As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief General Raheel Sharif prepare to fly off to Saudi Arabia to discuss the armed insurrection in Yemen, officials say Pakistan is unlikely to change its position and commit troops, ships and warplanes for the Saudi-led nine nation coalition against Houthi rebels.
The trip comes a day after the Saudi-led coalition called off its aerial bombing campaign against the Houthis, codenamed Operation Decisive Storm “on a request by the Yemeni government and President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi”. However, it left open the option of resuming strikes if the movements of the rebels warrant it.
Premier Nawaz and Gen Raheel will be visiting the oil-rich kingdom, which has been pushing Islamabad to join the coalition militarily despite a resounding nay from the Pakistani parliament, to reassure the Saudi leadership of Pakistan’s support on the conflict in the Arabian Peninsula.
A senior government official told The Express Tribune that the message the prime minister and the army chief would convey was clear: political process needs to take precedence over the use of force. “Pakistan does not want to get involved in the conflict militarily,” said the official, who requested anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter.
“Our support for the Saudi integrity and sovereignty is unquestionable but when it comes to sending troops to Yemen the government will stick to the recommendation of parliament,” the official explained.
Earlier this month, a joint sitting of parliament voted against joining the Saudi-led military coalition against the Houthis but assured Riyadh of all-out support in the event of any threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The visit of Premier Nawaz and Gen Raheel is the latest in a series of trips undertaken by senior Pakistani officials as part of efforts to undo or minimise the damage done by the parliamentary decision. The visit has triggered speculations that Pakistan may finally give in to the Saudi demands seeking Islamabad’s direct involvement in the Yemen conflict.
But the official made it clear that there was no possibility of Pakistan joining the Saudi coalition, although it would extend all possible support in line with the UN Security Council resolution. The official said Islamabad had suggested that the use of force was not a solution to the crisis. According to Pakistan’s assessment, Yemen could prove for Saudi Arabia what Afghanistan has proved for foreign forces, he added.
Government sources, however, told The Express Tribune that it would be an uphill task for the prime minister and the army chief to convince the Saudi leadership. “This visit is very crucial. It will set the tone of Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia for the next few years,” one source said.
According to an official statement, Premier Nawaz chaired a high-level meeting at the Prime Minister House on Wednesday where the upcoming visit was discussed. Attendees included federal ministers Khawaja Asif and Ishaq Dar, Gen Raheel Sharif, Premier’s foreign policy aide Tariq Fatemi and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry.
“It was decided that the prime minister would undertake a one-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Thursday to discuss the evolving situation in Yemen and express solidarity with the people and leadership of the kingdom,” it said.
The statement was silent on the agenda of the meeting in Riyadh but it said that the prime minister welcomed the Saudi-led coalition’s announcement of ending its air strikes in Yemen and launch of Operation Restoring Hope, which is likely to be more political than military.
Officially too, Islamabad welcomed the announcement. “This will pave the way for political solution of the crisis in Yemen. We share the desire of Saudi Arabia for peaceful settlement of the crisis,” said a statement issued by the Foreign Office.
However, source said the Saudis would be planning a ground offensive with military help from Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council. It would be a huge challenge for the prime minister to convince the Saudi leadership to understand Pakistan’s opinion on the matter, sources added.
Sources said Wednesday’s huddle reiterated that Pakistan should not commit troops for any ground offensive in Yemen as Pakistani military is already stretched thin in its fight against Taliban militants in the tribal regions.
The Saudis are asking for regular army troops. And in return, Riyadh may offer cash, oil on deferred payment, purchase of weapons and other incentives, sources said. If this happens, then the Pakistani delegation may offer one division of troops from Rangers, Frontier Corps and Army. Moreover, Pakistan may also offer some specialised operations for Yemen if the Saudis refuse to budge on their demands.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2015.