The army has to decide, not (hapless) civilians
We should be able to cut through the simulated confusion. If Pakistan gets into any part of the Yemen mess, if Pakistani troops are sent or not sent, if Pakistan gets militarily involved in any way, it will be because the army has so decided, and not because the Sharifs are repaying their obligations to the House of Saud.
The civilian government has received a drubbing – sometimes subtle, at times not so subtle – at the army’s hands for the last year and some more. The government has been taught the limits of its power. It’s been told its place, and it has accepted that position, so much so that there’s no shortage of souls calling this a ‘soft coup’. In any event, it’s clear to everyone that on important questions it is the army which calls the shots. So how come all of a sudden it rests on Nawaz Sharif to decide Pakistan’s approach to the Saudi request for assistance?
Whatever Nawaz Sharif’s personal inclinations, whatever his sense of obligation to his Saudi benefactors, these do not count and are irrelevant because he does not command the army and the army command does not take its orders from him. The army is its own master and its take on every important issue is its own. So it’s quite cute that whereas in other circumstances the ISPR (the army’s publicity wing) is so active on the Twitter front, shooting out tweets in all seasons, regarding the all-important question of Pakistan’s approach to the Yemen crisis it thinks it expedient to observe complete radio silence. In this instance, if in few others, discretion is proving to be the better part of valour.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif and National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz have just returned from Riyadh. Does anyone in Islamabad take these two magnates seriously? In his own jurisdiction, Khawaja Asif has about as much authority as a sentry on guard duty at the defence ministry. What report will he or Sartaj Aziz make to the prime minister and what will the prime minister decide?
The funniest sight these days is of the PM presiding over ‘high-level’ meetings. The setting is surrealistic, Persian carpet, the décor done up, civilians (looking utterly clueless) lined up one side, military officials, slightly more sure of themselves, on the other. I am not exaggerating: the PM looks confused most of the time. It can safely be inferred that he wants to do good by the Saudis. At the same time he would be a fool not to know the risks involved. And the army for once is acting coy…or at least that’s the impression one gets.
So the PM decides to fly off to Turkey, this being in Thursday’s papers, which is a way of looking active while doing nothing. He did the same during the first Gulf War, 1990-91, going off on a Middle East trip when, all eyes riveted on the war, it was scarcely surprising if no one paid him the slightest attention. Not many people will be holding their breaths as he goes off on this trip.
The Chief of the General Staff, Lt Gen Nadeem Asif, and the Director General Military Operations, Maj Gen Amir Riaz, were part of the delegation which went to Riyadh. In army circles both officers are highly regarded, indeed some people going so far as to call them the ‘brains’ of the present high command. What they report to the Chief is what matters and what the Chief and his corps commanders decide is what Pakistan’s stance is going to be. The fig-leaf, and the rhetoric about defending the Holy Mosques, etc, will come from the civilians who can be expected to put on a brave effort to look convincing.
The generals can’t look the all-conquering generalissimos from Waziristan to Karachi and then funk it, or hide behind civilian coattails, when it comes to Yemen. It is his call and that of his generals to decide what is in Pakistan’s best interests. Basically, the question is: does Pakistan act as a sepoy on duty, a paid gendarme, as it did in Afghanistan during Gen Zia’s time and later under Gen Musharraf when the Americans mounted their Afghan invasion? Or does it choose a more subtle course?
Gratitude is neither here nor there. Gratitude is for individuals, not for nations and states. Russia helped crush the Hungarian uprising of 1848. Asked if he felt indebted to Russia, the Austrian prime minister, Count Felix Schwarzenberg, replied, “Austria will astound the world with the magnitude of her ingratitude.” Sharp and polished brains are essential for cynicism of this high an order…but you get the drift.
