A lack of transparency
Both the Senate and National Assembly have raised pertinent questions over the decision to send almost a division of Pakistan army troops to Saudi Arabia without taking parliament into confidence. Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani has summoned Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir to appear before the upper house and deliver a policy statement on the issue on February 19. The National Assembly in parallel has asked the foreign ministry to provide a detailed reply to the question why Pakistani troops were being deployed in Saudi Arabia and under which bilateral agreement. It is pertinent to note that the army announced the decision on February 16, citing a bilateral security pact. This announcement came in the wake of the meeting between COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Saudi Ambassador Commodore Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki, which reportedly discussed the regional security situation. This interaction itself came after General Bajwa’s recent three-day visit to Saudi Arabia where he met Crown Prince Salman and Saudi military commanders. The Senate expressed alarm that such unilateral decisions were being taken while bypassing parliament and arguably to the detriment of the country’s interests, without delving into the grave consequences that could flow from them. Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani argued that the complex Yemeni civil war had been further complicated by Saudi Arabia’s allies in Yemen falling out and at each other’s throats and Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in that conflict provoking a backlash against the kingdom itself from the Houthis. The army’s announcement was vague on the number of troops being dispatched, but it appears the contingent will comprise almost a division. The recent deliberately nuanced foreign ministry statement condemning Houthi missile attacks against Saudi Arabia was read as providing justification for the deployment. Both in the Senate and National Assembly, parliamentarians reminded the houses that a joint sitting of parliament had passed a unanimous resolution on April 10, 2015 that Pakistan will remain neutral in the wars in the Middle East or within any Arab state. Questions therefore rang in the air seeking answers to why that resolution was being ostensibly violated.
It may be recalled that the April 10, 2015 resolution upset Saudi Arabia and the UAE and evoked some rude remarks about Pakistan from the latter. The sense of the resolution then was that Pakistan should not insert itself into the sectarian conflict in Yemen, given that Pakistan has some 20 percent Shias and wishes to strike a balance between its relations with the Gulf states and Iran. To those original misgivings could now be added the disintegration and mutual infighting in the pro-Saudi camp in the Yemen civil war, a development that promises the conflict could get messier. While the military may be pandering to our Gulf neighbours given their financial help to Pakistan in dire moments, the reservations voiced in parliament deserve thought. For one, ignoring parliament blatantly on a matter of such importance and in the face of the resolution referred to above highlights the long road yet to parliament’s empowerment as the supreme fount of authority in the state. Admittedly, our politicians have not always acquitted themselves in a manner that could advance this cause. For example, when General Bajwa, in an unprecedented first, addressed the Senate acting as the Committee of the Whole about security issues, the briefing and deliberations being leaked to the media by parliamentarians provoked the ire of Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani. Be that as it may, surely there is no impediment in the military and foreign ministry briefing a select committee of parliament in-camera on sensitive issues that do not allow public exposure. Two, the move smacks of the military ‘surreptitiously’ succumbing to the unremitting pressure from the Saudis for the deployment. Three, and perhaps of greatest concern, despite the reassuring noises that the troops would be restricted to Saudi soil, engage largely in training activities and not be sucked into the regional conflict/s, the increasing spillover of the Saudi-Houthi conflict onto Saudi soil by means of missile attacks suggests the Pakistani military contingent may be inadvertently put in harm’s way and be forced to at the very least defend itself. This presents a slippery slope of escalation without anyone being able to predict the end. For all the reasons enumerated above, it behoves the defence and foreign ministries to brief and if possible satisfy both houses of parliament about this ‘bolt from the blue’.