Tightrope

Southasia - - COMMENT -

Pak­istan is re­ally caught be­tween a rock and hard place on the ques­tion of send­ing its army to fight along­side Saudi Ara­bia in the Ye­men con­flict. Pak­istan counts Saudi Ara­bia amongst its best friends but also en­joys friendly ties with Ye­men, which is an­other Mus­lim coun­try. There are re­ports that Pak­istan has al­ready sent an army con­tin­gent to Saudi Ara­bia – not to en­gage in com­bat – but to pro­vide se­cu­rity to the Saudi royal fam­ily. At the same time, to ful­fill the re­quire­ments of demo­cratic ex­i­gen­cies, the mat­ter was also dis­cussed at a joint ses­sion of par­lia­ment.

Pak­istan has one of the largest and best armies in the world, the best fight­ing force in the Is­lamic world and is the only Mus­lim na­tion with nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity. As Pak­istan’s friend and bene­fac­tor, Saudi Ara­bia has a right to call upon this broth­erly Is­lamic na­tion to pro­vide mil­i­tary help at a crit­i­cal junc­ture. The prob­lem, how­ever, is that Saudi Ara­bia is en­gaged in a con­flict with a neigh­bour­ing Mus­lim coun­try with which Pak­istan also has friendly re­la­tions. The fact is that it is a proxy war in which Saudi Ara­bia is back­ing the Sun­nis in Ye­men while Iran is back­ing the Shias. It needs to be re­mem­bered that Pak­istan may con­sider Saudi Ara­bia a strate­gic ally but Iran too is a friend and an Is­lamic coun­try with which it shares its bor­ders. Pak­istan must there­fore main­tain a bal­ance in this proxy war.

The Pak­istan gov­ern­ment also needs to con­sider that it is al­ready en­gaged in fight­ing a war against the Tal­iban at home and that the re­sources of the armed forces, es­pe­cially the army and air force, are al­ready stretched as far as Op­er­a­tion Zarb-e-Azab is con­cerned. Added to that is the threat on both bor­ders - a hos­tile In­dia on the eastern side which in­dulges in fre­quent in­cur­sions on the line of con­trol and a live west­ern bor­der where the armed forces need to be on con­stant alert to com­bat the spo­radic at­tacks from the Afghan side.

The Pak­istan De­fence Min­is­ter Khawaja Asif may say that the con­flict in Ye­men is not sec­tar­ian in na­ture but the fact is that the war has very clear sec­tar­ian over­tones. It is ob­vi­ous that Saudi Ara­bia does not like the Shia Houthi tribe tak­ing over in Ye­men. That is why, when Islamabad shows its sup­port for Riyadh in the Ye­men con­flict, it has many ques­tions to an­swer to the Pak­istani Shia com­mu­nity. As it is, the Shias in Pak­istan have no love for their gov­ern­ment’s close ties with Saudi Ara­bia be­cause they be­lieve that a lot of fund­ing for madras­sahs, some of which are said to fuel sec­tar­i­an­ism in the coun­try, comes from such Arab coun­tries as Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar.

Pak­istan has also learnt some key lessons while fight­ing wars on be­half of other pow­ers. It played an im­por­tant role in the Cold War by fight­ing for Amer­ica against the Soviet Union. Pak­istani troops were funded by Amer­i­can money and armed by Amer­i­can weapons. The up­shot was that the mu­jahideen who fought for Pak­istan and Afghanistan in this war brought the ‘Kalash­nikov cul­ture’ to Pak­istan. This was also the time when trained mil­i­tants in­fil­trated into Pak­istan from the Afghan side. Pak­istan’s in­volve­ment in the Soviet-US con­flict ag­gra­vated sec­tar­i­an­ism as many of the mu­jahideen were linked to groups that later en­gaged in sec­tar­ian strife.

There is a point of view pre­vail­ing at some lev­els in Pak­istan that says the coun­try should sup­port the Saudis against the Ye­meni Houthi tribes and also sup­port any coali­tion of Mus­lim coun­tries that may be formed in this re­gard. It needs to be em­pha­sized that the on-go­ing con­flict has no dan­ger of im­pact­ing the holy Mus­lim places of Makkah and Mad­ina be­cause no Mus­lim na­tion, in­clud­ing the fighters in Ye­men, would com­mit such an act. It would there­fore be ju­di­cious for Pak­istan to stay out of this is­sue. As a lead­ing Mus­lim na­tion, Pak­istan’s sup­port for the en­tire Is­lamic world must be fur­ther un­der­lined and this can only hap­pen when the coun­try does not sup­port one Mus­lim state against an­other. Pak­istan should do what sen­si­ble coun­tries do in such sit­u­a­tions – look out for its own self-in­ter­est, which lies sin­gu­larly in pur­su­ing a pol­icy of non-in­ter­fer­ence and not sid­ing with any one coun­try. It is cer­tainly a thin rope that Pak­istan is walk­ing at present but it must pro­duce a suc­cess­ful bal­anc­ing act in the in­ter­est of its re­li­gious, strate­gic and eco­nomic ties on the one hand and its key role as an im­por­tant Mus­lim na­tion on the other.

Syed Jawaid Iqbal

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