Another example too is worth remembering. Hitler helped Gen Franco win the Spanish civil war (1936-39). After the outbreak of the Second World War Hitler, wanting to draw Franco into the Axis fold, met him at the French border town of Hendaye. Ian Kershaw (one of the best biographers of Hitler) writes, “At one point, Hitler’s irritation was so great that he got up from the table, stating that there was no point in continuing.” As he left the meeting he was heard to mutter, “There’s nothing to be done with this chap.” Hitler later told Mussolini that he “would prefer to have three or four teeth taken out” than go through another nine-hour discussion with Franco.
Thank our lucky stars for an open press. Much has been written about the dangers of getting militarily involved in the Arabia peninsula. It won’t much redound to our credit if we act the role of sepoys again. Gulf Arabs already talk of Pakistanis as ‘miskeens’. Far from anyone being grateful to us, the danger is that we will end up reinforcing this image.
Nawaz Sharif, however, is no Gen Franco. If it were up to him Pakistan would send half its divisions to Saudi Arabia with no questions asked. It is the army which has to fashion the right response. For it can’t take a front seat when it suits it, and take a back seat when a tough decision has to be made.
Thus there is no point in seeking a clue to Nawaz Sharif’s thinking because his thinking does not matter. What is the army thinking? That’s the important thing. And excuses just will not do because no one in Pakistan needs a tutorial on where the real power lies. But even as Pakistan agonises over what to do, one thing should be clear. If the army makes a false move, one not consistent with the public mood at this point – the public mood clearly not in favour of military involvement – the army’s carefully cultivated image of national saviour of last resort goes up in smoke. And returning to haunt the national mind will be the thought that this country is incapable of change.
Saudi Arabia has got itself into a strategic imbroglio. It can’t win this war. It can’t restore Mansour Hadi to the presidency. The Houthis, despite the air strikes, continue to hold the upper hand in the fighting. As for a ground incursion it is folly even to contemplate it, the Saudis in no position to sustain one. So what is Pakistan expected to do in this situation?
It is not simply a question of having enough problems of our own. Hezbollah has Israel to face but despite that its fighters are fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s army. Do we have a similar interest in Saudi Arabia?
This is no time for false sentiment, or cheap rhetoric regarding the defence of the Holy Mosques (which are under no kind of threat). The calculation has to be cold and hard-headed but, appearances apart, we have to be clear that this calculation will be made in General Headquarters, not the prime minister’s office. So whether the decision is right or wrong, there should be no doubt as to where the responsibility will lie.
Can we at least be spared the fabrications?
The hypocrisy and the charade on parade would stick in throats more capacious than ours. The defence of the Holy Mosques is every Muslim’s sacred duty, we are breathlessly informed. But who is threatening the Holy Mosques? Certainly not the Houthis of Yemen who are being attacked by Saudi warplanes. It is they who are the victims of aggression, not our Saudi friends. But for obvious reasons, we can’t bring ourselves to say this.
Item number two in the list of frothy declamations: any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity will elicit a forceful Pakistani response. But where is the threat to this integrity? Who is planning to attack Saudi Arabia?
Of course Pakistan – the world’s original Islamic Republic, plus in its more charged moments, the Fortress of Islam – faces a dilemma. Its heart and its emotions are in one place, its mind – when it chooses to work – in another. Pakistan knows the risks involved in committing troops to Saudi Arabia’s uncertain adventure. So it is not saying an open yes. But for fear of upsetting the Saudis, for whom this is a matter of life and death, it cannot bring itself to say no.
Yemen may turn into a nightmare for the Saudis in the days to come but it is already a minor nightmare for Pakistan, especially its military, which is being called upon to choose between the devil and the sea.
There is a third fabrication, that this is somehow a Sunni-Shia war. It is not. The Houthis are Zaydi Shias, whatever that means. But their allies, troops loyal to the former strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, are Sunnis. Where does this leave the sectarian divide?
As George Galloway, the thorn in many a sensitive skin, points out in a diatribe which you can access on YouTube, the people of Gaza are all Sunnis. But when the Israelis were slaughtering them last year, the great House of Saud lifted not a finger to stop the Israeli aggression. So much for the defence of Sunni Islam.
