Recently, Islamabad has been reported to either have agreed to participate in bombing Yemen or to be at a crossroads, dithering between blindly supporting Saudi Arabia for money and strategic gains or restraining from a foreign war to address and alleviate radical militias and contentious politics at home. In the midst of considerable criticism of the war inside Pakistan, Islamabad appears to be the most reluctant of Saudi allies. As Nawaz Sharif’s government weighs its choices, the war is being packaged in Pakistan as either a strategic and lucrative opportunity or as an unnecessary foreign campaign that would stoke sectarian embers at home, while also incurring the hostility of Pakistan’s powerful neighbour, Iran. It doesn’t help the critics of Pakistan’s involvement in Yemen that Nawaz Sharif has a personal debt to pay to the Saudi regime, which welcomed him when he was ousted from power in 1999.
The conflict in Yemen can neither be neatly packaged as a proxy war nor as a blatantly sectarian one. And even as Iran and Saudi Arabia invest in it to broker their own power in the Middle East, it implicates the lives, political hopes and the future of 24 million people in Yemen. In 2011, as revolutions spread throughout the Middle East, the Saudi regime stood firmly with the counter-revolution and supported the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Meanwhile, Tehran began to court the Houthi rebellion as it made advances in Yemen. Underneath Iran’s recent support and interest in the Houthis, it remains clear that Iran did not orchestrate the uprising, nor are the Houthis theologically close to the Iranian government. Despite Iran’s thin alliance with the Houthis and Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary fervour, the crisis is largely symptomatic of political and socio-economic fissures in Yemeni society. With Pakistan itself struggling for political stability, its government needs to consider not just its relations with Saudi Arabia or Iran, but what its stance should be towards another people in a poor country amidst political strife.
The Saudi-led bombing campaign is directly contributing to Yemen spiralling into deeper chaos and violence. Already, 15.9 million people are in need of emergency humanitarian assistance, even exceeding the number of people in need in nearby Syria. Around 10.6 million people in Yemen do not have access to adequate food. Increasing violence will only exacerbate the humanitarian emergency in Yemen. If Pakistan jumps aboard a Saudi gunboat to reach Yemen’s shores, it will not merely strategically support an ally or antagonise Iran, it will also contribute to a counter-revolutionary bombing campaign that is largely targeting civilian areas. Saudi air strikes have already hit many humanitarian and civilian targets in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. The latest of these was the bombing of a displaced people’s camp, the Mazraq camp, in the northern Yemeni province of Hajja, on March 30. The International Organisation for Migration reported that 45 internally displaced persons were killed, including women and children, and 65 were injured.
Islamabad has to decide whether it should side with the bombing forces or seek to understand the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Yemen. If Pakistan must participate, it would do better to push for a political process to end violence or to assist Yemen’s impoverished and violence-stricken population. No country is immune to its military interventions overseas, and Pakistan is already dealing with the consequences of assisting allies in Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2015.