A rock and a hard place
When the parliament meets today, treasury benches will have a lot to answer; there is a huge gap between the Pakistani and Saudi positions regarding the ongoing role of Pakistan in Yemen crisis—positions vary between meek denial by Pakistan and total embrace by Saudi Arabia. After some fireworks, government will be able to accrue a near unanimous and vaguely worded resolution.
Apparently Pakistan is likely to follow a two track policy: an articulated track—compatible with public aspirations; and a pragmatic track—matching the Realpolitik. Articulated track would be: Pakistan won’t participate in the Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen but will help Saudi Arabia defend its own territory if necessary. And practical track could be to participate in military operations under Saudi flag. At least two of Pakistan’s military services—air force and army are poised to take part is such contingency centered operations.
Pakistan shall continue striving for a balance between: obliging Saudi Arabia, its long-term partner; and placating Iran which actively supports the rebels that Saudis are struggling to defeat in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan to join the coalition, militarily, and support its efforts against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. A plan to help secure the Saudi-Yemen border is being worked out. “At this time, there is no threat to Saudi territorial integrity,” said Khawaja Asif, the Pakistani defense minister.
It will be difficult for Pakistan to deliver an unequivocal ‘no’ to the Saudis, and say ‘yes’ without annoying Iranians. It indeed poses a serious decision making dilemma. To be exact, the decision has already been taken, albeit post haste; and now it’s only a matter of performing good salesmanship towards Iran and the people of Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have long been close friends and military partners, and on earlier such occasions, Pakistan did provide substantial military support to Saudi Arabia. But at this point in time, Pakistan can ill afford to anger Iran by outrightly entering the war in Yemen. Costs for direct involvement are greater for Pakistan than for any other coalition partner. If Iran begins to perceive Pakistan as an active adversary, it may cause a couple of irritants and ferment few troubles, but would eventually live with the situation. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif is expected to arrive in Pakistan on April 08, for consultations on the Yemen crisis.
In the context of force availability, as of now, about one third of Pakistan’s active-duty troops are deployed in the country’s combat zones along Afghan borders. On the Line of Control, Modi has mellowed down after IHK elections; from now on a ‘cool’ LoC suits him better. Therefore, from a national security perspective, a potent contingent can be spared for Saudi Arabia without any negative shade on their own security.
The Prime Minister is back from Turkey after consultations, he should have made stopovers in Tehran and Riyadh. The solution to the conflict lies in broader political understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Such understanding may not be forthcoming as both are riding a high tide. Iran feels that the end to its isolation is just around the corner as nuclear talks are likely to lead to a final agreement by June 30, that would later lead to the lifting of nuclear related sanctions. And under the new King, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an assertive trajectory; indeed both are following proflies of over reach. Apparently, overrun by the war fatigue, America has outsourced the Yemen conflict to Saudi Arabia, which is now trying to emulate the American silhouette in strategy and style; forgetting that this style and strategy has hardly won any war during recent conflicts; although it has brought tremendous destruction in a number of countries in Saudi Arabia’s neighbourhood.
By intervening in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has inadvertently brought the war to its doorstep without having due capacity to extinguish it, or push it back, or stop it from entering the Kingdom—hence, the panic for enlarging the coalition. Iran too is foolhardy to assume that the American led Western conglomerate will embrace it too soon, and too warmly. For decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been fighting proxy wars, by exploiting sectarian fault lines, in a number of Muslim counties. Now the monsters born out of those follies have matured and are turning against the creators.
Unilateral intervention by Saudi Arabia also had pitfalls. It acted first and then began its campaign for legitimacy. UNSC has not yet mandated the Kingdom to undertake this expedition; endorsement of the Arab League also came post facto—to regularize a ‘fait accompli’. Desperation to show an exaggerated list of coalition partners indicates a high level of legitimacy related anxiety. One fallout of this American style unilateral interventionist approach could be that other bigger regional countries may hide behind the precedent and do the same in their neighbourhoods, under similar conditions. Also, the US has requisite capacities to absorb the fallout of such (mis)adventures that it undertakes at continental distances; Saudi Arabia is hardly equipped to save itself from the ill effect of such intervention, and that too in the territory of an immediate neighbour.
There are practical difficulties in the settlement of this dispute. There are no credible dialogue partners with whom an agreement could be reached with a reasonable degree of assurance of implementation. UNSC could intervene and contribute, but so far its attitude is of indifference; OIC is, by and large, dormant; and GCC has now taken partisan position. Apparently there is no one to separate the quarreling bullies within Yemen. And while external coalition for war is growing fast, the peace constituency is hardly visible. What is glaringly missing is political vision and towering leadership. Minions are in a hurry to take sides rather than maintaining at least a semblance of neutrality, necessary to take up a mediatory role.
On the tactical canvas, air strikes alone would not yield the desired results; and sooner or later the coalition may be sucked in for a ground offensive. If so, it would be a dicey phase, with a few desired and numerous undesired fallouts: especially so when the State of Yemen ceases to exist for all practical purposes. At the end, Houthis may or may not turn to the negotiation table and the ground operation could come to a stalemate; if so it would threaten the territorial integrity of the country resulting into at least two de-facto states as was prior to unification in 1990, or the mushrooming of numerous principalities. The sectarian dimension is the most serious aspect of the conflict. Some regional and extra-regional actors wish to turn and sustain the Middle East as a blood oozing zone on the basis of sectarian hype—something like Lebanon of yester years.
Such conflicts are generally foreign resourced campaigns, rather than straightforward and well-meaning indigenous struggles. One way to stop such conflict is to dissuade the external pursers of insurgents alongside floating attractive political options for insurgents; to succeed, both steps have to go in tandem. And parties to the conflict are nowhere close to such propositions.
Strategists are expressing apprehensions that the turmoil could prolong and might trigger some major regional problems causing instability to many countries. Even the skin-deep divide within the GCC could become more accentuated. No matter what the outcome of the conflict is, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the region would, for a long time, continue to face domestic fissures thrown up by this crisis. While Pakistan is overwhelmingly on the Saudi side, the leadership should not lose sight of the stark reality that the key to the resolution of the Yemen crisis lies with Iran.