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Current Affairs

What I Must Know

‘What I must know’
I.A. Rehman

PAKISTAN holds a unique position in the world with its long tradition of disregarding logic and reason in the conduct of its foreign policy. If any other country is acting similarly it deserves a medal for keeping its distinction secret.
For many days, the people of this country have been trying to figure out as to what extent their government has committed itself to jumping into the Saudi-Yemeni conflict. A heated debate is going on in the media and at various public forums on the pros and cons of contributing Pakistani troops to the multinational force the Saudis have created for their defence, although little information is available about the threat faced by them.
The government does not seem interested in dispelling public anxiety about the fallout of its joining the conflict in the Arabian peninsula.
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Shouldn’t we introspect before assuming an impossible-looking role in lands we do not know well enough?
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While speaking in the National Assembly last Friday, the water and power minister, who doubles as the defence minister, only said that no decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia had been taken. But he did not rule out any such step. His assertion that Pakistan would defend Saudi Arabia against any threat to it was open to a very broad interpretation.
Before the nature and extent of Pakistan’s possible intervention in an Arab people’s internal dispute is discussed, I should like to know as to who is going to decide the matter or who has authorised the policy decisions apparently taken so far.
According to a Saudi news agency, and its report remains uncontradicted, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made some definite pledges of support to Saudi Arabia, first while talking to King Salman in Riyadh early last month, and later on during his telephonic conversation with a Saudi prince. The people have a right to be taken into confidence about the substance of these exchanges.
The government has indicated its desire to take the country’s political parties on board. But will such consultation or any reference to parliament be held before a policy decision is made or after it? Misgivings that the government will only seek endorsement of its unilateral decision may not be baseless. Any government claim to a right to decide by itself a matter so fraught with calamitous consequences as joining an intra-Arab conflict will find few takers.
Another question is whether the government can fully appreciate the facts of the strife in Yemen. Does it have a think tank or cell of experts who can explain the genesis of the age-old tussle between the Zaydis dominating the highlands in northern Yemen and the Sunnis living in the lowlands in the south, from the days the Yemenis had a king and through their fights with Egypt, Turkey and, to an extent, Britain?
What are the causes of the Saudi split with the northern conservatives whom they had backed against the socialist south? What has happened to the various border agreements negotiated over the past 100 years or the North-South unification accord? Is the Foreign Office sufficiently equipped to assist in making sensible choices and to what extent is the government willing to listen to it?
Public opinion is being influenced in a particular direction by referring to every Muslim’s duty to defend the holy places of Islam. The last foreign troops to aim their guns at these sacred places almost a century ago were from our own territories. When the Sharif of Makkah was forced out by the Saudis there was some turmoil here but only over the destruction of graves.
The custodianship of the holy places changed many times — from the Umayyads and Abbasids to the Egyptians and Turks, and there were the Qarmatians in between. No ruler could claim immunity by virtue of exercising temporal jurisdiction over the holy cities. The question seems irrelevant even today.
Another question is whether Pakistan is a friend of Saudi Arabia or must it care for its special ties with its rulers? The Shah of Iran, President Soekarno of Indonesia and Col Qadhafi of Libya were great friends of Pakistan. They helped Pakistan in peace and in times of war. What did Pakistan do when they were dethroned? Obviously, Pakistan cannot defend any friendly regime in Yemen or elsewhere against its own people.
Much effort is being expended on arguing that neither the conflict in Yemen nor the Saudi offensive against the Houthi rebels is inspired by sectarian motives. True, no war has been fought solely for any religion’s or sect’s glory but religion has often been used to justify the wars fought for material gains, from the Crusades to the Zia-sponsored campaign in Afghanistan.
Regardless of the causes of the Houthi revolt and whatever the alignment of external forces, it will not be possible to keep the sectarian angle out of public perception. The cost to Pakistan will be higher than it has paid for any of its earlier misadventures.
Is there any room for indulging in illusions of Pakistan’s ability to mobilise an effective regional or international response? What respect can Pakistan command as a peacemaker when it can neither offer a fair deal to its minorities nor make peace with dissidents in Balochistan? Shouldn’t we as a people do a long-deferred and painful exercise in introspection before assuming an impossible-looking role in lands we really do not know well enough?
Many other questions regarding the details of the options being discussed these days must be assailing the minds of the bewildered and impoverished Pakistanis but these could be taken up after the basic assumptions underlying the state’s tilt towards intervention in Arabia have been critically scrutinised. The government certainly has a lot of answering to do.
Note: The ‘I’ in the heading and the text represents each Pakistani citizen who believes he/she has a right to confront the rulers who claim always to act in the public interest without ever ascertaining what the sacrificial lambs want.
Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2015

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