Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

A Delicate Balance: The regional puzzle surrounding Pakistan’s decision to stay out of Yemen

Ann Wilkens Sudhansu Verma 12 min

Power relations and cooperation patterns are changing around Afghanistan. Its two most intrusive neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, are both at a stage where long-set behaviour seems to be tilting in different directions, with linkages to China (in the case of Pakistan) and the USA (in the case of Iran). At the same time, Pakistan and Afghanistan form a region, which has the potential of bringing China and the USA together, in the converging interest of peace and security (1). AAN’s Sudhanshu Verma and Ann Wilkens look into a case in point that provides a prism through which this change can partly be observed – Pakistan’s handling of Saudi Arabia’s recent request for a military contribution to its Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. The request created a political dilemma in Pakistan: to comply with the Saudi demand for a Pakistani combat role would involve a deterioration of its relationship with neighbouring Iran. To deny the request would risk its relationship with the Arab Gulf countries, which support Pakistan financially and also have deep-rooted religious influence on Pakistani society.

Useful friendship. Pakistani and Chinese officials are signing the agreement on a joint agriculture project in Beijing in July 2014. China is deemed the most important supporter for Pakistan's ailing economy. Source: Pakistan's Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform

For many, including the Saudis, the choice was a given: Pakistan, which has a history of supporting Saudi Arabia’s wars and has been providing military help on numerous occasions on the kingdom’s request (2) would naturally join the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen with troops, fighter jets, and/or warships. The Saudis even displayed the Pakistani flag at its press centre for the operation. However, after considerable agony, Pakistan decided to deny the Saudi request for a military contribution. To a certain extent, it ended up in a position closer to Iran than to its ally Saudi Arabia. The decision was widely criticised in the Arab world. In the United Arab Emirates, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs went as far as warning the Pakistani government on Twitter for its ambiguous stand: “Pakistan needs to take a clear position for the sake of its strategic relationship with Arab Gulf states. Contradictory positions on this issue will carry a high cost.”

Pakistan’s surprising decision raised a number of questions: what was different this time? Why, in spite of the close relationship between the Pakistani and the Saudi political leadership on both state and personal levels, did Pakistan deny the Saudi request? The public discussion to answer these questions has been dominated by three factors: the Pakistani army being overstretched with its existing engagements (3), possible implications for Iran-Pakistan relations and the risk for sectarian backlash on the Sunni-dominated Pakistani society, which contains the world’s second largest Shia population (after Iran). The extent of this public discussion and the role of Pakistan’s parliament in the final decision were noteworthy per se, reflecting the lack of popular support for a military adventure in Yemen.


A factor, which was less prominent in the public debate but could have been weighing heavily in government considerations, has to do with the economic implications of a military intervention, actual as well as potential costs. To mend the failing economy (4) has been the first and foremost priority of the Nawaz Sharif government. For this, cooperation with Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ (5) China is crucial, even more important than loans from Saudi Arabia, which last year alone provided 1.5 billion dollars to stabilise the Pakistani currency. It also has the advantage of being religiously neutral in the existing Pakistani context of (literally) explosive sectarianism. (6) In November 2014, the Chinese government announced that it would fund 45.6 billion US dollars worth of energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor programme (CPEC). In this context, China has promised to invest around 33.8 billion dollars in various energy projects and 11.8 billion dollars in infrastructure projects. The programme will also add 10,400 MegaWatt of power to the national grid of Pakistan, a major relief to its chronic power shortage.

On paper, the programme shows great economic and strategic potential. It is based on the ongoing work to upgrade the Gwadar port in Pakistan’s province of Balochistan, close to the Strait of Hormuz, with highways, railroad and pipeline to pass goods and energy supplies from the Arabian Sea into China. For China, this corridor will dramatically reduce freight time and costs from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. For Pakistan, it promises to provide much-needed infrastructure, industry and investment. However, what looks promising on paper may prove difficult in reality.

One of the major hurdles is Chinese concern over the lack of security surrounding the project due to the ongoing insurgency in Balochistan, as well as militant activities in other parts of the country, where Chinese workers and operations have been targeted ( here and here). Illustrating the gap between commitment and delivery due to complications on the ground, a study shows that China only delivered six per cent of the total committed aid of 66 billion dollars to Pakistan between 2001 and 2011. The proposed corridor is to cross Pakistan’s two most unstable provinces: Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). In order for the Chinese to deliver on the promised investments, security in these two provinces will have to be ensured. In response to Chinese concerns, the Pakistani government has announced a special security division comprising nine army battalions and six wings of civil armed forces dedicated to the protection of Chinese workers in Pakistan ( here and here).

