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Step back from a dangerous path

Saudi Arabia
Pakistan airforce jets

Pakistan Air Force jets. DVIDSHUB under a Creative Commons Licence

The news that Saudi Arabia has requested Pakistan join the military assault against Houthi rebels in Yemen has led to a lot of contradictory reports in the media recently.

With heavyweight regional powers like Turkey and Egypt participating, there is pressure on Pakistan to join the coalition. According to some reports Pakistan will be sending troops to Saudi Arabia to give its military support. Other government sources insist no decision has yet been made. At the same time, the Saudi Press Agency has quoted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as assuring the Saudi King that ‘all potentials of the Pakistani Army are offered to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’.  

It would be rather strange (and tragic) if Pakistan were to get involved in the fighting in Yemen. After all, we are talking about a country which has its hands more than full fighting terrorists within its own borders. The country’s military has already been carrying out an operation against militants in North Waziristan. The Taliban and other banned outfits pose a serious threat to the state. Only recently, a church was attacked in Lahore, which killed at least 17 people, with over 70 injured. Targeted killings and attacks on Shi’a Muslim places of worship are also a growing and are a very serious phenomenon.

So why would the country want to get involved in a new conflict? Pakistan has historically very close and deep ties with Saudi Arabia. Current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent many years in exile in Saudi Arabia during the period Pakistan was under the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf. Saudi Arabia is also home to the largest number of overseas Pakistanis in the world. On a trip to the Middle East country last year, I saw for myself the many Pakistani expat workers who have found gainful employment there as taxi drivers, shopkeepers, in restaurants and in hotels.

But despite how close the relationship is Pakistan simply cannot afford to get involved in a new conflict. The day after the recent church attack in Lahore, protesters blocked the prime minister from inaugurating a new motorway. Terrorism has become so routine that it no longer shocks many citizens, including the head of government, it would appear.

Sharif came to power in 2013. His victory was a controversial one, with all major political parties making allegations of vote-rigging. Yet Sharif has held on to power in the name of ‘democracy’. One bizarre aspect of his government is that, to date, no foreign minister has been appointed. There is a feeling that government decisions are not always made in a consultative or democratic manner.

If Nawaz Sharif were a forward-thinking statesman (for the record, he isn’t) he would use his close ties with the Saudis to try and bring Iran and Saudi Arabia closer. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has spoken of his desire to improve relations with the Saudis. Instead, with the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen escalating, the rivalry between the Iranians and Saudis keeps getting worse, with the resulting sectarian spillover in neighbouring countries. The rise of Daesh (Isis) is a threat that both Saudis and Iranians face and an area where the two countries could co-operate.

It is worth remembering that in the 1980s Pakistan partnered with Saudi Arabia and the United States to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan by backing the Mujahedin. Today, many Pakistanis feel their country faces the brunt of the  blowback from that conflict.  

Pakistan would do well to advise its close friend Saudi Arabia that it cannot afford to get involved in this dangerous new adventure. The priority instead should be tackling terrorism within Pakistan’s own borders.

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