Ever since Defence Minister Khawaja Asif indirectly hinted on TV that General Raheel Sharif, the recently retired COAS, had accepted the post of commander of the 39-country Saudi-led alliance against ‘terrorism’, the country has been abuzz with speculation about the news.
The issue is of such importance that Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani felt constrained to ask the government directly on January 9 whether this was indeed the case. If so, the Chairman wanted to know, had the General sought permission from the federal government or taken it into confidence over the appointment? Rabbani reminded the Defence Minister of the rules regarding retired officers and inquired whether the government had issued an NOC for the appointment.
He also alluded to the fact that Khawaja Asif, while revealing the development on TV, seemed unclear himself of the verity of the news, while a contradictory statement by the prime minister’s aide Dr Musaddiq Malik had added to the ambiguity surrounding the issue. The Chairman Senate also asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to clarify the implications of the development in terms of the country’s foreign policy and its effect on the decision by a joint session of parliament not to become part of any such alliance. On the very day the Chairman Senate raised the issue in the upper house, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said in another TV programme that the government is unaware of the General’s reported decision or even whether the Saudi government had actually made the offer. He did, however, feel certain that General Sharif would consult the government and fulfil all the legal and constitutional requirements before taking any decision on leading the military alliance.
Dar revealed that Saudi Arabia wanted General Sharif to head the coalition while he was still the serving COAS. But after consultations with the government, this was considered inappropriate since it would involve a conflict of interest while he was still in the service of the Pakistani state.
While we await the necessary clarifications from the government beyond what has been stated that no request for NOC has been received from General Sharif yet, it would be prudent to point out that the Saudi offer, and General Sharif’s acceptance of it, if both true, could prove a source of embarrassment for Pakistan. First and foremost, it would run counter to the sense of the joint session of parliament, which wisely decided to keep Pakistan out of the raging sectarian wars in the region by refusing the Saudi request to send troops to support the Saudi side in the conflict in Yemen. Second, so soon after retirement, the acceptance of any such offer by General Sharif would not be in the country’s, or indeed his own interest.
Pakistan cannot afford to be sucked into the regional sectarian conflict, given that we have a sectarian problem at home, which would be negatively impacted by any such involvement in any shape or form. Second, General Sharif had earned the country’s and the public’s gratitude and respect for his leadership role in combating terrorism. He proved – through the Operation Zarb-e-Azb – that he was the man of the moment, with the requisite courage, will and professionalism to grasp the terrorist nettle firmly and uproot it from FATA.
For this achievement, and for his wise counsel in the task of counterterrorism under the National Action Plan, he was lauded and will be remembered in glowing terms. However, given that the 39-country ostensibly anti-terrorist alliance announced by Saudi Arabia suffers from a lack of clarity how, when and where it will operate, has yet to reveal what military force/s will be available to it, and has notably excluded Iran, Iraq and Syria because of actual or apprehended Shia leanings, it can neither be seen as an alliance of the Muslim world entire, nor washed of the taint of a sectarian coalition.
Given General Sharif’s high and admired profile, at home and abroad, and the cautionary fears of getting bogged down in a regional sectarian quagmire with repercussions at home, it would be advisable for both Pakistan and the General to politely refuse the offer. -Business Recorder