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