Pakistan’s Parliament voted unanimously Friday not to join the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition that’s fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, a blow to the desert kingdom, which had been so certain of Pakistan’s support that it had displayed Pakistan’s flag at its press briefing center among those of other coalition members.
The motion in Parliament, which was offered by the government, tried to soften its rejection of the Saudi request for ground troops, aircraft and naval vessels by promising to send forces should Saudi Arabia itself come under attack.
But it pledged neutrality in the Yemen conflict in order to further diplomatic efforts, launched last week in conjunction with Turkey, to end the crisis.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who could, if he chose, dispatch troops without Parliament’s authorization, and the powerful army chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, who’s no relation, had said they’d follow Parliament’s guidance.
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Pakistan’s refusal to take sides in Yemen deprives Saudi Arabia of the participation of one of the biggest militaries in the Muslim world. Pakistan has about 550,000 active military personnel and as many reservists, most with experience of warfare gained during border clashes with neighboring enemy India or in fighting Taliban insurgents based in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s parliamentarians had worried that the Yemen conflict would worsen divisions among Muslims. The resolution urged the government to work with other Muslim governments and the international community to bring about a cease-fire.
The resolution also expressed “deep concern at the increasing threats posed by different terrorist groups and non-state actors to the security and stability” of the Middle East. It advised the Pakistani government to “enhance its friendship and cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council and all other regional states to combat extremism and terrorism.”
More than 700 soldiers of the Pakistani army’s Special Service Group are based in Saudi Arabia to train Saudi forces in counterterrorism warfare. Since mid-March, a further 300 Pakistani commandos have been participating in annual joint exercises in mountainous terrain near the western Saudi city of Taif.
Saudi Arabia had asked Pakistan to contribute ground forces, warplanes and naval vessels to its campaign in Yemen, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif told Parliament on Monday. He’d traveled to Riyadh last week to discuss the request with Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, but had asked him for time “to give peace a chance” before formally responding.
The rejection marked a turning point of sorts. The official Saudi press agency reported March 28 that Sharif had assured King Salman in a phone conversation that “all potentials of the Pakistan army are offered” to the kingdom, and there were many reasons to think Pakistan would respond positively: Pakistani pilots flew Saudi warplanes in 1969 against a Yemeni incursion into the kingdom, and the country dispatched troops to Saudi Arabia during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
But the Parliament favored the diplomatic initiative Pakistan launched with Turkey last week to find a way to end the conflict.
Like Pakistan, Turkey is a major Muslim military power. It operates the second-largest force in NATO, after the U.S. Both countries share borders with Iran – which is backing the Shiite Muslim Houthis in Yemen – and have no desire to provoke it. Iranian natural gas accounts for about 20 percent of Turkey’s energy imports, while Pakistan is home to more than 40 million Shiites, one of the largest populations outside Iran.