The issue in Yemen is altogether different. It is about influence and control, about Saudi Arabia being able to control the affairs of its impoverished and conflict-racked neighbour. The Houthis are trying to right ancient wrongs. They do not fit into the Saudi scheme of things because their uprising and bid for power set a bad example for Saudi Arabia’s own restive Shia population which is concentrated, unluckily, in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing regions.
The Saudis were concerned about the Shia uprising in Bahrain for the same reason. It was setting a bad example. So they sent their troops into Bahrain to quell the unrest.
As we all know, retired Pakistani defence personnel are a vital component of Bahrain’s security forces. Shorn of rhetoric and doublespeak, the Saudis want Pakistan to play a similar role in Yemen. What they are seeking, and demanding, are not sentries to stand guard at the gates of the Holy Mosques, but an expeditionary force to help turn the tide against the Houthis and their allies.
The funny thing is that despite being the fourth highest defence spenders on the planet – after the United States, China and Russia – Saudi Arabia is still unable to defend itself or, as we are seeing in Yemen, sustain a war of aggression on its own. Hence the looking to Pakistan to fill this need.
Going by the contours of their chequebook diplomacy, however, the Saudis should really have made the first request for troops to Field Marshal El-Sisi of Egypt. They’ve given him much bigger largesse than anything given to Pakistan – 5 billion dollars President Mohamed Morsi was deposed, and a 12 billion dollars package, along with other Gulf contributors, pledged recently. But the field marshal has announced sending four warships, that’s all, which, come to think of it, is smart thinking.
Pakistan, receiving an advance of 1.5 billion dollars – a gift gratefully received by a cash-strapped government – is being asked for much more: the manpower, the boots on the ground, the special forces, for victory on the battlefield. No other country fits this bill. No other country has the same history of rushing in where angels fear to tread.
Pakistan, in effect, is being asked to do in Yemen what Iran is doing in Iraq. General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite A-Quds force, is in Iraq leading the Iraqi war effort against the Islamic State. He helped stop the Islamic State’s advance on Baghdad. He was in command of the battle for the recapture of Tikrit. He is involved in the fighting in Syria in defence of the Assad regime.
When Pakistani officials talk of the defence of the Holy Mosques and threats to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia whom are they trying to fool? Saudi Arabia wants a Pakistani Gen Qasem Soleimani in Yemen – or a Brigadier Ziaul Haq (yes, the same who later rose to become our Commander of the Faithful) to do in Yemen what he did in Jordan against the Palestinians during the Black September uprising in 1970.
But Iran has deep interests in Iraq. What interests do we have in Yemen? No one calls the Iranians involved in the defence of Baghdad or the recapture of Tikrit mercenaries. We’ll be called that and will be seen as that if our civil and military leadership take the fateful step of sending troops to Yemen.
Whether the Saudis gain anything from their attack on Yemen or find themselves in a quagmire time will tell. But let us not take them for fools. They don’t want lollipops from Pakistan. They don’t want hollow statements about laying down our lives for the defence of the Holy Mosques, rhetoric which comes so easily to us in Pakistan. They want something tangible – troops on the ground, troops to do their bidding, to fight for them and, if need be, die for them.
For us it’s not just a question of having enough problems of our own and of our army and air force being over-stretched. The fundamental question is a bit different. Why should we become foot-soldiers in a war which is of no concern to us? True, as a close friend of Saudi Arabia we have an obligation to help it, short of getting directly involved. But even thinking of sending troops is folly.
Trouble is that the Saudis, having got themselves in this mess, are not likely to be impressed by our logic. For them the stakes are high. If they fail in achieving what they have set out to do, their prestige is seriously damaged. And there may be – who knows? – internal repercussions.
The Hapsburgs of Austria triggered the series of events which began the First World War. By the time it ended their empire was lost and they had become part of history. The Saudi monarchy rests on unstable if not shifting sands. They should have confined themselves to diplomacy and to the formidable power of their deep pockets. If they are already looking to allies for military succour it shows that they had not fully thought through the details of their adventure.
