Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

Why has Saudi Arabia sent for troops from Pakistan?

Shaukat Qadir examines strategic movements in the region
Pakistani troops. Asianet-Pakistan / Barcroft India
Pakistani troops. Asianet-Pakistan / Barcroft India

Once again there is news of a Pakistani brigade being sent to Saudi Arabia. Lots of questions are being raised about why it is going and for what purpose.

The last time Pakistan deployed troops in the kingdom was during Desert Storm. Those troops were a defensive deployment and did not participate in the United States-led offensive.

In 2015, King Salman sought Pakistan’s assistance in the Yemen conflict. Nawaz Sharif took the matter to parliament, where it was unanimously opposed. The recent decision to deploy forces follows the visit of Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, to the kingdom last year.

Gen Raheel Sharif, Bajwa’s predecessor, will, it is assumed, lead the Islamic Alliance against Terrorism.

I have previously pointed out that Gen Sharif had some reservations about the post and had certain conditions he wanted to be met before he took on this responsibility. Among these reservations was the apparent exclusion of all Shia-majority or Shia-led countries.

Even when Pakistan turned down the request for assistance in Yemen, it didn’t shut the door.

Pakistan reassured Saudi Arabia it would provide assistance to protect the kingdom’s holy sites. It is this commitment that Gen Bajwa was asked to fulfil.

For the past few months, anti-coalition Houthi forces have been threatening targets deep inside Saudi Arabia.

It is clear that the Saudi Defence Forces are struggling to contain these attacks, although earlier this week the coalition intercepted a missile aimed at Jazan and stopped three men at the border. This may explain why Pakistan was asked to assist.

But the problem is again more complicated than just that. As I have pointed out before, there is an ongoing global realignment of alliances and commitments underway.

In this realignment, the last US administration sought some form of reconciliation with Iran. It also seemed more offensively inclined against Bashar Al Assad in Syria. Donald Trump now runs the show and we can see signs of the US shift in policy towards Syria.

While we have no real idea of Mr Trump’s Middle East policies, Gen Joseph Votel of US central command recently testified before the Senate armed services committee.

He was particularly harsh in his condemnation of Iran and, since his presentation was titled The Posture of US Central Command, it does seem to have some official recognition, if not approval.

Gen Votel was quite clear that the US needed to use “coercive diplomacy” towards Tehran and force a change in its regional policy.

But most important was Gen Votel’s forceful emphasis on the assistance that needed to be offered to Saudi Arabia so that the kingdom may tackle the threat posed by the Houthis.

After the experiences before, during and after Desert Storm, the prospect of US boots on the ground in Saudi Arabia are zero.

But if the US commitment is determined, what is its best alternative source for assistance to Saudi Arabia?

If that is the case, would not a Pakistan beleaguered by the Indian efforts to isolate it, be happy to accept an offer like this, an offer that would also help safeguard the larger portion of its western border with Afghanistan?

If the bulk of the argument I have laid out here is true, Pakistan needs to balance its diplomatic act very well.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer

Updated: March 21, 2017 04:00 AM

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