Pakistan Votes Against Military Support in YemenApril 13, 2015 in Pakistan
On April 10, after five days of debate, Pakistan’s lawmakers decided against offering military support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Although Saudi Arabia had previously asked Pakistan to contribute various military assets, including aircraft, troops and ships, to the campaign, a joint session of the Senate and National assembly has instead adopted a resolution favouring neutrality. “The parliament of Pakistan expresses serious concern on the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Yemen and its implications for peace and stability of the region”, the resolution said. “[It} desires that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis.” In trying to understand why Pakistan has voted against helping an old ally, three factors must be considered: military, religious and economic.
First, this resolution is broadly consistent with prevailing military opinion in Pakistan, which considers that its resources, already thinly stretched by on-going counter-insurgency operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, would be unable to sustain a protracted campaign in Yemen. It also reflects an undercurrent of battle fatigue. With the Afghan war drawing to a close, Pakistani politicians are unwilling to commit themselves to another drawn out foreign war, which experts believe might spiral out of control into a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh. Second, concerns have been raised in Pakistan over the advisability of becoming involved in a conflict between a coalition of Sunni-majority countries and Shia Houthi rebels. In recent years, there have been numerous attacks by Sunni militants against Pakistan’s Shia minority and it is feared that becoming embroiled in this conflict will further inflame the country’s sectarian tensions. The third factor which has caused Islamabad to vote in favour of neutrality is its need to maintain economic ties with Iran. For some time, energy-starved Pakistan has been trying to grow closer to Iran, even building a pipeline to pump much needed Iranian natural gas into the country. Although Tehran has been accused by the Saudi government of backing the Shiite rebels, Islamabad would be unwilling to take any action which might compromise their relationship with the Islamic Republic.
These factors, amongst others, have prevented Nawaz Sharif from being able to answer the Saudi government’s call for help. At first glance, this might seem like an awkward situation for the Pakistani prime minister to find himself in. After all, his administration has benefited enormously from the kingdom’s largesse, including a US$1.5 billion “gift” from the Saudi government that was used to stabilise the rupee against the US dollar. It may, however, have been a calculated move on Sharif’s part to avoid getting caught up in a power struggle by two powerful and important allies. By hand-balling this decision to the Pakistani parliament, Sharif’s government has been able to hide behind a smokescreen generated by democratic process. Rather than becoming involved in a costly and bloody war, Pakistan is now committed to playing a mediating role in the conflict, while promising to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Saudi Arabia in the unlikely event that its territorial integrity be violated or its holy sites in Mecca and Medina come under threat.
Despite Sharif’s canny political manoeuvring, Pakistan’s commitment to neutrality may be tested in the coming days. Senior ministers and public servants from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have voiced their criticism over Pakistan’s decision. “If Pakistan doesn’t take a position, that means they’re just a bystander,” said Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Ammar, senior adviser in Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs, in an interview on Sunday. If pushed, Sharif may be forced to exercise his constitutional authority over the Pakistani military and override the parliament’s decision. He and his government will doubtless hope that the conflict is resolved long before he is required to make such a potentially disastrous decision.