The CPEC programme was sealed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan on 20 and 21 April this year. Xi’s trip was planned since last year but had been postponed on various occasions. In September 2014, it was cancelled due to large street protests staged by Canada-based cleric Tahir ul-Qadri and Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf party (PTI), against the Nawaz Sharif government. Xi was then scheduled to visit Pakistan at the end of March this year but plans were again delayed, citing domestic engagements. Yet another travel plan for the first week of April was deferred without explanation after Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen. When the visit was finally confirmed, the decision came only after Pakistan had clarified its position on Yemen. It is reasonable to conclude that, had Islamabad chosen to participate in Saudi Arabia’s campaign, Xi’s visit would have been delayed even further, as China might not have wanted to be seen as taking side in a regional rivalry (7).


In order to understand the link between the CPEC programme and the non-intervention in Yemen, one also has to consider the importance of Iran in securing stability for the success of the proposed project. Saudi Arabia claims that the Yemeni Houthi rebels are supported by Iran, a claim that Iran denies; however, analysts believe that, while Iran does not control the Houthis, it does back them in various ways. Pakistan’s involvement in Yemen would have been in direct confrontation with Iranian interest. A souring of relations with Iran would have had the potential of stretching the Pakistani army on another of its borders. On the other hand, cooperation with Iran could play a crucial role not just in the two Pakistani provinces that require stability for the CPEC to succeed, but also in Afghanistan, where the Chinese reportedly plan to link the CPEC to its wider ‘Silk Road Economic Belt. This context may also be part of the background to China’s new activism in offering to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan Taleban and the Afghan government.

The timing of the Saudi intervention in Yemen was significant not only for Pakistan-China relations, but also in the Iranian context. It started when the West was in the middle of negotiating a nuclear deal with Tehran, resulting in a possible agreement to end sanctions. If this agreement materialises, Iran’s geopolitical stocks are likely to rise in the region. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, a sanctions-free Iran could play an even stronger role post-ISAF, with the risk of spoiling perceived Pakistani interests. In addition to that, Iran would retain the power to deepen instability in Pakistan by fuelling the polarisation of the Pakistani society along sectarian lines, at a time when such polarisation has already become a tangible threat to internal stability all over the country. While Pakistan needs China for its economy, it needs Iran for its stabilisation. At the very least, it needs to avoid antagonising Iran – as would have been the case if confronting its geopolitical interests in Yemen.

With these and other common interests in mind, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif paid a visit to Islamabad just as the Pakistanis were weighing their response to the Saudi call for military action in Yemen. Zarif criticised the Saudi military intervention and asked Pakistan to work towards a political solution in Yemen, based on a four-part plan to impose a ceasefire, deliver humanitarian assistance, establish a dialogue platform and, as an outcome of the dialogue, form a broad-based government ( here and here). This was also, more or less, the stance that the Pakistani government adopted – at least until the Saudi Minister for Religious Affairs also paid a visit to Islamabad in order to counteract the Iranian pressure. In an ambiguous statement following his visit, Nawaz Sharif criticised the Houthi rebels for overthrowing a ‘legitimate’ government and reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to defend Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity. In reality, however, the Pakistani position on the Yemen issue did not change much. The Pakistanis refused to take on a military role, nor did they lend political support to the Saudi intervention. They still promoted a resolution through dialogue, in line with the Iranian position to allow the Houthis a say in the next Yemeni government and not let the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (8) decide who will rule Yemen next.

The Balochistan issue

Pakistan shares 900 kilometers of border with Iran along its Balochistan province, where the Gwadar port – the southern end of the CPEC project – is situated. The Baloch population is concentrated in Pakistan but is spread also into Iran and Afghanistan, and they are Sunni Muslims (see AAN analysis on Baloch seeking refuge in Afghanistan). Balochistan is the poorest and most underdeveloped of Pakistan’s provinces and has been suffering from a chronic insurgency problem. Pakistan has repeatedly claimed that the insurgents are operating from Afghan soil, with covert support from India. After the recent attack on labourers constructing a road in Balochistan, the Pakistani army chief, General Raheel Sharif, “warned foreign states and international agencies to refrain from creating anarchy in Balochistan by supporting terrorist elements in the province.” On the other side of the border, Iran is also suffering from an insurgency problem in its Sistan and Balochistan province, originating from Sunni Islamist militant groups (some but not all of them Baloch) that, as Iran  claims, are operating from Pakistan. Right after the Saudis intervened in Yemen, a group of insurgents, reportedly operating from the Pakistani side, killed eight Iranians border guards.  From time to time, in spite of the exchange of mutual accusations, the countries do manage to cooperate and also exchange insurgents caught on their side of the border.

