Pakistan’s Saudi deployment risks entanglement in Yemen
Agreement to dispatch Pakistani border brigade forces to Saudi Arabia raises questions of strategic intent and civil-military power relations
Pakistan has obliged Saudi Arabia’s request to send more troops to the kingdom in the name of border security.
The deployment comes as Riyadh ramps up its battle against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, raising questions about whether the troops will ultimately be dragged into combat. Pakistan’s Parliament passed a resolution in 2015 to maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict.
The Pakistan Army confirmed the deployment after Saudi Ambassador Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki met Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa on February 15 at Pakistan’s military headquarters at Rawalpindi.
Initial details of the deployment were outlined during General Bajwa’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who also serves as defense minister, during a meeting in Riyadh on February 1, military sources told Asia Times.
“The Crown Prince maintained that as per the two countries’ bilateral agreement Pakistan is bound to safeguard Saudi Arabian territory,” a senior military official told Asia Times. “The urgency of the matter can be gauged by the fact that the Crown Prince himself took up the matter with [the] army chief.”
Multiple government sources confirmed to Asia Times that Saudi Arabia’s apparent urgency owes to its continued military involvement in Yemen and rising cross-border attacks into Saudi territory by Houthi rebels.
On January 20, Saudi Arabian air defense forces intercepted a ballistic missile fired by rebels headed toward the southern Saudi province of Najran. On February 13, over 41 Houthi fighters were killed and almost 50 injured during fighting in Yemen’s Hodeidah province, according to reports.
On February 15, the day Saudi ambassador Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki met Pakistani General Bajwa, the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s fighter jets launched 68 air strikes at rebel positions in six Yemeni provinces.
Former Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif is already in Saudi Arabia as the first commander of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), an inter-governmental alliance of 41 countries launched in December 2015.
However, Pakistan is sending troops to Saudi Arabia as part of its bilateral agreement to help guard the kingdom’s territorial integrity and not as part of the IMCTC, which is yet to become fully operational.
While confirming that Pakistan is indeed sending more military personnel to Yemen, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces, maintained that the troops will not be involved outside of the Saudi kingdom.
“Troops already there will not be employed outside [Saudi Arabia]. The Pakistan army maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other [Gulf Cooperation Council]/regional countries,” the statement said.
Sources with knowledge of General Bajwa’s meeting with both Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Ambassador Al-Maliki say that Pakistan only agreed to station its troops along the border and won’t be sending its personnel to fight inside Yemen.
“Although technically defending Saudi Arabia against Houthi rebels and their attacks, [the deployment] makes Pakistan firmly a part of the Saudi camp. This, in turn, makes them a party to the Yemen War,” a senior military official who spoke to Asia Times claimed.
On February 16, Pakistan’s Senate summoned Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir to appear before Parliament’s upper house to explain the decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia, which was reportedly taken by the military rather than civilian leadership.
This was confirmed by Indian security analysts and New Delhi-based diplomats monitoring developments in Pakistan. “Our information is that the decision to send the brigade was presented as a fait acompli to the the civilian leadership,” a senior Western diplomat in New Delhi told Asia Times.
“The deliberately nuanced Foreign Office statements condemning the Houthi missile attacks as a threat to the [Saudi] kingdom and holy mosques also seem aimed at justifying sending Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia for active engagement in the conflict,” Senator Farhatullah Babar said in Friday’s session.
Others see the deployment as another point of friction between the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)-led government and the powerful army. It is believed that the army is pushing behind-the-scenes for a consolidation of opposition parties to keep the government in check and ensure its defeat in forthcoming general elections.
In April 2015, Pakistan’s Parliament passed a resolution to uphold its neutrality in the Yemen conflict. However, with the military establishment increasingly consolidating its power, the Saudi royal family has recently coordinated directly with the Pakistani army leadership to fulfill its requests.
“The fact that it was the ISPR and not the government that made the announcement to send troops shows how the military dominates policy-making in Pakistan,” Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a retired former secretary of the Ministry of Defense Production, told Asia Times. “The decision should’ve been taken by the Parliament because they had already passed a resolution against Pakistan’s involvement in Yemen.”
Strategic analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi, author of The Military and Politics in Pakistan, said that it is not surprising that the army took the decision to send troops, of which he said the civilian government “has been informed.”
“Pakistan has over 1,000 troops deployed there already as military trainers,” he said. However, there are credible reports to suggest that Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pilots fly Saudi fighter jets on occasion. “The only reason why this is being seen as an extraordinary development is because of the current rivalries in the Middle East,” he added.
Lieutenant General Talat Masood notes an increasing inclination in the Pakistan army’s involvement on behalf of Saudi Arabia. “Pakistan has openly become involved on the Saudi side in the Yemen war. First, it used to say that it is only supposed to guard the two [Saudi] holy sites in Makkah and Madinah, then it became Saudi domestic interests, and now there’s open involvement in Saudi wars,” he said.
The decision also has implications for Pakistan’s bilateral relations with neighboring Iran. There has been concern in Tehran over Pakistan’s growing military ties with Saudi Arabia.
“The Iranians view the [IMCTC] as a force against them,” a senior New Delhi-based diplomat said. “General Bajwa has made considerable effort to maintain a balance between the two but this will heighten tensions.”