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Pakistan Faces Tough Choices Over Yemen Intervention

  • Frud Bezhan

If Sunni-majority Pakistan chooses to stay out of the conflict it could risk angering Saudi Arabia, a close strategic, religious, and historical ally. But if Islamabad does intervene it risks overextending its armed forces, which are already engaged in a vicious fight against militants at home.

If Sunni-majority Pakistan chooses to stay out of the conflict it could risk angering Saudi Arabia, a close strategic, religious, and historical ally. But if Islamabad does intervene it risks overextending its armed forces, which are already engaged in a vicious fight against militants at home.

Pakistan is grappling with a dilemma -- should it join a Sunni Arab military coalition fighting Shi'ite Huthi rebels in Yemen, or keep its troops at home?

A Saudi-led coalition for the past week has been conducting airstrikes against strongholds of Iran-backed Huthi rebels who have seized large swaths of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.

Islamabad has said it will defend Saudi "territorial integrity," but has yet to respond to Riyadh's request that it provide troops to the coalition's mission in Yemen. Pakistan's parliament will convene a special session on April 6 to discuss the request.

If Sunni-majority Pakistan chooses to stay out of the conflict it could risk angering Saudi Arabia, a close strategic, religious, and historical ally. But if Islamabad does intervene it risks overextending its armed forces, which are already engaged in a vicious fight against militants at home.

There has been fierce debate over the issue in Pakistan, with Sunni religious groups calling for military action. Civil-society activists, however, warn that foreign intervention could further inflame domestic sectarian tensions.

Stretched Military

The army is already battling Pakistani Taliban militants in the country's northwest tribal areas, while also maintaining a heavy troop presence on its eastern border with arch-enemy India.

Talat Masood, a political commentator and former military general, says Pakistan's military resources are too stretched to contribute in Yemen. "The greatest threat for Pakistan is internal," he says. "The military is already heavily preoccupied."

Islamabad is also wary of getting bogged down in a regional ethnic and sectarian conflict pitting regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia against each other.

"It doesn't make much sense to get involved in a conflict which is not going to help Yemen," Masood says. "It's an internal conflict that experience shows should be settled internally rather than through the meddling of foreign powers."

Inflame Sectarianism

Tehran has a history of supporting proxies in the region, and analysts say the Iran-Saudi rivalry is being played out in part in Pakistan, which has seen a growing number of sectarian attacks and reprisal killings.

Sectarian violence has soared in Pakistan in recent years, most of it targeting the Shi'ite minority, which makes up around 20 percent of the population.

"If Pakistan was to get involved in Yemen, its involvement could inflame tensions between Sunni and Shi'ites at home in Pakistan as its involvement could be interpreted as a sign of the state leaning explicitly toward Sunni Islam," Pakistan observer Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in the National Interest on April 1.

While Pakistan is wary of fanning sectarian discord at home, it will also be reluctant to anger its neighbor Iran, which has strongly criticized the intervention in Yemen.

Can't Afford To Say No

But Pakistan will find it hard to say no to the Saudis, according to analysts.

Saudi Arabia has provided Pakistan with huge financial support in the form of cheap oil and loans, including one worth $1.5 billion last year. That assistance has been crucial for Pakistan, which is dealing with a struggling economy and energy crisis.

When Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted in a military coup in 1999, it was Saudi Arabia that received him in exile.

Muhammad Taqi, a U.S.-based Pakistan political analyst, says Islamabad does not have the luxury of refusing Riyadh's request for military support. "Pakistan is beholden to the Saudis for the last 30 or 40 years, and for Sharif both personally and on a government level," he says, adding that "there is no such thing as a free lunch in geopolitics."

Saudi Arabia could consider holding back on aid and the cut-price oil it provides to Pakistan if Islamabad refuses to get involved in Yemen.

But history suggests that Pakistan will come to Saudi Arabia's aid, says Pakistani security expert Ayesha Siddiqa.

Pakistani forces have helped protect the kingdom on several occasions in the past 50 years.

Siddiqa predicts Islamabad will heed the calls from Riyadh in some capacity because Islamabad "will not risk spoiling the crucial relationship."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org

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