Sharif Wants Assembly to Decide on Pakistan role in Yemen
NEW DELHI: As the Pakistani Parliament debates on the country’s role in the conflict in Yemen, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said that the lawmakers should determine Pakistan’s position.
Addressing the National Assembly on Tuesday Sharif said, “I am not saying that you [parliamentarians] should decide based on the government's policy, you should guide the government. Leaders should tell us what to do. What stance should Pakistan take? This is a great opportunity. The whole nation has its eyes on the joint session. I assure you that whatever is decided by this assembly will be implemented.”
Sharif had earlier in the day chaired a high level meeting -- the third such meeting since the Saudis began bombing Yemen -- to deliberate on the content of a resolution on the crisis. “Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif chaired a high-level meeting at the PM House here this afternoon to discuss matters relating to national security and Middle East situation,” a brief statement issued by the PM office said.
Earlier on Monday, the country’s defence minister confirmed that Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan for military assistance -- a statement indicative of Saudi Arabia’s plans to expand its war there. Addressing a joint session of Parliament, defence minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said that "Saudi Arabia has asked for combat planes, warships and soldiers.” Parliament, however, was not entirely convinced, with lawmakers demanding that the Pakistani government clarify its position on the Saudi request, and reiterating that Pakistan should avoid becoming part of Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry.
Thus far, Pakistan has backed the mission -- Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen on March 26 -- but has not committed itself to any military assistance. Saudi-led airstrikes meant to target Houthi rebels who are gaining ground in Yemen has not seen much success, raising speculation that Saudi Arabia may be considering a ground invasion. Such a ground offensive, analysts believe, would rely heavily on foreign troops -- such as that of Pakistan.
Pakistan is caught in a difficult spot. The South Asian country cannot ignore the Saudi request, given its close relations with the Saudi monarchy that is keen on restoring Yemen’s exiled president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to power.. However, Pakistan has to be careful of its own relations with Iran -- with whom it shares a border; Iran, reportedly, supports the Houthi rebels -- and it has to be mindful of not overextending the Pakistani army, that is already embroiled in a military offensive within the country’s own borders.
In fact, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is due to visit Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss the situation with Pakistan's authorities. Iran, on its part, has denied that it has any role to play in the conflict. Referring to media reports that Iran had delivered 19 tons of aid to the rebels, including medical equipment and food, the country’s foreign ministry spokesperson said, “Claims about the dispatch of weapons from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Yemen are completely fabricated and sheer lies.”
Pakistan’s role in the crisis is in the context of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, with both being Sunni-majority nations. Saudi Arabia is committed to battling the Houthis in Yemen, who are believed to have the backing of the region’s other power -- Shia-majority Iran.
"Pakistan remains firmly committed to supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia in accordance with the aspirations of the people of Pakistan," a statement from Sharif's media office said. "Pakistan stands committed to playing a meaningful role in arresting the deteriorating situation in the Middle East."
This support was already a given. In addition to being allied in terms of Sunni sectarian identity, Pakistan continues to receive much-needed financial assistance from Riyadh. Last year, for instance, Pakistan reportedly received $1.5 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia to meet debt obligations and bolster its foreign exchange reserves. History, too, is indication of Pakistan’s commitment to Saudi Arabia. In 1990, Pakistan agreed to join an international coalition in defence of Saudi Arabia against Iraqi aggression.
Meanwhile, others in Pakistan are cautioning the leadership of involvement in the crisis in Yemen. Imran Khan, leader of the Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), speaking to journalists after inaugurating the PTI Business Club a few days ago, said Pakistan was still facing consequences of the US-led war in the region and should refrain from involving itself in another US-backed war. “Pakistan should play its role for peace in the region,” Khan said.
The debate in Parliament was witness to similar caution. PPP Senator Aitzaz Ahsan said that “we need to be told clearly what exactly your stance is. Only then we will lend you the mandate you are seeking” and adding that Saudi Arabia was capable of defending itself without Pakistan’s assistance.
Senator Mushahid Hussain highlighted the consequences of getting involved in a war that was not Pakistan’s to begin with. "Yemen is like Afghanistan. It is unstable. It is like a quicksand, nobody can come out of this... there will be no winners in this conflict,” he said adding that "We should ask our Chinese friends to ask for a ceasefire in Yemen in the United Nations and for holding dialogue and fresh elections.” Hussain, whilst reiterating Pakistan’s support for Saudi Arabia said (according to Dawn News) that “Pakistan was fighting a major offensive in the northwest and it could not afford to send ground troops outside the country as the army's first responsibility was to protect the lives of Pakistanis.”
ANP lawmaker Ghulam Ahmad Bilour also maintained that Pakistan should not get involved, stressing instead on the country playing a mediatory role -- a sentiment echoed by JI chied Sirajul Haq and National Party (NP) President Hasil Bazenjo.
In a similar vein, an article in Defense News, questions whether Pakistan will be able to support Saudi Arabia militarily, given that the country is engaged in an offensive against militants in the northwest. The article quotes former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley saying that there is little support for the mission within Pakistan's military, but that the military leadership can be overruled by the prime minister.
The same article quotes Claude Rakisits, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, saying that although Pakistan is compelled to be involved given its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the country’s role will be uncertain "given the ongoing military operation in the tribal areas. The Pakistan Army will nevertheless be constrained by what it can contribute on the ground."