The Pakistani government has made no decision on whether to commit military support to a Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told lawmakers on Friday, while pledging to defend the oil-rich kingdom against any threat to its sovereignty.
“We have made no decision to participate in this war. We didn’t make any promise. We have not promised any military support to the Saudi-led coalition against Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen,” he said while speaking in the National Assembly.
“In Syria, Yemen and Iraq, division is being fuelled and it needs to be contained. The crisis has its fault lines in Pakistan too, [we] don’t want to disturb them,” he said. “Pakistan cannot take part in any conflict that might divide the Muslim world on sectarian lines.”
However, Asif reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to defending the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. “Pakistan will stand by Saudi Arabia by all means if the kingdom’s territorial sovereignty is in danger.”
The statement came a day after Riyadh claimed that five Muslim countries – including Egypt and Pakistan – have expressed willingness to join the military coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Subsequently, a top civil- military huddle at the Prime Minister House decided that “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity will evoke a strong response from Pakistan.”
“We have an affiliation with the Saudi land and if there is a need to commit forces at any stage, then a decision will be taken in consultation with the parliament,” he added. Since sectarian fault-lines exist in Pakistan, the defence minister said the government would preempt any sectarian backlash of the move. Some commentators believe such a move could ignite sectarian conflict at home.
Earlier opposition leader Syed Khursheed Shah warned the government that jumping into the complex Middle Eastern fray could have serious consequences for Pakistan. “Don’t take decisions behind closed doors,” Shah advised the government. “Before joining this war, convene a joint sitting of parliament or an all parties’ conference to discuss this matter publicly.”
He said the government should pursue the policy of “Amn Karo, Laro Matt [restore peace, don’t fight].” Referring to the diplomacy of PPP’s founding chairman ZA Bhutto, Shah said: “[In this conflict] we favour the role of lead negotiator for Pakistan.
The defence minister clarified that the government has only pledged to defend Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity. “A delegation that the government is sending to Riyadh will assess defence-related needs of the kingdom,” he said, adding that a session of the Arab League will be convened shortly which, he hoped, would find a peaceful solution to the problem.
Asif agreed with Shah that there was need to bring unity among Muslim states and discourage sectarianism. Citing the bitter experiences of the past, the defence minister said: “We will not take any decision that could have repercussions for Pakistan.”
Shah said no Muslim could remain silent if the Saudi land was in danger. “Our own house is not in order. We are busy in Operation Zarb-e-Azb and cannot afford any sectarian unrest,” he said. “While following in the footsteps of ZA Bhutto, you may go there and invite all Muslim leaders to come under one roof for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”
A delegation, comprising Defence Minister Khawaja Asif and PM’s Advisor on National Security Tariq Fatmi and senior representatives from the armed forces, was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on Friday to assess the situation. The visit was, however, put off for some reasons. And the defence minister told the lawmakers that he had no intention of visiting the kingdom in the near future.
Earlier in the day, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chairman Imran Khan took to the social media to urge that Pakistan should merely assist and be part of peace negotiations instead of becoming a participant in the US-Saudi alliance.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 28th, 2015.