Yes, we have sold ourselves cheaply in the past. Yes, we have served the interests of outside powers and hurt ourselves in the process. But hopefully we have learned something from those travails. Even the army is questioning doctrines and dogmas and strategic theories earlier considered as self-evident and as the gospel truth.
Yemen, however, is a test case and will show whether we have fully imbibed the lessons from our own disastrous adventures. Helping Saudi Arabia within our limits is one thing. But humouring the House of Saud, dancing to its tune and serving its strategic interests at the cost of our own…you don’t have to be a Clausewitz or a Metternich to see that it makes no sense at all.
Turkey, one must hasten to say, was never a candidate for sending troops to Yemen. But the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is fast consolidating his position as a foreign policy disaster – he got Syria wrong and is now getting Yemen wrong – used strong language about the spread of Iranian influence across the region. He could have proved a truer friend of Saudi Arabia if during his visit to Riyadh just prior to the Saudi offensive he had told his Saudi hosts that they would be doing themselves no good if they started a war they could not finish.
And one can only wonder what Pakistan’s Sharif would have said to his Saudi benefactors. Was he in a position to do any plain talking? Did the Pakistani side fully grasp the Saudi war planning? Did the Pakistani prime minister make any verbal pledges? Did he make it plain that Pakistan was in no position to send troops to Yemen or, hand held to his chest – a gesture which comes easily to us – did he convey the opposite impression?
Whatever the assurances given before the Saudi offensive, it doesn’t take much to see that the Saudi-led coalition, for all its initial swagger, is proving to be a paper tiger. The Egyptian military burnt their fingers in Yemen in Nasser’s time. So they know Yemen better than most others. But Field Marshal Abdel Fateh el-Sisi is beholden to the Saudis for all the cash they have given him. So it is a moot point what Egypt ends up doing.
This leaves Pakistan on whom the Saudis would be counting most desperately. Sharif, as already stated, is beholden to the Saudis. But apart from this it is part of our culture, part of our ingrained tradition, to be over-generous with our words, to lapse into poetry when simple prose would be a better medium of expression, and to end up promising more than we can deliver. This is the Pakistani habit, even in our everyday dealings. So it would be good to know what exactly Sharif committed himself to in Riyadh. What were the Saudis led to believe?
Now it is not just the Saudis learning the price of eggs but the Sharif government too. If the Saudis are learning the limits of their power, the civilian government in Pakistan is learning, admittedly not for the first time, that to do anything it must have the army on board. And the army, whatever appearances may suggest, seems not to be too keen to jump into the hot oven of Yemen – although again we don’t know what may have been pledged and what actually the army may be preparing to do.
Although, to repeat the first point, if Nawaz Sharif was in any position to read the Yemen situation correctly, he would have proved a better friend of the Saudis if he had done some plain talking with them about the dangers of starting hostilities in Yemen.
There is also the Ukrainian option…of sending troops without badges and insignias and describing them as volunteers. Where folly is once on the march there is no knowing the limits to which it can go. In the Kargil adventure our regular soldiers we called ‘mujahideen’. If the army caves in to Saudi pressure – and we really don’t know what is going on behind the scenes – is this bit of cleverness beyond the ingenuity of our decision-makers?
At the heart of the Saudi problem lies a fundamental miscalculation. So far their answer to every problem has been the writing of an appropriate cheque. El-Sissi has to be propped up: write him a substantial cheque. Pakistan’s leaders have to be mollified: write them a smaller cheque but with the certainty that their gratitude will be greater. Bashar al-Assad must be ousted: arm the rebels and give them money. And so on. The Saudi answer to even domestic discontent is not political reform but more handouts and subsidies.
