Islamabad has to consider multiple dimensions before picking a side in the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes on Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
As the crisis in Yemen unfolds, with the beginning of the aerial campaign against the Houthis by the Saudi Arabia-led ‘Sunni’ coalition, there are stories and leaks galore regarding Riyadh’s pressure on Islamabad to contribute to the effort. That is a course fraught with danger.
That said, it is important to debunk the outrage on social media—especially of its most busy corner, Twitter, which lacks any real understanding of the issue and spouts nonsense sans any perspective.
Neutrality, in the sense of being as pure as the driven snow, is a myth. While it is important for a state like Pakistan, given its present circumstances, to focus at home, it can neither remain entirely unaffected by what’s happening in the region nor can it control all the variables. This is true of even global players like the United States. The best Pakistan can do, and where the challenge for its foreign policy lies, is to account for all the variables and try to chalk a course that is least painful.
Lesson: there is no course of action that does not have its minuses and pluses.
Two, in this case, Pakistan has to deal with two states, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Islamabad has relations with both. Those relations have their areas of cooperation as well as friction. Iran is contiguous. Contiguity in interstate relations is both a boon and a bane. Riyadh and Tehran are locked in combat, through proxies, in many parts of the Middle East. That is not something Pakistan can control. At the same time, the combat continues at multiple levels because neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran is a shaper of what’s happening in the region. Both, while acting, are also reacting not only to each other but also responding to power vacuums. Both are desirous of acting as regional players. Iran’s ambition for power projection is spurred by ancient history as well as modern events. Saudi Arabia—more properly the House of Saud, the current rulers—has long played the lead in the so-called ‘Sunni’ world and definitely in the Arab world.
The situation has become more complex in the last year. Iranian-backed militias, in collaboration with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, are fighting the Islamic State threat in Iraq and Syria. Riyadh, which is now bombing the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, has also bombed the I.S., which it considers a threat. But while Saudi and Iranian interests converge in Iraq in relation to fighting I.S., the control of Iraq by a government dominated by the Shia and indebted to Tehran is not an outcome Riyadh can be, or is, happy with. It’s the same with Syria where Riyadh as well as Ankara want to see the back of Bashar al-Assad even as neither wants to see the I.S. or Al Qaeda-backed groups come to power.
Yemen is no different. The Houthis, that are currently being bombed, are also fighting the rising tide of Al Qaeda, which is as much a threat to Saudi, U.S. and Iranian interests.
And this story is merely a fleeting glimpse of the complexity called the Middle East where every actor, state or non-state, has its own interests and is fighting its own wars that are informed by local conditions but threaten the stability of the region as a whole. As Hew Strachan argued in his 2008 essay, “Strategy and the Limitation of War,” in Survival, “…the First World War not only began as a Balkan war, the third since 1912, it continued as one, even beyond 1918. Seen as a war of Turkish independence, it ran on until 1922. To understand the First World War as a global war, we have first to disaggregate it into a series of regional conflicts.”
A similar situation now prevails in the Middle East, a region predisposed to a larger war which will also, as pre-WWI regional conflicts did, suck in the bigger powers. Whether these wars should be fought or can resolve anything is of course a separate debate. The point here is that interdependencies and geographical contiguities can be both stabilizing as well as destabilizing factors depending on what’s happening in a region or its sub-regions.
The other thing IR and foreign policy ‘experts’ in the media, social and mainstream, need to understand is the complexity of the decisions that stare Pakistan in the face. Saudi Arabia is nervous and it has expectations from Pakistan. It has a problem with Al Qaeda as well as the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Equally, it is wary of both an I.S.-controlled Iraq and an Iraq beholden to and doing the bidding of Iran. In geostrategic terms it means an Iranian encirclement of Saudi Arabia. Iran knows this and is embarked on an aggressive policy to do just that. Put another way, Tehran is playing hard ball and is no babe in the woods. Islamabad needs Saudi Arabia for its remittances, if not for cheap oil. At the same time it can’t adopt a policy that angers Iran. Tehran too has expectations from Pakistan and has already conveyed them to Islamabad through its ambassador there.
