“Nothing goes off suddenly; even the earthquakes set in motion from the depth of the earth to the rooftops of villages.” This line from a poem written two decades ago by a renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti was reflective of his frustration over the long-brewing political morbidity and authoritarian culture in the Arab world which he predicted will one day be blown over in a popular rage. That moment of reckoning did arrive in some of the Arab countries in an upheaval known as the Arab spring starting with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunis in January 2011 and then sweeping across the Arab world from the Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula in popular protests against generations of oppression.
Since then, the planet’s greatest bastion of authoritarianism has been under popular siege sending shockwaves to many other states in the larger Muslim world. Anti-government sentiment has been brewing in Algeria, Morocco, Palestine, Jordan and Syria where people are disillusioned with their self-serving corrupt rulers. In 2011, Egypt saw the ouster of its dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Libya went through a bloody eight-month- long civil war to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi. The situation in most other Arab countries was no less problematic with ageing dictators and monarchs feeling threatened. The Yemeni crisis today is also an extension of the same wave of popular uprising in the Arab world.
No doubt, the problem lies in Arab countries with ageing dictators, some of them octogenarians, who in Barghouti’s words, are all fond of dyeing their hair and moustaches, and are now really shaken, puzzled and afraid. Their oppressive policies, including rapacious family enrichment as well as endemic corruption by the ruling elite and higher-ups, have led to serious popular resentment that now also seems to be threatening the Arab world’s American-protected old order. No wonder any trouble in the Arab Street is cause for serious concern in Washington. The ominous turn of events poses threat to the order it has over the decades built in this region where it controls the destiny and oil of almost all countries.
In recent years, the US has been pursuing a new security doctrine based on “regime change” wherever or whenever it so considers necessary for its own good. This doctrine was pursued with impunity in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and was also applied with success in Egypt and Libya. An engineered militant insurgency to topple the Assad regime in Syria backfired, with the insurgents proclaiming their own controversial Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq. This led the US to declare a new war last year against the so-called Islamic State claiming it was a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American interests.
As in the case of the Iraq war, the new war strategy bypassed the UN and is being pursued through a ‘coalition of the willing’ ostensibly with limited American involvement in military terms. It’s a déjà vu scenario: for larger geopolitical motives, create a monster and then wage a war in the name of that monster. The creation of the Taliban and now the IS seems to have the same script: Muslims to be used to fight proxy wars. The only difference with this war is that it pits Muslims against Muslims by flaring up sectarianism in the region. Ironically, the new ‘fratricidal’ war is being funded by the oil-rich Gulf States, the West’s known Trojan Horses.
Whatever the endgame, this war strategy has far-reaching implications for peace, regionally including our own country as well as globally. The war footprint now extends from Iraq and Syria to the Arabian Peninsula where a fierce tussle for power has erupted into a full-scale conflict in Yemen. After the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, his vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, took over through a ‘mediated deal’ between the government and opposition groups and tried to unite the fractious political landscape of the country. He struggled to fend off threats both from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Houthi militants who had been waging a protracted insurgency in the north for years.
In 2014, the Houthi fighters swept into the capital of Sana’a and forced Hadi to negotiate a “unity government” with other political factions. In this murky scenario, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also jumped into the arena opposing both President Hadi and the Houthis. Western intelligence agencies consider AQAP the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda because of its technical expertise and global reach. The US has been carrying out operations, including drone strikes, against AQAP in Yemen with President Hadi’s co-operation, but the Houthis’ advance the US campaign was scaled back. In late 2014, a Yemeni affiliate of the so-called Islamic State seeking to eclipse AQAP also joined the fray.
After rebel forces closed in on President Hadi’s southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to his request to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets. The coalition was said to comprise five Gulf Arab states and Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, and surprisingly, according to foreign media, Pakistan. Nobody in our country knew how and when we decided to become part of this military coalition. The deteriorating situation in the Arabian Peninsula warranted utmost discretion and circumspection on our part. The whole world knows the complexities of the situation.
Yemen is a difficult country for anyone to wage war in; the battle lines are blurred and there is no clear exit strategy for either side. Any outside power would have to think carefully before committing any military intervention in this country. Even the US has had to close its 20 year-old counter-terrorism military base in Yemen. Pakistan’s policy on this issue should have been clear from day one. There should have been no ambiguity. We do not take sides in any inter-Arab dispute or on any conflict between two Muslim states. Under Article 40 of our Constitution, we are obliged “to strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic unity and common interests.”
In the given situation, the only role we have is one of a peacemaker, not a combatant party on any pretext or under any compulsion. A legal premise must remain intact. No country, however powerful or dominant, should resort to the pre-emptive or preventive use of force or to punitive action unless it is authorised by the Security Council within the scope of Articles 42 and 51 of the UN Charter. We must not accept any role that makes us part of the Saudi military offensive against Yemen.
Our armed forces are already engaged to the hilt in fighting the decisive battle of our life and any distraction could have serious repercussions on the ongoing Zarb-e-Azb. We no longer can take any more cataclysms. We can’t afford any more proxy wars. Given our fraternal relations with Saudi Arabia, however, we must provide whatever assistance we can to meet its legitimate domestic security needs. In doing so, the risk of what is known as ‘mission creep’ must be kept in mind.
Our biggest challenge at this critical juncture is not what we are required to do for others’ interests; it is what we ought to do to serve our own national interests. It is also time we converted our pivotal geo-political location into an asset rather than letting it remain a liability.