Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khawaja Asif, has confirmed the appointment of former Army Chief General Raheel Sharif as the first commander of the nascent Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), headquartered in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Most analysts within Pakistan are convinced that their country should not enter the sectarian-charged political minefield of the Middle East, where the Saudis and the Iranians continue to utilise proxies in their neighbourhoods. The ugliest manifestation of this conflict has been the Saudi bombardment of Yemen that began in 2015 with the rise of the new prince, Mohammad bin Salman.
This campaign has been no less than a moral quandary for the United States and its key ally in Western Europe, the United Kingdom. The two countries have come under increased flak globally for patronising Saudi atrocities against Yemen’s civilians. The death toll had reached about ten thousand people as per reports, when the Obama administration belatedly blocked arms sales to the Kingdom in December 2016.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s unstated decision to jump to Saudi defence plans for the region is worrying in many ways. Firstly, Pakistan has the second largest Shi’ite population after Iran. Secondly, the country has been in the grip of sectarian violence since the 1980s, and in recent decades, sectarian jihadists have joined Al Qaeda and, of late, the Islamic State (ISIL). Based on these imperatives, in 2015, the Pakistani parliament had unanimously voted against military’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict. The Saudis were angered at this decision since they had doled out more than $1 billion in largesse earlier, but none in Pakistan wanted to stoke sectarian passions.
Not surprisingly, this incident did not affect the larger relationship between the two countries. Pakistan’s prime minister enjoys a close personal relationship with the Saudi monarchy. The Pakistani military had vowed since the early 1980s to protect the Kingdom when, the then military ruler, General Zia signed a defence pact with the Saudis. The current premier and the former army chief were invited by the monarchy last year to view the inauguration parade of the newly formed alliance to “fight terrorism”. It is nothing short of a paradox when one considers that this is a Saudi-led initiative.
Pakistan’s involvement in the alliance is deemed necessary by the Saudis due to the former’s proven conventional military prowess. The inclusion of a nuclear-armed Pakistan in an alliance sends a strong signal to Saudi regional rival Iran.
Paradoxically, Pakistan’s fling with the Kingdom dates to the era of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was from the Shi’ite sect.It is not only because of Bhutto’s strain of faith but more so due to his reaching out to the Saudis that marked the beginning of Pakistani import of puritanism, alongside oil. The harrowing tragedy of APS Peshawar in December 2014, when radical jihadists brutally massacred school children, was the apex of the jihadist-sectarian vortex Pakistan finds itself in, even to this day.
Much more involved and well-known, however, was the deep cooperation Gen. Zia had with the Saudi monarchy. The primary impetus for this relationship was the former’s keen interest in abetting the Royals counter the export of the Iranian revolution across the region. In Pakistan, this was achieved by the state’s patronisation of sectarian militant outfits that tore the progressive social fabric of Pakistani society. The adventure was in sync with the fight against the Soviets, sponsored by the Saudis and conceived by Washington. Needless to argue, the Zia era was a watershed moment in Pakistan’s jihad adventure.
It is thus not hard to figure out that Pakistan’s interest lies in remaining neutral in this charged conflict, despite any perceived advantages that maybe attained for obsequiousness to the Royals.
On the other hand, Sunni religious parties, including extreme sectarian outfits such as the ASWJ, publicly approved of the decision by the ex-army chief to join the military alliance. Public opinion seems to be largely in favour of this decision as well, due to the perpetual churning out of an ideological narrative that purports the military as the vanguard of ideology as well as national security, the two being inextricably intertwined. Notwithstanding that the military elite has in the past benefited from Saudi largesse. Many view the appointment as a break Pakistan desperately needed due to its fantasised fate as leader of the Muslim ummah.
Keeping in view the historical precedent, and that Iran neighbours Pakistan, the former military chief would be well-advised to consider the implications of his decision to head this military alliance. Reservations concerning sectarianism aside, he should reconsider the scenario within the framework of his own successes in leading the charge against the Pakistani Taliban that has caused a dramatic drop in terrorist-inflicted violence. When at the helm of military affairs in Riyadh, it is not entirely clear how much of leverage he would have over the Saudi commanders in charge of operations, or worse, if the post itself is ceremonial at best. In the latter case, the repercussions for the ex-general’sown repute are considerable enough to warrant a re-evaluation of this decision. Additionally, it should not be forgotten that the top military brass had concurred with the government’s decision to stay away from the Yemeni campaign two years earlier.
The Pakistani foreign-policy has been walking a tightrope in this regard for decades, and at present drastically entails the country to maintain an entirely neutral posture to the best of its ability. The country also requires Iranian cooperation for its recovering, yet fledgeling,economy, especially for thecheap and reliable supply of natural gas, in the form of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Iran could also prove to be an effective deal-broker between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban, who belatedly have grown wary of Pakistan’s meddling in Afghan affairs.
In sum, Pakistan’s outlook on the matter should be that of a mediator between the two epitomes of Islamic theocracy, thereby strengthening its credentials as a progressive democratic nation in the Muslim world.
The writer is pursuing a doctorate in suspension mechanics at Cornell University.