The Saudi expectations are of a nature that Islamabad cannot fulfill. Riyadh knows that the aerial campaign can only soften the Houthis. The real action, as always in any war but especially in a conflict involving a low-tech adversary, has to be on the ground. In the coalition Riyadh is trying to put together, ground troops can only be provided by Egypt and/or Pakistan. That, from Pakistan’s perspective, is impossible for many reasons. The Pakistani military is stressed and stretched. Public opinion is opposed to getting embroiled in a foreign conflict. The Army, which has nurtured its image very deftly, cannot afford to become a butt of jokes. Even now, the Army is letting the civilian government take the heat of public opinion while maintaining incredible silence over the issue. The normally hyper-active Inter-Services Public Relations, that seemed to have taken over the functions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Information, has suddenly gone in hibernation, though it is sending out feelers through its people in the media.
But since Pakistan’s stakes are much higher in the Gulf than vis-à-vis Iran, Tehran cannot expect parity. That is the space in which Pakistan has to play. Islamabad’s initial response is to stress that while it will help fight any aggression against Saudi territory, especially defending Makkah and Madinah, it has no desire to get sucked into combat in Yemen. Islamabad might also suggest sending trainers to help the Saudi military. This is to fulfill some Saudi expectations while staying clear of the conflict itself.
There is also a thought in the government—I don’t know if it is shared by the GHQ—that we might send some troops for deployment along the Saudi-Yemeni border. That idea, if it is being deliberated, should be absolutely and unequivocally dropped. Border deployments are always tricky and putting troops so close to the conflict is not recommended.
All these ideas have their minuses in varying degrees. Saudi Arabia is the fourth largest spender on defense. It should be able to defend itself against any aggression. Pakistan has a meager defense spending of U.S. $6.8 billion and even this paltry sum is a huge drain on its very small economy.
Some people want Pakistan to play the role of an arbiter. This is cute but misses the reality of the Saudi-Iranian power struggle. There is too much at stake for Riyadh and Tehran for a very small actor to play that role. The only state actors that can, in theory, do that are the U.S., Russia and, to some extent, China.
There is also much confusion about the nature of these conflicts. While they have acquired a sectarian dimension, the power struggle itself is very secular in nature and along the lines of what Cardinal Richelieu described as raison d’état (Reasons of State). Interstate relations are no more about some universal morality. They are informed by state interests. What is happening, however, is that the war, just like Richelieu fuelled the Thirty Years War, is using the sectarian marker. Iran is backing the Zaydi tribal fighters even though Iranian Shia faith is not the same as that of the Zaydiyyah, who are ‘fivers’ and have differences with both the Ismailis and the Twelvers. Also, were sectarianism the reason, Riyadh would not have been bombing I.S. or helping the U.S. get rid of Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Take Turkey. Ankara doesn’t have much patience for Riyadh. Yet, on the Yemen issue, it has sided with Saudi Arabia. In Syria, Ankara’s interests are aligned with Riyadh’s on the question of ousting Assad but not on which groups are supported by Riyadh to achieve that end. Similarly, and we witnessed this in the battle for Kobani, Ankara perceived the Kurdish nationalist aspirations as a bigger threat to its interests than the advancing I.S. Ankara also eyes Tehran’s attempts to project power and influence in the region with great suspicion and would do anything to ensure Tehran is bridled.
This is not an easy situation to deal with for any policymaker. Those who suggest that Pakistan should stay out of this do not realize that that, while being the ideal course, is not entirely practical. The challenge lies in trying to act in ways that enhance Pakistan’s interests without giving Islamabad too much pain either internally or externally.
Such being the case, perhaps social media pundits could take some time out to act as policymakers and give Islamabad a magic wand which could create a Garden of Eden with no serpents around. Since that cannot happen, Islamabad will have to act in the face of reality. The policy decisions it makes will not be ideal. But then idealism has never played any role in realpolitik.
The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Foreign Policy Studies program at the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.