Neutral but not really
BY Z A H I D H US S A I N | 4/15/2015

PARLIAMENT has spoken and quite unequivocally against Pakistan taking sides in the Yemen conflict. But soon after, the prime minister assured full support to the Saudi position on the crisis. He insists this was in line with the parliamentary resolution. Is it really so? One wonders why it took so long for the prime minister to make this clarification. This is certainly not what the resolution said. There was no mention in the joint declaration of restoration of the ousted government in Yemen as a prerequisite for the resolution of the crisis in that country. It has explicitly urged neutrality in the Yemeni civil war.

If anything the prime minister`s statement has added to the confusion that already existed. Though there is still no promise of boots on the ground, the statement is certainly meant to cool down the traditional Arab allies unhappy with our claim of neutrality. What the prime minister has tried to say is that impartiality does not mean not standing with the coalition on the Yemen crisis. Make any sense? True, the parliamentary resolution is not binding, but then the government should have clearly articulated its stance on the issue during the parllamentary debate. It is also a fact that a parliamentary resolution is not a substitute for action.

Intriguingly, there was no winding up of the marathon debate with the government making a clear policy statement as is the tradition. Instead, an ubiquitous finance minister read out a joint statement to end the session, leaving many questions unanswered.

There has been alot ofeuphoria overthe consensus declaration, with newspaper headlines calling it a rebuff to the Saudi demand for military support.

But a cautious read of the resolution does not rule out sending troops for the security of Saudi Arabia.

The lack of a clear policy has placed Pakistan in an awkward diplomatic tangle.

It has become a hallmark of the third Sharif government to leave tough decisions either to parliament or all-party conferences. It is indeed good democratic practice to get the lawmakers involvedin policy debates, but it becomes absolutely meaningless with the treasury benches taking a back seat. It is essentially the prerogative of the government to formulate a policy and then take it to parliament. But for Sharif it is the other way around. Most times a consensus means no policy.

With few exceptions the debate in the joint session was reduced to rhetoric with the members oversimplifying a very sensitive foreign policy issue.

There was a complete lack of interest in the debate, particularly in the treasury benches in the absence of clear policy guidelines. At the end each political party tried to take credit for the final draft of the declaration. But one wonders at the government`s own stance.

Confusion and disarray in the government has been evident since the breaking of the Yemen crisis.

Initially, the government tried to take the cover of the military as it has routinely done on issues related to internal security.

But it seems no one was willing to take up the responsibility, sensing the public sentiment against getting involved in an outside conflict. So the buck was passed on to parliament. The resolution passed by the joint session was apparently in conflict with the commitments the civil and military leadership had already made to the Saudi government.

It was not incidental that Pakistan was shown as part of the 10-member Saudi-led coalition. Around 1,000 Pakistani troops, mostly on training and technical jobs, were already reportedly present in the kingdom. Not surprisingly, the parliamentary resolution did provoke a strong reaction from the Arab coalition. Pakistan has been accused of betrayal and ofeven beingscared ofIran.

That has compounded Sharif`s predicament.

Absence of a full-time foreign minister has further contributed to the policy disarray. This was starkly evident during the joint session of parliament.

There was really no one to articulate the government`s position. The prime minister`s intervention lasted only a few minutes and had nothing substantive to add.Hours after the passage of the consensus resolution the breach started appearing. Not surprisingly it was Maulana Fazlur Rehman who made a complete turnaround calling for Pakistan`s full support to Saudi Arabia. Earlier he and his party had fully endorsed the joint resolution calling for neutrality.

What is most disturbing is the mobilisation of extremist Sunni militant groups in support of Saudi Arabia. A multiparty conference of various religious parties, that also included Hafiz Saeed, publically deplored parliament`s pledge to stay neutral and urged the government to send troops to protect Saudi Arabia.

A rally taken out by ASWJ, the current name of the outlawed Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, declared its support for Saudi Arabia and accused the parliament of isolating the country. It is a dangerous polarisation. The ambiguity surrounding the government`s position on the crisis has given impetus to the extremist groups, which have long been suspected of receiving financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. It is clearly meant to mount street pressure to counter the existing public sentiments of not getting involved in the Middle East conflict.

The Yemen conflict has already turned into a major regional crisis with the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and its allies. Iran has also become deeplyinvolvedinthe strife.Meanwhile Washington and some other Western countries have also put their weight behind the Saudi-led coalition.

With no sign of a diplomatic solution to the problem, it now seems a matter of time before Saudi Arabia and other countries have boots on the ground in Yemen. In this situation it will become more difficult for the Sharif government to stay out and decline the Saudi demand for troops. It is extremely dangerous for Pakistan to get entangled in the wider Middle East war. It will require a tight balancing act to extricate Pakistan from this predicament.• The writer is an author and joumalist.
Published in Dawn