The trouble is that a purely mercenary approach to diplomacy can only get you paper tigers. The unspoken Iranian coalition has something far stronger on its side: commitment and fervour. There is Hezbollah on Iran’s side – Hezbollah, the only force in the Middle East which has been able to hold its own against the Israeli military, indeed the only entity in the Arab world for which the Israelis show grudging respect. There is al-Assad who despite a ferocious civil war whose flames have touched Damascus itself has stood his ground and not fled from his capital. There is the Syrian army which has become battle-hardened. And there is Iran’s direct intervention which has helped stem the advancing tide of the Islamic State.
Is there anything like Hezbollah on the Saudi side, anything like the Syrian army, anything like the Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani? In their bid to oust al-Assad in Syria, Saudi Arabia and its allies created favourable conditions for the emergence and rise of the Islamic State. The Saudi attack on Yemen far from defeating the Houthis has created conditions which Al Qaeda on the Peninsula is exploiting. But in their paranoia about Iran the Saudis are oblivious to every other consideration.
Israel may do what it pleases – that doesn’t lose the Saudis any sleep – but Iranian influence must be contained. The Iranians for their part are broadening their options. They are playing on a larger stage. The Saudis are trying to keep time stand still. They are for preserving things as they are. This approach worked so long as American power was paramount and it was in everyone’s interest to keep Iran isolated. But thanks to the Iraq war and other blunders, American power is no longer the thing that it was. It has been checked in Syria. It has been checked in the Ukraine. Iran meanwhile is breaking out of its international isolation. And to the east China casts a larger shadow on world affairs.
The Saudis could have played a more imaginative game by trying to influence developments in Yemen from a distance. With their eyes closed they are walking into a quagmire, although with Yemen’s history intertwined with their own who should know better than them that much like Afghanistan, Yemen has been a graveyard of invading armies?
If Pakistan is a true friend of the Saudis it should point out these dangers, forcefully and without mincing words, and together with Iran and Turkey throw its weight behind a peaceful end to the fighting. This will be the greatest favour that anyone can do to the House of Saud. Forget about the dangers to Pakistan. Sending troops to Yemen will only mean reinforcing the disaster that the Saudis are creating for themselves.
Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan should be read as a cautionary tale. Pakistan suffered the consequences. The Saudi monarchy has to live in a dream-world to think that if the Yemen conflict lengthens Saudi Arabia will remain immune from the fallout.
We knew as well as anyone else that the Holy Places were never under any threat, and were not likely to be. The Saudis wanted troops and materiel for ground operations in Yemen. It shouldn’t have taken a Rommel to see this. But we kept at the swinging rhetoric and managed to give the wrong impression. Now that the Saudis are discovering the reality of our pledges, they can be forgiven for feeling let down if not betrayed.
If only we had the firmness of mind to convey a clear sense of what we could do prior to the Saudi action in Yemen. As it is, we have taken the right decision – there should be no doubt about that – but in a clumsy manner. Saying no is one thing but adding insult to injury requires special talent.
The Chinese never supported us in any direct manner in 1971. But they did not give any other impression. They did not promise anything that they did not deliver.
All the same, let us get some facts straight. It is not just Yemen which is in ferment. The entire Middle East is in a state of crisis and Saudi Arabia has much to do with this state of affairs. The Saudis have suddenly become the guardians of order and legitimacy, denouncing the Houthis as rebels. Did anyone in the Arab world much remember legitimacy when British and French fighter planes were bombing Muammar Qaddafi’s forces and Qatar and Kuwait among others were helping arm and fund the anti-Qaddafi rebels? Qaddafi was taken care of but Libya, a stable country before, was plunged into chaos. There was no Al-Qaeda in Libya before; now there is.
What about Syria? Saudi Arabia put its full weight behind the rebels trying to oust Bashar al-Assad from power and it’s been unhappy with the United States for not bombing Assad’s forces.
What about Egypt? Mohamed Morsi was the legitimate ruler, duly elected, but the Saudis couldn’t stand the Muslim Brotherhood and backed el-Sisi when he seized power, immediately writing fat cheques to support the new regime.
