Home >Opinion >The illusion of normalcy in Pakistan

In a country run by its praetorian guard, it is rare to hear civilians assert themselves in areas declared to be the preserves of its armed forces. Last week, an event of this sort took place in Islamabad. At a joint sitting, the country’s Parliament resolved to keep it out of the war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The army did not say anything about the resolution publicly.

In the resolution passed on Friday, one part read as: Parliament “desires that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis". (Paragraph 8). For a country that has such close military, political and economic relations with Saudi Arabia, this is nothing short of a snub. As late as last year, the government in Riyadh gifted $1.5 billion to Pakistan when it was close to a financial crisis. Extensive subsidies and cheap fuel from the Gulf kingdom are essential to keep Pakistan running.

To many eyes, this may be the first step on the long road to becoming a normal country where elected leaders formulate foreign and national security policies and the armed forces only execute them. In Pakistan, Parliament is twice removed from any authority on these matters. Even governments of the day are mere permissions office for the army to do what it pleases. So how has this revolution of sorts been accomplished, especially when it is against one of the few benefactors that Islamabad has? And does it really signify a changing balance of power between the army and elected leaders?

The war in Yemen is part of a larger proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in West Asia. Any involvement by Pakistan against the current rulers of Yemen, the Houthis, will be seen as an offensive act against Iran, which is backing the Houthis. Such a decision will not keep the conflict restricted to a remote corner of West Asia but will immediately raise tensions with its western neighbour, Iran. More importantly, given the paranoia that prevails against India in Islamabad, antagonizing Iran is considered the same as pushing Iran towards India. If avoiding that requires ignoring/snubbing Saudi Arabia, then that is considered an acceptable price. In a somewhat convoluted calculus of evaluating national interest, this is the real reason for the resolution and not some notional independence in foreign policy decision-making.

There are other reasons to believe that this decision may create trouble for Pakistan. These reasons are domestic and not external. Within days of the resolution, influential religious leaders, mostly adhering to the Deobandi theological persuasion, called on Parliament to reconsider. Ominously, just days after the resolution, the leader of the Binoria madrassa in Karachi—a hotbed of terrorism in that city—also made that “request". In the week before the passage of the resolution, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), an organization whose leaders are responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks, launched a campaign to “defend" Saudi Arabia. It is only a matter of time before other religious seminaries in Pakistan join this chorus.

These religious leaders and institutions are not to be understood in the normal sense of these expressions. They are largely responsible for the extreme religious radicalization of Pakistani society. This is so potent a threat that even the army thinks twice before acting against these groups. Until some years ago, and even now possibly, these groups were the non-state adjuncts of the army against India. They were part of the so-called “good terrorists" against whom the generals refused to act.

It is safe to assume that while choosing between Iran and Saudi Arabia, these calculations would have been deliberated on seriously. The choice appears to have been between an antagonistic Iran and a large fraction of radicalized population and a pacified Iran and more vocal and violent local radicals. For the moment, Pakistan has chosen the former option. But one interesting question can now be posed: are the radicals (JuD and others) really out of the army’s control?

There is a lesson here for New Delhi. India, it goes without saying, is a very different country and bears little comparison with Pakistan. But the foreign policy gymnastics being seen there serve a big warning: Domestic and foreign policies ought to be kept as distinct, watertight compartments. Mixing the two has dangerous and unpredictable consequences.

Some time ago, there was an intellectual fashion in India about taking inputs from states in crafting foreign policy. At least in this respect, India has a lot to learn from Pakistan on what can go wrong.

Is India a threat to Pakistan? Tell us at

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