The insurgents in Pakistani Balochistan are not just targeting the state, attacking pipelines, rails and other infrastructure, but also Chinese engineers, workers and operations (read here and here), as well as non-Baloch Pakistanis. A week before Xi’s visit, 20 workers from the Punjab and Sindh provinces were brutally killed by the banned Baloch Liberation Front (BLF). BLF spokesman Gohram Baloch justified the killings by claiming that they were working on a road, which is part of the CPEC programme, a project he claimed would not benefit the people of Balochistan. Ending the insurgency in Balochistan would require not only increased political flexibility on the part of the Pakistani political and military leadership, but would also have to build on cooperation between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to control the border areas.

Afghanistan and FATA

North of Balochistan lies another loosely controlled and instable area. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) constitute a semi-autonomous buffer zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province; split from Afghanistan during the British colonial period by the provisional Durand Line (no Kabul government, including that of the Taleban, has given up its claims on these areas). This is where, since last summer, the Pakistani army is carrying out its Operation Zarb-e Azb, a major military offensive to eliminate the Pakistani Taleban organisation, Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP), in North Waziristan. After the TTP attack in late last December on a school run by the army in Peshawar, Pakistan also seems to have been conducting a joint military operation with the Afghan army to eliminate TTP factions based on the Afghan side of the borderline. Pakistan has been claiming that TTP leaders have been using Afghan border areas – mainly in Kunar and Nuristan provinces – as a basis for operations in Pakistan, in the wake of the withdrawal of US troops from these areas.

Thus, support from the Afghan side is essential if the FATA operation is to succeed, and it is noteworthy that cooperation with the Afghan government on this and other issues has picked up since Ashraf Ghani took over the presidency in Kabul. A tangible sign is the recently signed agreement between the ISI, the Pakistani security branch, and the NDS, its Afghan counterpart, to cooperate in the fight against insurgency on both sides of the borderline (after intense criticism, Kabul has sought to portray it as ‘only a draft’).

China – Iran – Afghanistan

Yet another aspect in the regional puzzle is that China and Iran enjoy friendly relations. Not too long ago, China used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council in order to prevent action against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose regime is backed by Tehran. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline, which is expected to provide much-needed gas to Pakistan, will also be funded by cooperation between Iran and China. Furthermore, in September 2014, the Chinese navy participated, for the first time, in a four-day joint naval exercise with the Iranian navy (read here, here and here). Earlier, Iranian navy vessels visited the Chinese port of Zhangjiagang in May 2013, and Iran’s navy commander Admiral Habibollah Sayyari visited China in October 2014.

It cannot be excluded that, apart from direct talks, Iran might have also used its Chinese connections to influence Pakistan to keep its military out of Yemen. As reported by the Express Tribune, a Pakistani daily, during his visit to Pakistan, Xi told Nawaz Sharif that China “would stand behind Islamabad in the event of unravelling of its ties with the Arab world.” The report adds:

The Chinese leader even suggested if Pakistan realized its true potential and pointed out that if Islamabad maintained unity in their ranks and implemented the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, then it would not have to look up to outside help either from the West or Arab countries.

An op-ed signed by Nawaz Sharif and published after Xi’s visit to Pakistan in the Beijing Review underlined the importance for Pakistan of the emerging cooperation between China and Afghanistan. Nawaz Sharif wrote:

I am glad that this initiative [CPEC] has helped in improving relations with Afghanistan and an ambience of cooperative relations based on mutual trust has been evolved, especially in regard to combating terrorism. Pakistan supports Afghan-led and Afghan-owned processes of reconciliation in Afghanistan and believes that peace in Afghanistan is a key to surmounting security challenges of the region as well as unleashing the economic potential for shared economic prosperity. We are of the firm view that the Chinese interest and participation in rebuilding infrastructure in Afghanistan and support for the reconciliation process in that country would greatly enhance the chances of success in our common goals of peace and development.

