ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — War-weary Pakistani lawmakers are balking at committing troops to the Saudi-led campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, complicating efforts by Saudi Arabia to build a broad coalition for a possible ground offensive.
On Wednesday, for the third consecutive day, Pakistan’s Parliament debated whether to send troops, and perhaps aircraft and ships, to the Arabian Peninsula in support of one of the country’s closest allies.
Over the past four decades, the 550,000-member Pakistani army has repeatedly dispatched forces to Saudi Arabia to back a strategic alliance between the two Sunni-dominated nations. But the latest request from Saudi Arabia is prompting strong opposition from several major Pakistani political parties, reflecting the country’s fatigue with armed conflict as well as unease over whether events in Yemen could further inflame sectarian tensions in the Muslim world.
“Saudi Arabia has always supported Pakistan, but is Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity under threat?” Muzaffar Hussain Shah, a senator from the Pakistan Muslim League-F, asked on the floor of Parliament. “The answer is no. There is unanimity in this house that Pakistan can’t become part of this war. It’s not our war.”
When the Saudi air campaign in Yemen began two weeks ago, it appeared that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would commit forces to support the Saudi government.
As in Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslims are the overwhelming majority in Pakistan. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has provided extensive financial help to Pakistan over the years, including a $1.5 billion loan last year to shore up the faltering rupee. Sharif also has deep personal ties to Saudi Arabia, where he took refuge when he was ousted in a military coup during a previous term as prime minister in the late 1990s.
Yet, in recent days, even Sharif has appeared to be recalculating the risks of entangling Pakistani troops in the crisis in Yemen.
Although Pakistan’s constitution gives the prime minister complete control over the armed forces, Sharif said this week that he first wants the blessing of Parliament, where debates have been known to drag on for months.
And while that deliberation continues, Sharif has been signaling that he plans to work with allies such as Turkey, which also has been reluctant to commit troops, to try to defuse tensions in Yemen.
Sharif’s government appeared Wednesday to step back even further from a troop commitment when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Islamabad for two days of meetings with Pakistani leaders. Zarif, who is leading a 22-member Iranian delegation, urged Pakistani leaders to remain neutral in the conflict and instead work toward a cease-fire.
“It’s important for all of us to reach understanding that war is not a solution to the problem, so stop the bombardment, stop ground operation, allow humanitarian assistance, start talking and reach a peaceful settlement,” Zarif said after he met with Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s national security adviser.
Although there has been past tension in Pakistan’s relationship with neighboring Iran, Pakistani leaders fear a war in Yemen could be a distraction from efforts to finalize a nuclear agreement between Iran and a bloc of nations led by the United States. That deal could bolster Pakistan’s security by sparing it another nuclear-armed neighbor. The lifting of international sanctions on Iran also could expedite a planned gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a security analyst based in Islamabad, said there is a broad desire in Pakistan that the military not be distracted from its battle against Islamist militants in the northwestern part of the country.
Pakistan’s military also remains uneasy about possible conflict with arch rival India along the country’s eastern border. And there are concerns that an extended military operation in Yemen against the Shiite Houthis could exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Pakistan’s Shiite minority.
In a speech to Parliament on Wednesday, Shireen Mazari of the Movement for Justice party sought to draw parallels to Pakistan’s support for U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.
“In the past, we fought for the United States in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and post-9/11, we fought another war for the U.S. by opening our country for the American army, CIA and Blackwater,” said Mazari, apparently referring to Pakistan’s decision to allow U.S. military hardware to be transported through Pakistan in the military campaign against the Taliban in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “We are suffering because of all of that.”
Still, with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N holding a solid majority in the assembly and the Senate, Rizvi said Parliament still may eventually endorse sending some troops to help Saudi Arabia. But Rizvi said he suspects lawmakers will seek to limit the scope of the operation.
“It might be very vague, such as saying Pakistan will protect Saudi Arabia’s holy places,” Rizvi said.
In the meantime, Pakistan is continuing efforts to rescue thousands of its citizens who are trapped in Yemen. In a rare instance of cooperation between Pakistan and India, the two countries have even been rescuing each other’s citizens.
Eleven Indian nationals arrived home Wednesday night after Pakistan’s navy rescued them along with 171 Pakistani nationals from the southern city of Mokallah in Yemen.
“They’ve taken great trouble to do something, and we need to appreciate that,” India’s foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, told reporters. “We approach this whole issue as an opportunity to really cooperate with each other.”
Over the past week, India’s air force and navy also have rescued 4,000 Indian nationals and more than 500 foreigners from 32 countries, including three Pakistanis and a dozen U.S. citizens, officials said.
Annie Gowen in New Delhi contributed to this report.