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Monday, March 20, 2023

Why Pakistan Must Protect Saudi Arabia


Pakistan may deploy some of its troops in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by K. Aksoy, Creative Commons License)
Pakistan may deploy some of its troops in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by K. Aksoy, Creative Commons License)

Among the comity of nations perhaps only Pakistan has an inherent and recurring penchant to get into a “heads I lose, tails you win” situation, the developing imbroglio in Yemen being the latest sorry example. As the “darlings of the west” suffered thousands and thousands of casualties, both civilian and military, taking on the Soviets in the Afghan War. The material damage was immense, the economic retardation enormous.  Once the war was over our many sacrifices in the west’s “war against terrorism” (which has now unfortunately become ours) was forgotten or glossed over.  On the contrary the world started to berate us about becoming the “ground zero of terrorism”. Insult was added to injury by being put on a “fail-safe line” about being declared a terrorist state.


Most of our problems stem from having awful leaders with a penchant for decision-making based on their personal rather than the national interest.  This has compromised our self-respect as a nation, now anybody and his uncle can threaten us with dire consequences, the latest being somebody like UAE’s Dr Gargash questioning our audacity at not sending our young men to die in a war that is certainly not ours or of our making. However Gargash in his arrogance has done us an enormous favor by his rather interpolate outburst “Pakistan will pay a heavy price”, he has highlighted our inferiority complex, most rich Arab countries consider Pakistanis as second and even third class citizens. Ch Nisar Ali Khan desires credit for expressing the resentment of most Pakistanis at the Gargash diatribe, but one would have been for happier if the Foreign Office would have given it at least a passing reference. And what is the “heavy price” will Pakistan will pay? It will be most unfortunate and tragic if the Arab anger is taken out on the millions of Pakistanis who earn their living the hard and honest way in Arab lands. From my own association with the UAE hierarchy one feels that while in the present circumstances they may be disappointed, Gargash notwithstanding they will certainly not act inhuman.


In a vain attempt at damage control, PM Mian Nawaz Sharif went on TV to reiterate the nation’s commitment to Saudi Arabia, and mitigate the frustration quite openly expressed by our Arab friends. He assured them that their disappointment was based on “apparent misinterpretation of the Parliamentary Resolution, Pakistan does not abandon friends and strategic partner particularly when their security is under threat”.  While the PM reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to safeguarding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Saudi Arabia as well as the sanctity of the Holy mosques, he made no mention about any military engagement in Yemen, one fails to comprehend how can we assuage acute Arab disappointment without actually putting “boots on the ground” in Saudi Arabia, if not Yemen?


The disappointment at our not following through on our “commitment” is to be expected, why was that perception formed in the first place if not there was no commitment? Being autocratic regimes mostly, for the Arabs it is quite difficult to understand how a ruler can be sidelined by Parliament. The government must take responsibility for the ambiguity here, from the outset we should have avoided arousing expectations and the resultant backlash.  Unfortunately some “more loyal than the king” advisers tend to muddy the waters, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif had no business grandstanding publicly in Parliament about the Saudi wish-list, it embarrassed our friends, and it has embarrassed us. While we remain Iran’s neighbor and friend and it really cannot be one or the other, our friendship with Saudi Arabia by far exceeds our relationship with Iran.  We must ensure the Arab hierarchy understands our position. If this had been explained and elaborated properly there would be no earthly reason to be apologists (and to be in the morass we are in now).


We have our work cut out for us. Whatever we do now will not satisfy the “Arab coalition” but it must be done.  While we must make clear we do not appreciate the Gargash-type comments, that should not deter us from both our duty and responsibility. With few exceptions, and that is mostly confined to some of our stalwarts in the electronic media, Pakistanis do want to defend Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  In order to emphasize our commitment, we must send troops to Saudi Arabia but with the mandate that they will be employed within Saudi Arabia only.


We must clearly commit to the defense of Saudi Arabia, we cannot vacillate about this decision. The only caveat is that we must explain to Iran, and also to China, that we will not get involved in Yemen. Defending Saudi Arabia does not mean intervening in Yemen. Having a very large reservist pool, we can tap into this without denuding our existing manpower, already stretched fighting our own internal war. Given the opportunity of defending Saudi Arabia and protecting the Holy Mosques, our reservists will line up in droves. Saudi Arabia has an abundance of arms and equipments in storage. We can quickly form personnel for one mechanised brigade to be raised in Saudi Arabia and hold the personnel of two or three or even four brigades reserve in Pakistan, to be airlifted into Saudi Arabia within 24 hours if necessary.  If our Saudi friends want more we go further than that by raising four to five mechanized brigades take over the protection of the entire 1200 Kms of Yemen border with the proviso that the force will not cross the border except in “hot pursuit” at beating off any attempts at infiltration. An air force detachment must give close air support to this force.  This is quite different from venturing into Yemen and becoming part of the ongoing civil war.


Patently unfair that we get criticized and ostracized for embroiling ourselves  with our eyes open in a quicksand in a way that only we are best at, this will remain patently unfair  till one day our leaders can have the moral coverage to stand up and be firm about what constitutes our national security interest and what does not. We must state unambiguously what we can do and what we cannot.  There must be clarity in the commitment we are expected to fulfill, double-speak will not do!  Instead of being every few years as a nation up the creek without a paddle, we must clearly and unambiguously state our intention to protect Saudi Arabia by putting our “boots on the ground” in the Kingdom.


The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at ikram.sehgal@wpplsms.com

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