The question being repeatedly asked of the federal ministers and the Prime Minister’s spokesman was simple: had the recently retired General Raheel Sharif assumed the command of the ’39-nation’ Saudi-led military alliance against terrorism?
The answer should have been a plain yes or no. But there was no clear answer. While Defence Minister Khawaja Asif seemed to confirm media reports of the general’s appointment, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and the PM’s spokesman Dr Musadiq Malik claimed to have no knowledge of it because the follow-up questions were too hot for them to handle.
Given the sensitivities involved the issue refuses to go away. At Monday’s session of the upper house Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani demanded to know if “a no objection certificate was issued and the federal government was taken into confidence.” His chief concern of course was not about rules and regulations as they apply to any retired officer, but specific to the case of a former army chief heading – within 40 days of his retirement- a foreign military alliance which holds a wide range of ramifications.
Which is why the government wouldn’t come clear on the issue, and the reason Rabbani also asked the ministry of foreign affairs to explain the implications of the reported decision in terms of foreign policy as well as its effect on the resolution a joint sitting of Parliament passed a while ago, telling the government not to become part of a similar alliance. It is not difficult to see what arouses suspicions in the present instance.
The ostensible aim of the grouping, labelled Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), announced by Saudi Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud two years ago, is to protect Muslim countries from terrorist groups irrespective of sectarian identities. The reality though is very different from the stated position. First of all, it suggests Muslim countries are a united lot, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Muslim nations of the Middle East are fighting among themselves for regional ascendancy with Saudi Arabia and Iran leading the opposing sides. It is not an inadvertent mistake therefore that Syria, Iraq and Iran, the countries that are already fighting against the IS and other terrorist groups like al Qaeda offshoot, al-Nusra Front – backed by certain alliance members – have not been invited to join in.
That makes the IMAFT an essentially Sunni alliance aimed at countering Iran’s growing power. A centuries old sectarian schism is being exploited for the purpose. It is worthwhile to note in the context that as long as Reza Shah Pahlavi, a status quo defender like most Arab rulers, was at the helm his Arab neighbours had no problems with a Shia Iran.
The countries identified by IMAFT where terrorism needs to be fought are Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. The real object of the endeavour though is Shia-led Syria as well as Iraq. Egypt’s name seems to have been thrown in to create some semblance of a balance. Although certain Gulf States have been involved, alongside Western countries, in the ouster of the Qadhafi regime which has resulted in ceaseless conflict and chaos, the IMAFT is not expected to go and fight violent extremists either in Libya or in Afghanistan.
The alliance’s key interest is in the roll back of the growing regional influence of Iran by taking on its allies. In fact, certain Arab states have already been doing that in Syria by training, arming and financing rebels to fight against the Iran-backed Syrian regime, making the country the epicenter of a bloody tussle between the two contending camps.
Second of all, there is no organized IMAFT force in place. Save for the Gulf States all others who have signed on are not expected to send their troops to fight other people’s wars. Pakistan already has a significant military presence in the kingdom to provide security against “internal and external threats.” As it is, the kingdom has no external enemies threatening its security. In fact, for nearly two years it has been waging a brutal war against the poorest Arab nation, Yemen, because of its Iran connection.
The Gulf Cooperation Council had also requested Pakistan to send its troops to fight its war in Yemen, which was rejected by a joint sitting of Parliament, as pointed out by Senate Chairman. Still, Riyadh decided on its own to include Pakistan’s name in its new military alliance without asking for its consent, which was given albeit after some initial hesitation, in view of the special relationship,.
The present development has created so much controversy due to three major concerns. First, Pakistan is already reeling from the effects of getting involved in other countries’ wars. Second and more important, it will antagonize our next-door neighbour and bring serious consequences. Third, the sectarian coloured alliance commanded by a Pakistani will affect this country’s own sectarian harmony – already badly hurt by the Gulf States’ proxies.
So what is it that our good general is supposed to do as commander of the Saudi-led military alliance? He may want to help a brotherly country, but find himself fighting other people’s battles at the cost of the country he has served with great dignity and honour.
Although there is no confirmation of his having agreed to command the ‘Muslim armies’, as the old saying goes, where there’s smoke there’s fire. The reports of the contentious appointment are not without basis; still, the deliberate ambiguity maintained by the government offers a way out. Like at the time of troops request for the Yemen war, the government needs to cite the strong public reaction to ask Riyadh to let the general say thanks, but no thanks.