Why old ally Pakistan is wary of joining Saudi offensive in Yemen
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When Saudi-led airstrikes targeted Houthi forces in Yemen on Friday, the second day of the campaign led by mostly Gulf Arab nations, Pakistan pledged to defend Saudi Arabia against any threat to its territorial integrity.
But the kingdom’s old ally stopped short of joining Riyadh’s battling coalition, at least for now.
Pakistan’s hesitation to contribute to the Sunni Muslim campaign against the Iran-allied Shiite Houthi militia in Yemen is in part due to its own precarious fault lines. While Pakistan is a Sunni majority country, it still has a sizeable Shia minority -- the largest in the world after Iran, according to Pew Research.
"We are not and will not fan any conflict that will divide the Muslim world on sectarian lines," said Pakistan Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, AFP reported.
A suicide bomber last month killed 61 people at a Shiite mosque in the southern district of Shikarpur, the agency said, part of the sectarian violence that has been plaguing Pakistan for years.
Pakistan’s military is also stretched thin between fighting Taliban extremists on one end and, on the other, keeping its border with traditional foe India secure.
“On going in for US-Saudi alliance to fight in Yemen: Has Pakistan not suffered enough by participating in others' wars?” Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the second-largest opposition party in parliament, said in a Twitter post on Friday.
“Pakistan should be playing a lead role in negotiating/helping in peace talks rather than becoming a participant in the war.”
Although it was unclear which wars Khan was referring to, Pakistan’s involvement in Bahrain’s crackdown on Shiite protesters and the shift in its Syria policy to oust President Bashar al-Assad has drawn scrutiny as it mulls Saudi Arabia’s request to send troops to Yemen.
Pakistan’s Asif said the country hasn’t yet made a decision on whether to contribute military support, although Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's office stated that any threat to Saudi Arabia would "evoke a strong response" from Islamabad, Reuters reported.
Saudi Arabia has had long standing ties with Pakistan, and a particularly close relationship with Sharif, analysts say.
When Sharif was overthrown in a coup in 1999, he was sent into exile in the kingdom. During the 1980s, the Saudis worked closely with the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, to finance more than half of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based think tank.
Riedel noted in a 2008 article that Pakistan has received official aid from the kingdom as well as large investments from Saudi princes and from religious institutions. Pakistan, in turn, has provided military expertise to Saudi Arabia for decades.
That support includes prior military involvement against Yemen.
“Pakistani Air Force pilots flew RSAF Lightnings that repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border in 1969,” said Riedel. “In the 1970s and 1980s, up to 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in the kingdom, some in a brigade combat force near the Israeli-Jordanian-Saudi border.”
Saudi Arabia sees Pakistan, which shares a border with Iran, as a crucial counterweight in the region. But Pakistan will have to evaluate the huge domestic risks of joining the Saudi offensive before it wades into the escalating Yemen crisis.
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