Pakistan turns down request for participation
Beirut - The Pakistani parliament’s unanimous rejection of a request from long-time ally Saudi Arabia to contribute troops for an offensive war in Yemen is a major blow to the kingdom’s drive to build a broad-based Sunni alliance against Shia Iran.
The absence of Pakistan’s army, battle-hardened fighting jihadist insurgents in mountainous terrain similar to Yemen, could well preclude launching the major ground operation that military analysts increasingly see as the only way the Saudis can crush Houthi rebels, whom most analysts believe are armed and backed by Tehran.
Saudi Arabia, along with its key allies the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, apparently accepts it will need Pakistan’s military might if it wants to avoid seeing Operation Decisive Storm become bogged down in a protracted war of attrition against tribesmen fighting on their home ground.
As the kingdom casts off its long-held strategy of international diplomacy in favour of building a broad alliance of Sunni states to contain an expansionist Shia Iran, its most important ally in its confrontation with Iran is Pakistan, the sole Muslim nuclear power.
With US forces disengaging in the Gulf, the kingdom and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies and beyond are having to stand up for themselves against myriad security threats.
Given the differing military doctrines, equipment and operational capabilities among the major Arab powers, including Egypt, this strategy may have only limited value.
Most Western military analysts do not rate the combat capabilities of the Saudis and their friends as high, despite the tens of billions of dollars spent on advanced weaponry since the 1970s.
If Tehran does take off the gloves, the GCC monarchies are the most likely target of an Iranian assault that could be backed by nuclear weapons if the Islamic Republic were to attain such a capability.
The only way Riyadh could counter that would be to fall back on Pakistan’s nuclear armoury, which the Saudis are widely believed to have financed. The Saudis have repeatedly warned that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons they would be forced to do so too.
It has long been felt likely that the Saudis would either buy nuclear warheads outright from Pakistan to arm its Chinese-built ballistic missiles, or possibly bombs for their US-built combat jets, or would shelter under Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella.
This scenario has never been confirmed. If there is such an arrangement, the Saudis would have to rely almost entirely on Pakistani support to get their nuclear force operational quickly in the face of likely US opposition.
But the dismay of the Saudis and their partners at what they see as being left in the lurch by the Americans should not be underestimated. Nor should the April 10th decision taken by Pakistan’s parliament, including the entire opposition.
Pakistan, confronting long-time rival India, has sought to stay neutral in Islamic conflicts. But it is increasingly concerned about the growing sectarian conflicts between Sunnis and Shia, an offshoot of which is Iranian support for secessionists in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province.
Pakistani politicians fear the army will be overstretched by any foreign adventure. “Forty percent of the army is engaged in the war on terror,” explained Mushahid Hussain, chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Defence Committee.
An estimated 20% of Pakistan’s population of 182.6 million is Shia, the largest concentration outside Iran, and Shia-Sunni violence is already rife.
There is speculation Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a long-time Riyadh ally sheltered by the Saudis for eight years after he was deposed in a 1999 army coup, promised the Saudis military support.
He is by nature a cautious decision-maker and, since his return to power in 2013, has been at odds with Pakistan’s powerful generals.
He has also visited Riyadh three times this year. He flew to Riyadh on January 23rd after being given advance notice that ailing King Abdullah was near death and was personally welcomed at the airport by the future king, Prince Salman. That is something Saudi monarchs rarely do and it underlined the importance of Saudi-Pakistani relations.
The two countries have a long and close military relationship. In the 1970s, thousands of Pakistani soldiers served in Saudi forces following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. During the 1990-91 Gulf war, Pakistan sent troops to protect the Muslim holy shrines of Mecca and Medina.
“Asking the Pakistanis to resume a role they played in the past – guarantors of the Saudi regime internally, and of Saudi Arabia’s borders externally – makes a great deal of sense, and given Sharif’s relationship with the Saudis, it is logical,” observed the US security consultancy Stratfor. “Even if nothing comes of it immediately, we are seeing moves by the Saudis to try to cope with the new reality.”