While Pakistan’s final position on the Yemen issue seems to herald a new trend, it does not necessarily mean that Pakistan is willing to entirely sacrifice its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Knowing that there would be negative repercussions after denying the Saudi request, Islamabad went into damage control mode after Xi’s visit. For instance, Pakistan agreed to provide its navy to enforce the arms embargo against the Houthi rebels under the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015).

However, while continuously involved in a delicate balancing act between, on the one hand, backing Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally and, on the other, developing economic cooperation with China, it is evident that Pakistan has tilted towards prioritising its economic uplift. Such uplift cannot be carried out unless Pakistan’s security problems are managed – and for this, it has to seek cooperation also with the two countries on the other side of its volatile western border, Iran and Afghanistan.


(1) Of late, the U.S. and China seem to be pursuing a common interest of peaceful and self-sustaining Afghanistan. On the diplomatic front, both U.S. and China have already been engaged in trilateral cooperation with other regional actors, including Pakistan. Moreover, on February 9, 2015, the first round of China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue was hosted in Kabul. The three sides agreed to carry out practical cooperation projects within the framework of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. A similar trilateral between the US, China and Pakistan seems to be in the offing (but has not yet materialised).

(2) According to a 2008 report by the US think-tank Brookings, Pakistan has provided military aid and expertise to the kingdom for decades. It began with help to the Royal Saudi Air Force to build and pilot its first jet fighters in the 1960s. Pakistani Air Force pilots flew RSAF Lightnings that repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border in 1969. In the 1970s and 1980s, up to 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in the kingdom, some in a brigade combat force near the Israeli-Jordanian-Saudi border (quoted here). Pakistan also provided military personnel to another Arab Gulf state, the Sultanate Oman, suppressing a left-wing insurgency in its western province of Dhofar in the 1960s and 1970s.

(3) The Pakistani Army is currently engaged in its FATA region under Operation Zarb-e Azb and in Balochistan against the separatist movement. There is a Rangers-led operation going on in Karachi against criminal groups, while a major part of army resources are still used up in defending its eastern border with India.

(4) Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inherited an ailing economy. Right after he took charge in 2013, the International Monetary Fund gave Pakistan a serious assessment, saying its economy was at a high risk of deteriorating into crisis and that growth was too slow to significantly improve people’s living standards.

IMF approved a 6.7 billion dollars loan package in late 2013 to help Pakistan revive its economy, rebuild reserves and prevent a balance of payments crisis. Pakistan is also in the grip of its worst ever energy crisis, which causes power outages up to 20 hours in parts of the country and puts limits on industrial output.

During the previous government, GDP growth averaged only three percent, central bank reserves had fallen to 6 billion dollars (down from 14.78 billion dollars in fiscal year 2010-11) and the Pakistani currency was struggling – it had depreciated more than 40 per cent since 2007.

(5) The bond between Beijing and Islamabad is old and strong, stretching back to the 1960s, and it got even stronger in 1970s after the Nixon administration’s opening with China. “This will be my first trip to Pakistan, but I feel as if I am going to visit the home of my own brother,” Xi wrote in an article published in Pakistani papers ahead of his arrival. During Xi’s visit, Pakistan-China friendship was described on signboards all over Islamabad as “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel.” Both countries project themselves as ‘all-weather ally’ to each other.

(6) Sectarian violence targeting the Shia minority is not new to Pakistan. However, it has been rising over the last decade. On May 13, at least 43 people were killed and more than a dozen injured when armed men fired at a bus carrying members of the Ismaili community, a minority Shia Muslim sect, in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. In recent years, anti-Shia attacks have been on the rise also in Quetta, where in 2013, around 80 people were killed in a bomb attack at a crowded market place in an ethnic Hazara area. Sectarian violence has claimed the lives of approximately 2,300 people in the country’s four main provinces and some 1,500 people in the tribal area of the Kurram Agency since 2007, according to a recent report by the Middle East Institute (MEI).

(7) It is also relevant to note that Xi was originally scheduled to visit the Middle East, reportedly including stops in Cairo and Riyadh, after his visit to Pakistan. However, he cancelled Riyadh after Saudi Arabia’s decision to launch Operation Decisive Storm. He also cancelled Cairo after the Egyptians joined the Operation Decisive Storm.

(8) Apart from Saudi-Arabia and the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman – the latter being the only GCC country that refused to join the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition.


Economy Iran Pakistan regional cooperation Saudi Arabia Security Yemen