Farooq Naeem / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistan says Saudi-led coalition in Yemen wants troops

Despite alliance with Riyadh, Pakistan fears compromising nonsectarian position by supporting the campaign militarily

Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan for military aircraft, warships and troops, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said on Monday, at the start of a parliamentary debate on whether Pakistan should get involved in a Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, the Gulf's main Sunni Muslim power, has asked Sunni-majority Pakistan to join the military coalition that began conducting air strikes in Yemen last month against rebel Houthi forces, who adhere the Zaidi school of Shia Islam and whom Gulf countries see as an regional proxy for Shia Iran.

Asif has in turn hedged his bets. He has said repeatedly he will defend any threat to Saudi Arabia's “territorial integrity” without defining what action Pakistan might take in practice.

“Both Pakistan and Turkey are concerned at the overthrow of a legitimate government of Yemen by use of force by nonstate actors ... Pakistan and Turkey agreed that the continuing crisis in Yemen could plunge the region into turmoil.”

The Saudi-led and U.S. supported military campaign entered its 12th day Monday, targeting the Houthi rebels who took over the capital, Sanaa, in September and eventually forced Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee. The rebels and allied forces are now making a push for Yemen's second-largest city, Aden, declared a temporary capital by Hadi before he fled abroad.

The Saudi-led force also has blockaded Yemen by air and sea. Humanitarian groups, along with Russia at the United Nations Security Council, have called for a pause in the fighting to allow for aid to reach Yemen amid dwindling medical supplies and overstretched personnel. The Red Cross subsequently said on Monday that it was given permission to land planes full of staff and supplies into the country, but those deliveries were still being held up by “logistical problems.”

Evacuations of foreign nationals also continued. India said nearly all of its citizens in Yemen would be evacuated by Monday night. As of Sunday, India had evacuated nearly 2,300 citizens, most by sea from Aden. It was unclear how many more were left.

The current Pakistani government may feel an obligation to help the war effort because of past Saudi patronage. Last year Riyadh gave Pakistan $1.5 billion in aid, and it sheltered current Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif after he was overthrown in a 1999 military coup.

But joining the Saudi-led coalition could inflame a sectarian conflict at home where about a fifth of the population is Shia and attacks on Shia are increasing, further destabilizing the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people. The Pakistani army, a mix of both Shia and Sunni generals, risks compromising its non-sectarian position by becoming overtly involved in the conflict and supporting the Saudis against the Houthis.

Pakistani intervention would probably also anger Shia power Iran, with which Pakistan shares a long and porous border in a region roiling with its own separatist insurgency. Pakistan's other main borders are with archenemy India and Afghanistan, where Pakistani troops are conducting operations against the Taliban, which has long terrorized the country's Shia minority. The Iranian foreign minister will visit Pakistan this week.

Many analysts say the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its existence since independence, has the final call. The generals have been silent.

Pakistan has nearly 1.5 million active troops and reserves, but about a third of those are tied up with operations along the Afghan border. The bulk of the remaining forces face off with nuclear-armed India. Others are executing the government's new counter-terrorism plan.

Even though Saudi Arabia is a “special friend” of both the government and the military, Pakistani intervention in Yemen might be unwise, said retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former national security adviser.

"If it was to defend Saudi Arabia against aggression, in spite of our commitments, I think we would stretch to sending troops," he said. "To send our troops to a third country — I think that would be foolhardy."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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