a via media for giving effective support to the Saudis without attracting adverse reaction, our Parliamentarians have correctly identified what seems to be a hidden Sharif agenda. As it is the Sharif govt and civil society are on different tracks here. Negative interpretations of the political spin being given would be catastrophic because of the prevailing perceptions.
In the relationships between nations the right of pursuit of one’s own national interest is where the cardinal principle of morality sometimes fails. With the Saudis we must overcome this inherent complexity, the extremes being addressed carefully. Pakistan’s foreign policy is often dictated by emotions rather than one’s own national interest, individual interests seem to ride roughshod over the national interest. Gen Musharraf became very popular in the west (and still is) for blundering into the “war against terrorism” on one Colin Powell phonecall, we are still reeling, it became a self-serving truth with a recurring cost to our nation, both in human and material damage. Having blithely committed his soldiers to death and injury, our “commando” did not once visit his troops engaged in combat in FATA or Swat, a FIRST for any Pakistani COAS. The Sharifs’ connections to the Saudi monarchy clearly fall into this grey area of personal relationship overwhelming the national interest, the Saudi expectations being roused could very well lead to lasting misunderstanding.
Few nations put themselves in harm’s way for others when push comes to shove, our alliances and deep-rooted “friendships” remaining in the realm of romantic illusion rather than any practical demonstration of “standing shoulder to shoulder” with us? Not a single soldier, airman or sailor from among our friends put their lives on the line for us. Nations do sacrifice their young men defending their own vital interests, our leaders have a recurring penchant of making them die for others. While an exception has to be made for the Kingdom, the fail-safe line must clearly demarcate our forces being used for “defensive” and not “offensive” purposes.
The Saudi Armed Forces consist of the regular army and equally extremely well-equipped Saudi National Guard (SANG). Three armoured brigades, five mechanized brigades, one airborne brigade and one Royal Guard Brigade comprise the Army. SANG has three mechanized brigades and three infantry brigades. The Air Force has seven fighter/ground attack squadrons and six fighter squadrons while the Navy has 11 surface and 65 patrol and coastal combatant vessels. There is a Ballistic Missile Force consisting of about 100 Douglang intermediate-range ballistic missiles. While the Air Defense has state-of-the-art radar and systems in place at about 164 sites, in the air the Saudis are well protected, similarly they have far more patrol combatant vessels than really needed for protecting the Saudi coastline. The danger is that by sending combat aircraft and Naval surface combat vessels Pakistan would by perception become part of the so-called “Sunni coalition”.
We can initially place one mechanized brigade (with Saudi supplied weapons and equipment) in the proximity of the Yemen border, as was done during the 1991 Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm). Using a mixture of personnel, both serving and from our large reservist pool, we can pre-position arms, vehicles and equipment for two more mechanized brigades, skeleton advance parties can await already earmarked units and personnel of the “Task Force” embarking at Karachi, Multan, Lahore and Islamabad airports, to be quickly airlifted if anyone crosses the Saudi border or aggression is imminent. A Divisional (or Force) HQ can be put in place for quickly marrying the personnel as they arrive with the equipment and transitioning the force into operational status without delay.
Beefing up Saudi security within the Kingdom, the clear and unambiguous mandate must be not to have a single Pakistani servicemen cross the border under any circumstances. We must relieve the Saudi Armed Forces for their own mission but we cannot become an instrument of aggression and/or get embroiled in someone else’s civil war. We have to be part of the solution, not become part of the problem. With the complicated contradictions inherent, this detrimental and dangerous situation needs handling with extreme care!
The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at email@example.com