Pakistan’s Yemen Gamble
Pakistan, the world’s only Muslim nation with nuclear weapons, is also the sole non-Arab country that has officially indicated to support the Saudi-led strikes against the Houthi fighters in Yemen. Pakistan is not in the Middle East nor is the conflagrations of this conflict capable of immediately crossing into its borders simply because Pakistan shares no borders with Saudi Arabia or Yemen. In spite of this, Pakistan’s response to the Saudi call for military assistance has been even faster than what was seen after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 when the United States demanded that Islamabad should either join the war on terror or, in case of noncompliance, prepare to be bombed back to the stone age.
While some see the crisis in Yemen as a proxy battle between the Sunni and Shia camps led respectively by Saudi Arabia and Iran, the people in Pakistan have already seen the glimpses of this war, although in a different form, for nearly three decades. The Pakistan-based religious schools, which are allegedly substantially funded by Saudi Arabia and several other oil-rich Arab states, have been blamed for churning out Islamic terrorists and providing sanctuary to similar local and foreign fugitives. In addition, hundreds of Shias are killed each year in Pakistan in sectarian violence.
Notwithstanding Islamabad’s blatant denials of its land being used as a ground for proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, public weariness and discontent toward both the nations, particularly among young activists, has been increasing in the recent times. By the virtue of social media, it has become much easier to hear these dissenting voices from Pakistan that regularly call upon Islamabad to distance itself from the ideological wars of Tehran and Riyadh.
Whether the Operation Decisive Storm is about restoring democracy or containing Iran-backed Houthis, Pakistan will be blundering by joining the eight-nation coalition. Unlike Islamabad’s decision to join the war on terror that received robust resistance from the pro-Taliban religious parties, this time opposition is likely to come from liberal, educated, technology savvy young people.
Murtaza Solangi, a former Director General of the state-run Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), warned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Twitter, “Monarchs only have to worry about their fiefdoms. You will be held responsible by the people if you throw Pakistan to fire.”
Sharif cannot say no to the Saudis for obvious reasons: When General Musharraf ousted Sharif on October 12, 1999 during his second term as the prime minister and imprisoned him, the Saudis came quickly to rescue him. For the next seven years, Sharif remained a guest of the Saudis and returned to Pakistan in 2007 only on Saudi assurances. In 2003, he was elected as the prime minister for a third stint.
According to BBC Urdu, the anti-U.S. right-wing Pakistan Justice Movement (also locally called PTI), the third largest party, has expressed concerns about Pakistan’s possible participation in the operation in Yemen warning that Islamabad could not afford to face the blowback of the “U.S.-Saudi alliance” in Yemen. Even the Jammat-e-Islami, the most hardliner religio-political party, has suggested that Pakistan should let the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) assess the situation instead of committing any military cooperation. (The OIC says it backs the states supporting constitutional legitimacy in Yemen.)
Pakistanis trace back their country’s engagement in “other countries’ wars” to the war in Afghanistan that began in 1979. Since then, barring the initial years of the 1990s, Pakistan has been embroiled in these bloody, regional, religious, proxy wars.
It was only last week, on March 23rd, when Pakistan organized its first public paradeof the National Day in seven years. Terrorist attacks by the Taliban had almost completely paralyzed Pakistan to such an extent that it was no longer capable of publicly marking its national day. When the National Day parade was held for the first time after a lull of so many years, exultant Pakistanis cheered and looked at this as a landmark moment in their country’s war against extremism. The Pakistanis engaged in self-congratulatory celebrations assuming that they were finally seeing signs of their country overcoming the threat of Islamic terrorism.
Pakistanis should know that Saudi Arabia does not bomb a country to restore democracy there. Democracy is certainly not a Saudi thing nor does it care much about constitutional supremacy. We all knew that Saudi Arabia and Iran would someday end up in a military conflict. We only did not know the “when” and “where” of it. The developments in Yemen have taken us to the closest point where we are seeing those fears come true.
If Pakistan decides to join the Saudi alliance, the decision will have two adverse outcomes.
Firstly, Operation Zarb-e-Azb (OZA), a military campaign Islamabad has been carrying out against the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan tribal region since June 2014, will encounter a great setback. Even an effective military operation against the insurgents will not permanently resolve the threat of Islamic extremism. The Pakistani military needs to divorce the ambitious dream for pan-Islamism, a dangerous vision espoused by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The proponents of OZA insist that the army has learned lessons from its past mistakes of maintaining covert relations with the Islamic extremists. But if Pakistan decides to join the battle in Yemen, it will give credence to those who argue that Pakistan is still unwilling to end its engagement in these dirty wars. When the Taliban terrorists are killed but the ideology that gave birth to them remains alive and backed officially, there is no way Pakistan can fully get out of this trap of extremist violence. Furthermore, engaging the Pakistani military in Yemen will distract attention from the ongoing operation against the Pakistani Taliban. Leaving that mission incomplete will provide the Taliban, who, according to the government, have been weakened, an opportunity to reassemble and launch new terrorist attacks.
Secondly, Pakistan’s 30 million Shias are most likely to be the first ones to face the backlash of their government’s support for Saudi Arabia. This will embolden anti-Shia terrorist groups and trigger a new wave of anti-Shia sentiments. It is known that Pakistan feels deeply insecure about India but what we don’t talk much about is what other countries, besides India, make Islamabad insecure. The answer is Iran. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran remarkably alerted the Sunni clergy in Pakistan. Believing that the Iranians would export their “Shia revolution” to Pakistan, the then military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, with the support of the Saudis, accelerated orthodox Sunni Islam to guard Pakistan’s idealogical borders from the influence of the Shia revolution. While doing so, the Shia population had to pay a costly price in the sectarian war waged against them.
Pakistan should be healing the Shia wounds instead of adopting policies that will reopen fresh chapters of hatred and violence against them.
For years, Pakistanis have been complaining that their efforts to fight terrorism are under-appreciated. They complain that the world does not sufficiently acknowledge and applaud the measure they have taken in this regard. There is a straightforward answer why this is so: Pakistan has played double standards in fighting extremist groups. For every one step forward, it has taken four steps backward. Maybe Pakistan’s interest, in the backdrop of the conflict in Yemen, lies with staying totally disengaged and viewing this crisis from the balcony in order to see what transpires when religious proxy wars erupt and what lessons can be learned from their consequences.
This article originally appeared in Huffington Post on March 31st, 2015