Case for neutrality (The Express Tribune (Pakistan))

The civil war in Yemen has created a muddled political crisis in Pakistan entirely the creation of the country’s leadership. The frenzied media debate is a further reflection of the confused perceptions that is guiding policy thinking and policymaking. Several strands need to be separated and looked at independently and dispassionately.
The modern history of conflict in Yemen begins in 1962 with the north Yemen civil war between the royalists and the republicans. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Britain and Israel militarily supported the royalists, while Egypt supported the republicans. After six years of fighting, the republicans emerged victorious. In 1972, south Yemen which had achieved independence from Britain in 1967 and north Yemen went to war. After a brief ceasefire, war broke out again in 1979. In 1986, civil war broke out in south Yemen itself. In 1990, north and south Yemen merged to form the Republic of Yemen. Given tribal, regional, religious and political divisions, a power-sharing arrangement was arrived at among the three main factions. The coalition collapsed two years later and another north-south civil war ensued, which the Saudi-backed south lost. Yemen has continued to be in turmoil and the virtual absence of central authority has allowed international terrorist groups to establish firm bases in the country.
Two postulates are important. One, wisdom demands that Pakistan stay out of the Yemeni morass. After all, Pakistan does not have any strategic interests in Yemen. Other Muslim states have been at war with each other Algeria and Morocco, Iran and Iraq and there have also been countries Algeria, Iraq, Syria which have gone through periods of civil strife, and Pakistan did not make these wars its business then. There is no reason why it should make it so now.
Two, Saudi Arabia has always been a militarily interventionist power in Yemen. Its objective has always been to ensure a governing order in Yemen that is not inimical to its interests. That is what it is pursuing today. Pakistan was not a factor in Saudi-Yemeni relations earlier and there is no reason why it should become so now.
Statements emanating from all quarters contain a similar theme: Saudi Arabia is a friend and should be defended if attacked. The ludicrousness of this position cannot be more apparent. Of course, Saudi Arabia is a time-tested friend, but there are other friends, too. China is one. However, there has never been any discussion about extending military assistance to ‘defend’ China vis-a-vis Taiwan or the South China Seas islands. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is not under attack. Yemen is too fractured and weak to be able to threaten its larger northern neighbour. And Saudi Arabia is perfectly capable of dealing with pin-pricks that Yemeni rebels may attempt to inflict. The Saudi regime is shrewd enough to be aware of this equation, but has blown up the current situation on account of the Iran factor. Yemen is the unfortunate battleground where a proxy war is being waged between two the powers.
The debate in Pakistan betrays an underlying notion that Saudi Arabia is the holy land, whose defence is the duty of every Muslim. There is a need here to separate the different strands, two in particular. It is true that two of the holiest sites the Khana-e-Kaaba and the Masjid-e-Nabwi are located in Saudi Arabia. And if either is threatened, it would become the duty of every Muslim to rise to their defence. It may then be justifiable to commit the entire Pakistan armed forces to the Arabian peninsula. But neither Yemen nor Iran is threatening the holy sites. Saudi Arabia is a state like any other and is engaged in a power struggle with a rival state. Pakistan has no business to become a party to this struggle.
The Saudi intervention in Yemen is designed to protect its national interests. Saudi Arabia is not a peace broker, but a partisan in the conflict, which will not end in the near term. The Houthis, even if defeated by the current Saudi juggernaut, comprise one-third of the population of Yemen and are unlikely to be subdued to accept a Saudi-installed government. The war is certain to be long, bloody and bitter. Prudence demands that Pakistan remains uninvolved. It has paid and is continuing to pay an existential price for playing the rat between two elephants in the 1980s under the guise of a phony ‘jihad’. And there is no reason to ignore the costly lessons from that painful misadventure. Any unwise decision carries the danger of turning Pakistan into another Syria.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 3rd, 2015.
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