Pakistan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s traditional ally, seems to be indifferent from Saudi-Iranian battle for dominance in the Middle East, with knowing the fact that any misadventure could bring the sectarian heat inside to its boarders. A controversy erupts in Pakistan’s political circles since speculations generated heated debate that a well reputed, former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General (r) Raheel Sharif has himself negotiated a deal for his appointment as a chief at Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) against the government rules and country’s foreign policy direction.
Since the battle for dominance spreading throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon it’s becoming difficult for Pakistan how it maintain equilibrium of relations with Saudi vs Iranian alliances. Taking either side meant be ready to face, domestic and regional implications. Arab Spring set the new ground for Saudi-Iranian proxies deepening sectarian roots, activating dangerous fault lines not just the Arab peninsula but entire the Muslim world. For Pakistan its very much difficult to take either side, however, incumbent Prime Minister have personal and close relations with the Royal family of Kingdom.
A heated debate sparked on the media when Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif at Geo TV, on January 6, 2017 asserted that an agreement was finalized “few days back” about the appointment of former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General (r) Raheel Sharif, as chief at Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) during his visit to Saudi Arabia, however he was not for sure. On 9th of January 2017, the debate reached Senate of Pakistan, the situation was entirely changed when Chairman Senate Mian Raza Rabbani asked the government about the appointment of retired army chief at controversial Islamic Alliance, as commander.
Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif told the Senate that government permission is essential before reappointment of any high ranked army officer within the country and abroad. Defense Minister was firm that former army chief General (r) Raheel Sharif never sought (No Objection Certificate) from the Ministry of Defense for his job. Same day Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, simply refused to make a statement in the house as there is no situation exit to before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that requires response. “There is no offer before the government, means no implication on foreign policy as it”, Aziz told Senate.
When government made its position clear, General (r) Raheel Sahrif’s close aide Lt-Gen (R) Amjad Shoaib asserted as decent exit out of this debate that former army chief placed three conditions for taking up the new job. Firstly, include Iran in the military alliance so that the organization doesn’t look sectarian in nature. Secondly, he will not work under anyone’s commandant; finally he must have the mandate to act as an arbitrator if there is a need to promote harmony among Muslim countries.
Back in December 15, 2015 the world went in shock when Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Bin Salman Al Saud announced the formation of a 34 countries an Islamic Military Alliance against terrorism and extremism, including Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Turkey, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Djibouti, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gabon, Guinea, Palestine, Comoros, Qatar, Cote d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Yemen. The alliance reached by reached at 39 countries. The Sunni majority intergovernmental military alliance of Muslim countries is primarily based at a Joint Command Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
On the question of Yemen Crisis in 2015, Pakistan maintained its neutral posture pursuing resolution passed by the Joint Setting of Parliament. Government of Pakistan later on, assured the support to Saudi officials for Islamic Military Alliance but never formally became part of. Officials in Pakistan are still unclear about role of the military alliance, hierarchy, how it works, who will be the target and how terrorists taken into account, what will the stranded operating procedures?. However, Syria and Iraq are the prime victim of terrorism and extremism, ironically are not part of Riyadh’s ambitious alliance. However, core objective of IMAFT is said to protect the Muslim countries from all terrorist groups and terrorist organizations irrespective of their sect and name and that it will fight terrorists in “Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan”.
The alliance seems to be Saudi “show of power” against Iranian continuously expending political influence in the region rather than fighting terrorism. Strategically, to Pakistan it suits to remain indifferent, as it has domestic implications may impact economic ambitions under China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and further deepen sectarian divide.