ISLAMABAD: The Parliament will begin debating a Saudi plea for military help in Yemen on Monday, a request that pits Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s staunch Saudi allies against a war-weary public.
Since Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan to join a Saudi-led military coalition that began conducting air strikes last month against largely Shia Houthi forces in Yemen, PM Nawaz has hedged his bets.
He had said repeatedly he will defend any threat to Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity” without defining what action such a threat might provoke.
“They’re looking to satisfy Saudi expectations at a minimal level,” said Arif Rafiq, a Washington-based adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute. “They’re unlikely to be part of any meaningful action inside Yemen. Maybe they will reinforce the (Saudi) border.”
PM Nawaz owes the Saudis. Endemic tax dodging means Pakistan needs regular injections of foreign cash to avoid economic meltdown. Last year, the Saudis gave Pakistan $1.5 billion. Saudi Arabia also sheltered Nawaz after he was overthrown in a 1999 military coup.
But joining the Saudi-led coalition could inflame a sectarian conflict at home where around a fifth of the population is Shia and attacks on Shias are increasing, further destabilizing the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people.
The intervention of the government would probably also anger Shia power Iran, which shares a long and porous border in a region roiling with its own separatist insurgency. Pakistan’s other main borders are with arch enemy India and Afghanistan, where the country troops are already conducting anti-Taliban operations. The Iranian foreign minister will visit Islamabad this week.
Not Saudi’s handmaiden
The public opinion of Pakistani nationals is also largely against intervention in any Saudi-led action in Yemen.
“It must be remembered that Pakistan is not Saudi Arabia’s handmaiden, doing its bidding at the flick of a wrist,” said a Friday editorial in The Express Tribune.
Many analysts say the military, which has ruled Pakistan for over half its existence since independence, has the final call. So far, the generals have been silent.
Pakistan has nearly 1.5 million active soldiers and reserves, but around a third of those are tied up with operations along the Afghan border. The bulk of the remaining forces face off with nuclear-armed India. Others are executing the government’s new counter-terrorism plan.
Even though Saudi Arabia is a “special friend” of both the government and the military, Pakistani intervention in Yemen might be unwise, said retired Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former national security adviser.
“If it was to defend Saudi Arabia against aggression, in spite of our commitments, I think we would stretch to sending troops,” he said. “To send our troops to a third country – I think that would be foolhardy.
“Either way, it is an absolutely terrible choice to be made for Pakistan.”