Last Friday, Pakistan’s parliament passed a unanimous resolution saying that it “should maintain neutrality” in the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The resolution technically does nothing (only in Pakistan would a unanimous resolution passed by a joint-session of parliament carry no legal weight whatsoever). This whole drama might end, however, with Pakistan going to Yemen anyway and with the country’s careful balancing act between Iran and Saudi Arabia being upset.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan go way back. During the 1970s Pakistan’s leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto began the project to align his country’s strategic interests with the Gulf states and the wider Muslim community as Bhutto saw it. He invested in international bodies like the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now known as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation); he tightened security relations between Pakistan and the Arab monarchs. And in a move that would set a precedent for Pakistani military assistance for Saudi Arabia, in 1970 he sent a little-known Pakistani brigadier general to put down the Arafat-led Palestinian rebellion in the Jordanian Civil War. Largely because of his performance, this general, Zia ul-Haq, was promoted to army chief back in Pakistan. Eventually he executed Bhutto, the man who promoted him, and went on to rule Pakistan for 11 years. Zia ul-Haq expanded Pakistani security cooperation with the Gulf states. On Haq’s watch, Saudi Arabia (and the United States) funneled millions of dollars into Pakistan as its intelligence and military trained and armed the Afghan Mujaheddin against the Soviets.
The Saudi-Pakistan relationship outlasted the Cold War. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan, with help from the Saudis, placed the Pak-friendly Taliban government there (recognized only by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). While it was only a matter of time before some of the Islamist militants that were funded went on to attack Pakistan itself, the money kept coming in. As recently as the Arab Spring, Pakistan sent military affiliates, including mercenaries, retired officers, anti-riot instructors, and even army cooks (everything short of active-duty troops) to quell the revolt in Bahrain at the Saudis’ request. Last year, Saudi Arabia also managed to convince Pakistan to call for a “transitional government” in Syria (namely, Assad’s removal), a reversal of its previous assertions of neutrality. Crucially, Saudi Arabia is also rumored to depend on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in case of emergencies. Ian Bremmer has pithily said, “Saudi Arabia already has a nuclear program. It’s called Pakistan.”
The exchange for Pakistan’s security commitment to Saudi Arabia is straightforward: cash. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have invested billions in Pakistan, from developing roads and communications to building schools and drainage systems (not to mention a vast network of madrassas that propagate jihadist ideology). Last year, Saudi Arabia “gifted” Pakistan $1.5 billion to keep Pakistan’s economy afloat. Pakistan also signed a lucrative $20 billion deal to buy natural gas from Qatar that gives it discounts and allows it to defer payments. Saudi Arabia also hosts Pakistan’s largest expat community, totaling approximately 2.5 million, whose contributions to Pakistan’s economy in the form of remittances are crucial.
Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also has a close personal relationship with the Saudi royal family. When Nawaz was deposed in a military coup during his previous stint as premier, he turned to the Saudis for help. The Saudis managed to funnel Nawaz out of Pakistan while the army was baying for his blood. It was in Saudi Arabia that Nawaz lived his years in exile, and it was ultimately the Saudis who facilitated his return to Pakistan. Since getting elected again, he has visited Saudi Arabia many times and attended King Abdullah’s funeral.
With such close relations, why would Pakistan want to maintain neutrality when Saudi Arabia has asked it for the military help it has always guaranteed? Because involvement in Yemen arguably runs counter to Pakistan’s security interests.
Pakistan’s own security issues are boiling over. Its military is currently fighting a war with Islamist insurgents in the tribal areas. This operation requires not only a prolonged military presence, but also state and institution building, de-radicalization programs, and the implementation of law and order. Because this is Pakistan, the civilian government is either unable or not allowed to do any of this, leaving the military to shoulder these particular burdens too.
In the east, Pakistan continues to maintain a heavy military presence on its 1,500-mile border with India. Relations with India after Prime Minister Modi’s election have been tense, with frequent border violations and skirmishes, and the heavy troop presence is unlikely to decrease any time soon. So Pakistan’s military resources are already stretched thin; major operations in Yemen would stretch them even further.
Sectarian tensions in Pakistan are also high. After Iran, Pakistan has the largest Shi‘a population in the world, and that population is under threat. In February, a Shi‘a mosque was targeted in a suicide attack that killed more than 60 people. The assassination of Shi‘a religious leaders, doctors, and activists is now routine, while anti-Shi‘a militant groups are rising in both power and legitimacy. Pakistan’s participation in Yemen would render the Shi‘a population even more insecure and could embolden anti-Shi‘a militant groups who have already begun to criticize the government for its neutrality.
Involvement in Yemen would also jeopardize Pakistan’s relations with Iran. Unlike Saudia Arabia, Pakistan shares a border with Iran, and it can ill-afford to antagonize yet another immediate neighbor. Relations between the two countries are already tense, and the militarization of the Pakistan-Iran border is not inconceivable if Pakistan leans too heavily to Saudi Arabia’s side. The Pakistan-Iran border cuts through the region of Baluchistan, the site of a decades-long, cross-border nationalist insurgency. Both countries already harbor mutual suspicions that the other is propping up the insurgency, and violence along the border is common. Just this week nationalist rebels killed 20 construction workers in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.
