By Najam Sethi
03 Apr 2015
The people, opposition parties and media of Pakistan are solidly and openly against any direct Pakistani military involvement in the Middle-Eastern crisis. But the government and military establishment are prevaricating and double-speaking.
In the past Pakistan’s government and military establishment have readily agreed to help fight someone else’s wars. In 1967 Field-Marshal Ayub Khan sent Brig Zia ul Haq’s brigade to Jordan to help King Hussein kick out the Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat, who dubbed the occasion as “Black September”. The Jordanians paid handsomely for renting out the Pakistan army. But the Palestinians have not forgotten that stab in the back and have always sided with India on the dispute over Kashmir.
The government and military establishment tripped over themselves when they agreed to fight America’s war against the Soviet Union in the 80s and the US’ “war on terror” in Afghanistan after 9/11. The Americans coughed up $20 billion for their “help”. But those decisions have spawned all manner of ills, terrorists, Taliban and sectarian militants who have senselessly killed over 50,000 Pakistanis and provoked the nomination of Pakistan as “one of the ten most dangerous failing states in the world”.
On all three occasions the government and military establishment were one and the same, led by Generals. The billions of dollars in rent seemed to evaporate into thin air because they did nothing to alleviate the poverty and plight of the people of Pakistan. Instead, when the tail wagged the dog (domestic policy was subservient to foreign policy), the national and foreign debt increased manifold.
But in 1991, when the US-Saudi alliance sparked the first Gulf war against Iraq, Nawaz Sharif was prime minister and General Mirza Aslam Beg was COAS. Mr Sharif ordered military contingents into Saudi Arabia and went around the Muslim World canvassing support for the Allies even though Gen Beg was playing to an anti-American gallery for potential coup-making reasons.
Unfortunately, though, we have forgotten that Pakistani soldiers were among the dead in the first great battle against Iraq. Subsequently, up to 50,000 Pakistani soldiers were rotated and stationed in Saudi Arabia for the defense of the Holy Land. Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s single largest export to Pakistan since the 1980s has been an extremist version of Wahhabi and Salafi Islam that has eroded the foundations of a benign Sufi version of Islam in the land and undermined the development of a pluralistic and peaceful civil society.
Now Mr Sharif is PM again and the Saudis are urging Pakistan to join the military coalition against Yemen. Mr Sharif’s personal commitment to the House of Saud is solid: they extracted him from the jaws of General Musharraf, hosted him in exile like a prince for ten years and restored him to Pakistan when the time was nigh. They nurtured his family and businesses in their country. Six months ago, they gave him advance payment of $1.5 billion when finance Minister Ishaq Dar was trying desperately to stave off the circular debt crisis and shore up forex reserves to stop the slide of the rupee. Now they are ready to shower more blessings upon Mr Sharif’s government in exchange for Pakistani troops and munitions to defend the Kingdom.
Mr Sharif is in a difficult position. For personal reasons, he can’t outright say no to the Saudis. But for political reasons he can’t afford to send Pakistani soldiers to the front lines in Yemen and receive Pakistani body bags in the glare of a hostile media, public and opposition in an unstable political situation at home. He is reluctant to call an All Parties Conference that will tie his hands. Instead he has chosen to take some quick steps behind the scenes to appease the Saudis – a Pakistani military contingent has been dispatched to train Saudis for mountain warfare along the border with Yemen and a civil-military delegation has just returned with a wish list from Riyadh. Meanwhile, Mr Sharif has decided to nudge Turkey and like-minded states to push for a ceasefire and negotiations to end the conflict in Yemen as soon as possible.
In 1989 the Saudis brokered a peace deal in Taif between warring politico-religious factions in Syria and Lebanon that assured a fair distribution of power. Much the same issue is at stake in Yemen. Despite the Saudi attempt to paint the conflict as Shia-Sunni, the Houthis and their allies are fighting to claim their share of regional power in Yemen as promised to them in a National Dialogue in 2012 that installed Mansur Hadi as prime minister. The Coalition air attacks and show of a grand Muslim unity are meant to soften them up for a ceasefire and talks. But if push comes to shove in Yemen, Mr Sharif and General Sharif will likely commit both men and materials to Saudi Arabia. It is, however, unlikely that Pakistani soldiers will be sent to the trenches. Equally, it is highly likely that Pakistani soldiers will stay in Saudi Arabia for the defense of the Kingdom for as long as the House of Saud needs them.