The Saudis don’t like the Brotherhood. They don’t like the Islamic State. They are paranoid about Iran. They are unhappy with the United States for not completely following their agenda. They are worried about their Yemen backyard. They have no problem with Israel. The question to ask: what do the Saudis like? What would make them feel completely secure?
The Saudis are unhappy and worried because their Middle East is crumbling around them. Assad survives in Syria…with help from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. And instead of Saudi-supported rebels gaining strength, the Islamic State (IS) has carved out a presence for itself on Syrian soil and spread its tentacles across the border into Iraq.
Left to its own devices, the Iraqi government could not have defeated the IS. But with Iranian help – and leadership provided by one of Iran’s top generals, Qasem Soleimani – the IS advance towards Baghdad has been stopped, and captured Tikrit retaken. Iranian influence dominant in Iraq only adds to Saudi gloom.
The Houthi advance in Yemen comes on top of all these developments. And the kingdom, its patience boiling over, is resorting to arms to redress this situation…and calling upon its friends – in Pakistan’s case, nearly ordering it – to come to its assistance. The Houthis or their allies (forces still loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh) are thus just a part of the problem. For the Saudis the major problem is the spread of Iranian influence across the region. The likely conclusion of a nuclear deal with Iran, with its attendant promise of ending Iranian isolation, adds to Saudi unease.
Before the Arab spring the Middle East was such a comfortable place from the Saudi point of view, everything in its proper place. Now everything is in ferment and nothing is predictable except further disorder.
But a further question to ask is whether Iran through insidious and sinister policy has manufactured this discontent or whether, by accident or design, it has merely profited from a situation not of its making. One does not have to be a Shia loyalist or an Iranian partisan to see that Iran had no hand in the Libyan uprising. It did not foment the unrest against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It has not created the Islamic State. If anything, American and Saudi short-sightedness have created the conditions for the Islamic State’s rise and spreading influence.
Iran has not created Saudi Arabia’s Houthi problem. And Iran has not influenced the Pakistani parliament to express its ‘neutrality’ in the Yemen conflict.
For the moment, however, all these calculations take a backseat to the outcome of the fighting in Yemen. Can Saudi Arabia or the coalition it heads change the military situation against the Houthis? Can the Houthis be defeated and peace terms discussed with Saudi Arabia dictating the terms of a settlement?
The use of airpower is one thing but most expert opinion is agreed on two mutually contradictory conclusions: 1) that a ground operation is necessary to push back the Houthis and create favourable conditions for the Saudis; and 2) that because of Yemen’s geography and the warlike temper of its people a ground operation is not a very sensible option.
Presently, the Saudis are in no mood to listen to any advice which goes against the position they have taken. They want concrete help, what they were looking for from Pakistan, not advice…which is why the Saudi special adviser on religious affairs, Dr Abdul Aziz, who is visiting Pakistan has bluntly said that talk of mediation to resolve the Yemen issue was nothing but a joke.
The Saudis are putting what pressure they can…the Emiratis having already hinted at unpleasant consequences for Pakistan. So does Pakistan remain firm on the path it has chosen or will it succumb to pressure? Let us at least eschew the clumsiness…in which context assorted ministers given to shooting from the hip would be well advised to leave formal responses to the foreign office.
It’s not that we should get involved. Of course we shouldn’t. But Pakistan’s leaders should not have given the impression of promising more than what they could actually do. And they should have had the good sense to see why Saudi Arabia’s rulers were giving them a royal gift of 1.5 billion dollars. After all, the fires raging in the Islamic world have been there for some time and Saudi concerns and sensitivities are no secret. So when this gift was offered, the leadership should have had the sense to foresee the likely quid pro quo.
Far from asking any questions the leadership rejoiced in the perception that it had such good relations with the Saudis. Then it was the national interest to take the money (and where that money has gone, or to what ends it has been used, no one seems to know). Now that the Saudis want their chips to be cashed, the national interest is morphing into the colours of ‘neutrality’. They are not likely to be to be greatly amused.