These considerations have spurred a rare convergence of opinion between Pakistan’s civilian and military rulers, as well as the public. Apart from Pakistan’s far-right religious parties (who, despite their opposition, still voted for the resolution), there appears to be little appetite in Pakistan for yet another war.
So how then does Pakistan intend to balance its security commitments without signing up for another adventure in sectarian war? Before answering that question, we should note that this dilemma is of Pakistan’s own making. Security agreements require a great deal of caution; a state needs to survey the circumstances in which an agreement is made, the nature of the other party, the probability of conflicts (and of winning those conflicts), and their possible costs. Pakistan has always been happy to agree to security commitments but significantly less enthusiastic about following up on its side of the bargain. A good example is the so-called War on Terror. President George W. Bush managed to get then-President Pervez Musharraf to commit to the war, after which the Pakistani military launched an operation against some militants in some areas. But the assault was half-hearted; Pakistan was more eager to procure aid and new F-16 fighter jets to help it keep pace in its arms race against India than it was in fulfilling its side of the bargain. Former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani tweeted that Pakistan “takes aid, raises hopes of donors, and then fails them.”
The parliament’s Yemen resolution was deliberately worded ambiguously so that Pakistan could opt out of neutrality if it wished. The operative clause that called for neutrality was worded: “[Parliament] desires that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict (my italics).” In French, the clause would use the subjunctive tense twice over, indicating just how far Parliament’s wishes are from reality. The resolution is leaky enough to look like it endorses the conflict (“[Parliament] supports regional and international [that is, Saudi Arabian and Emirati] efforts for restoration of peace and stability in Yemen”) and explicitly supports Saudi Arabia (promising to stand “shoulder to shoulder”)—while still not committing explicitly to military support, except in cases of violation of Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity.
Pakistan, however, doesn’t appear to be getting away with this particular fence-straddling gesture as easily as it might have hoped. The UAE’s Foreign Minister tweeted his disappointed response to Pakistan’s resolution, calling it “contradictory and dangerous and unexpected.” It’s very likely Saudi Arabia feels much the same. In an attempt at damage control, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif released a statement that essentially reiterated the resolution, except for leaving out the word “neutral.” He assured the Gulf states that Pakistan “does not abandon friends and strategic partners”, and that the disappointment was a result of “misinterpreting” the resolution—but he didn’t explain how it had been misinterpreted.
If Pakistan had categorically said no, then perhaps incurring the monarchs’ wrath was inevitable. But in this case, it is entirely likely that Pakistan may still go to war. (It recently agreed to send warships to enforce the UN Security Council arms embargo against the Houthi rebels, but for the moment is refusing to send ground troops or air assets to support the war effort.) The truth is that Pakistan’s parliament has never had a say in foreign policy. That remains the military’s exclusive domain. According to Pakistan’s constitution, parliamentary resolutions are not binding on the executive in any way. So why would it pass this resolution in the first place?
An insurance policy for the parliament is one answer. Given the near-universal opposition to the intervention, the legislature may have thought that cashing in on that sentiment may bolster its role as the public’s representative. So even if the military or Nawaz Sharif do send troops eventually, and if they do meet opposition, parliament could say “we told you so.” This would also have the advantage of making the army look anti-democratic and reckless when it comes to the lives of Pakistan’s troops. On the other hand, it would further expose Pakistan’s civil-military divide, as well as its unreliability as a partner.
Another possible explanation for the parliament’s resolution is that it is a stall for time—an opportunity to see whether Pakistan can squeeze further concessions out of both sides. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in Pakistan the weekend before the joint session was held. Pakistan may have been tempted to extract promises from Iran exchange for parliament’s neutrality. Pakistan could also have taken all this time to emphasize to the Gulf countries just how politically difficult sending troops could be, as a way of driving up the price they will ultimately be paid for their military participation. And if the help supplied is less than satisfactory for the Saudis, then Pakistan can always point to the political difficulties it faces.
There are dangers to this kind of hardball. It could lead to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Pakistani migrant workers; it could lead to the money drying up; it could mean fuel prices go up; it could mean Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves dry up. And Pakistan may have to send in the troops anyway.
What Pakistan does next is crucial. Yesterday the Prime Minister attended a high-level meeting with his two foreign policy advisers, the Defense Minister, and the army chief. The window to decide whether to intervene militarily is closing, and the decision will have tremendous consequences for both Pakistan and the region at large. This still may not end in an either/or decision for Pakistan. Deft politicking may yet yield a mutually equitable compromise, but given the clumsy manner in which Pakistani representatives have so far dealt with the crisis, such an outcome now seems less likely.