According to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media branch of the Pakistan Army, troops will be sent to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for “a training and advisory mission.”
The announcement was made Thursday after a meeting between Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan, and Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief General of the Pakistan Army. The meeting was held at the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.
The statement issued by ISPR read, “In continuation of ongoing Pak-KSA bilateral security cooperation, a Pakistan Army contingent is being sent to KSA on training and advice mission.” The statement also pointed out that Pakistan maintains security cooperation with many other countries, “Pak Army maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other Gulf Cooperation Council and regional countries.”
The Pakistan Army did not publicly disclose how many troops are being sent to Saudi Arabia. This, combined with the ongoing civil war in Yemen, has led many Pakistani civilians and politicians to question the decision.
The agreement comes after Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to Riyadh earlier this month, where he met with Saudi military commanders as well as Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). This was the second such meeting in the past two months.
Since the two meetings between Saudi and Pakistani military officials in two months, military cooperation seems to have increased. Wednesday, February 14th, saw the execution of the initial phase of the Joint Special Operation Forces Maritime exercise Aff’aa Al Sahil, in which the Royal Saudi Navy and the Pakistan Navy met in Karachi, Pakistan for naval exercises.
A statement issued by the Pakistan Navy said, “The exercise will help in developing synergy in operations against asymmetric and conventional threats.” While the first phase of the joint training focused on land and harbor maneuvers, as well as preparations for the next phase of exercises, the second phase will take place at sea and will target piracy, human trafficking, and terrorism.
Not everyone is Pakistan is behind the decision to deploy troops to Saudi Arabia. Friday, Senate Chairman Mian Raza Rabbani, issued a request to bring Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir Khan, before Parliament on Monday, to explain to parliament the decision to send troops to KSA.
Senator Farhatullah Babar has also been outspoken in his objections to sending a Pakistan Army contingency to Saudi Arabia, claiming that the Army is circumventing parliament on the issue.
Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in the civil war in Yemen since 2015. Senator Babar implied that he believes the Pakistan Army contingency sent to Saudi Arabia may be a step in the direction of involving Pakistan in the conflict. Babar pointed out that the war in Yemen “provides a disturbing context” to the Pakistani deployment and asked “Has anyone given a serious thought to its grave consequences?”
Senator Babar also pointed to statements made by the Foreign Office in regards to the civil war in Yemen:
The deliberately nuanced FO statements condemning the Houthi missile attacks as a threat to the Kingdom and Holy Mosques also seem aimed at justifying sending of Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia for active engagement in the conflict.
The Conflict in Yemen
Many are calling the war a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, rivals, if not mortal enemies in the region. Saudi Arabia stands behind the former Yemeni government, while Iran has been accused of arming the Houthi rebels who support a former president of Yemen.
Riyadh has been calling for the Pakistan Army to deploy troops to Yemen since the conflict began. Although Pakistan has so far resisted, many analysts believed Pakistani involvement was inevitable, especially after Pakistan sent a retired army chief to lead a Saudi coalition last year. The retired Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, leads the 41 member state Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, initiated by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
The civil war in Yemen has currently reached a stalemate. In many regards, Riyadh’s involvement has backfired, certainly in the international press where Saudi Arabia’s blockade of the country is being blamed for the human rights disaster besieging the country. Thousands are starving in Yemen while outbreaks of curable and preventable diseases have proliferated. The UN has called the human rights crisis in Yemen the worst crisis of the day.
Human Rights Watch has documented 58 unlawful airstrikes carried out by the Saudi led coalition resulting in the death of 800 civilians and destroying infrastructure, mosques, and businesses. Some of these unlawful airstrikes utilized weapons supplied by the UK or US. Human Rights Watch believes that some of these airstrikes may constitute war crimes.
Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels have laid illegal landmines and indiscriminately launched missiles into civilian areas. While hundreds of children have perished in Saudi led airstrikes, the Houthi rebels are said to target schools and recruit child soldiers.
As of October of last year, Human Rights Watch reports 4,125 civilians have been killed and another 7,207 wounded, while airstrikes and missile attacks have all but destroyed the Yemeni economy.
Despite the stalemate, the Houthi rebels, have been routinely firing missiles at KSA. Last year, a missile nearly hit the royal palace in Riyadh while another targeted the King Khalid International Airport, also in Riyadh.
How Many Troops?
Although the Pakistan Army insists that the troops are being deployed for a training mission and will not be sent outside of Saudi Arabia, the fact that the number of troops being sent has not been disclosed has raised numerous questions, if not all out suspicions. Dawn newspaper claims multiple sources have told them the deployment may be the size of a composite brigade. Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor has also stated that the deployment will be smaller than a full division. The Major General claims that more information in this regard is forthcoming.
More than 1,000 Pakistani troops are already deployed in Saudi Arabia due to a bilateral agreement between the two countries signed in the early 1980s. These troops are said to function in “training and advisory roles.”