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Coalitions of Convenience

  0 comments   |     by Ikram Sehgal

Pakistan is inching toward an acknowledgement of its participation in the Saudi-led, American-backed military intervention in the civil war in Yemen. A fateful moment arises for India’s regional interests. It is hard to ignore Saudi generosity during times of need and the deep-felt urge of most able-bodied Pakistanis to volunteer safeguarding the territorial integrity of the holy lands against aggression from any quarter but Pakistan finds itself in a bind over the mode and manner of how to assist the Saudis. Given the ongoing unfinished fight to eradicate terrorism from its roots, with its resources badly over-stretched, would Pakistan be able to spare troops to join such a coalition? Providing material support within the Saudi territorial limits with guarantee that Pakistan troops will not be part of the “Coalition” could be a reasonable option  Separating the permutations and combinations of allies and foes in the Middle East given any country or sub-region is mind-boggling. Beset with multiple crises ourselves, mostly of our own making, we are desperately attempting to blunder into another complication, one that could severely exacerbate the fragile existing fault lines in our society, a potential “Pakistan Spring”. Festering for some time, working out who is in alliance with who in the civil war in Yemen is almost impossible. The Houthi rebels (supported by army units loyal to former President Ali Saleh) seized the capital Sanaa before moving onto capture other parts of the country. Reportedly given material support by Iran, the Houthi rebels of the Zaidi Shia sect operated till recently in their own Northern Yemen region bordering Saudi Arabia. Their “Iranian connection” alarmed the Saudis about the emerging threat to their sovereignty. With intermittent hostilities with the Houthis along the Yemeni border starting in 2009, the Saudis suffered several hundred casualties in a brief flare-up several months ago. Given the threat of an Iranian-supported regime controlling the southern edge of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, Arab nations are determined to roll-back the Houthi success and reinstate incumbent President Hadi who fled even his temporary haven in the port city of Aden. Aircraft from half a dozen Arab countries rendered Sanaa airport unusable and targeted Houthi concentrations in many other cities in the past week, causing substantial collateral damage. Not physically taking part, the US is providing real-time intelligence for the planning of coordinated and accurate air strikes. 

Meeting in Sharm Al Sheikh, Heads of 22 nations of the Arab League agreed upon a “Joint Arab Military Force”, six countries volunteering participation. A prime beneficiary of Saudi financial aid, Egypt immediately pledged substantial air, sea and land forces, the proposed 40000 strong force will take time to become operational, Egypt seems to have forgotten its decade-long horrible experience in the 1960s in Yemen (with the Houthis as Royalists fighting the Egyptian-supported Republicans) as its own “Vietnam”, losing over 15000 dead out of an expeditionary force touching at one time 50000 soldiers and airmen.  After a decade of slaughter Nasser agreed to sign a peace treaty and the whole Egyptian contingent was withdrawn. Hell-bent on destroying Iran’s nuclear capacity and with a vested interest in keeping the present Egyptian regime led by President Gen Sisi secure, Israel has become a de-facto but silent member of the so-called “Sunni Coalition”. Conversely Israel clandestinely supported the Royalists against the Egyptians in the 60s. Suffering dramatic reverses at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) or “Daesh”, US training teams re-grouped and re-trained Iraq’s forces on a fast-track basis. In a contradiction, Iranian militia with the Iraqi forces attempting to re-take Tikrit are protesting US involvement in airstrikes against Daesh concentrations. Proxies supported by Turkey and Jordan are already combating Iranian proxies supporting Syria’s Assad Regime.  Inbuilt tensions are threatening to tear apart the “coalitions of convenience” formed an ad hoc basis to fight the forces of disorder on the one hand and of order in the other in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Pakistan is in a Catch-22 situation, damned if it joins the Saudi-led so-called “Sunni Coalition” and damned if it does not. Add the generosity of the Saudis during times of our need and the deep-felt urge of most able-bodied Pakistanis to volunteer safeguarding the territorial integrity of the holy lands against aggression from any quarter and we find ourselves in a bind over the mode and manner of how to assist the Saudis. Given our ongoing unfinished fight to eradicate terrorism from its roots, with our resources already badly over-stretched, would we be able to spare troops to join such a coalition? It would be wrong morally to be (or seem to be) part of the so-called “Sunni Coalition”, not only would this jeopardize our friendly ties with our western neighbour Iran, but the perception of taking sides in a possible Shia-Sunni divide would trigger an apocalypse within the country. Barely beneath the surface, could the faultiness be exploited to the hilt by the terrorists (and others) to exacerbate sectarian divisions. 

The Pakistan Govt has denied the sending of troops to join the Coalition; a ministerial-level evaluation team will “assess the situation on the ground”. Those wishing us ill, including some of our politicians, would certainly like the Army to jump into the fray and be cut to size.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Providing material support within the Saudi territorial limits, the guarantee must be that our troops will not be part of the “Coalition”, only engaging the hostiles if and when they come across the international border.   One Mechanized Brigade was detached from Pakistan’s “Main Task Force” (Mechanised Division) at Tabuk and placed at Nagran on the Yemen border during “Operation Desert Storm”, the first Gulf War (1991).  This freed Saudi troops for operations in Iraq and Kuwait. A principle was established, that Pakistani troops would defend the Kingdom, but would not cross the border.  Neither did Egyptian Forces but even than Egypt got its entire debt of US$ 12- 15 billion written off, Pakistan got a pittance in comparison. A similar arrangement could be done with a mandate on the already established principle of not crossing the international border. Hostile artillery fire and threatening posture of Scud Missiles across the border must be exceptions for neutralizing. Another option would pre-position a skeleton force with weapons, vehicles and equipment for a Mechanised Division.  With imminent danger of Houthi rebels (or anyone else for that matter) transgressing into Saudi territory this force can be beefed up by air within hours by troops already earmarked.  Our mission must be clearly defined as separate from the proposed “Joint Arab Military Force” and out of their command structure. Fortunately the naming of the force as “Arab” gives us a face-saving “out”. Instead of prolonging the conflict which could cause us endless domestic grief, our historical ties with the “proxy” antagonists in Yemen can facilitate bringing peace into the strife-ridden nation.  Both Pakistan and Turkey, President Erdogan’s recent comments about Iran notwithstanding, can play a great role in defusing the situation. Ours should be a “coalition of convenience” to contain further conflict and facilitate peace in Yemen. 

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