A QUIET retirement it has not been. In the weeks since former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif retired from the military, barely a day has gone by without Gen Sharif or events connected to him being in the news.

Now has come perhaps the biggest surprise: the recently retired army chief is rumoured to have been selected to lead a so-called Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism created by the ambitious, young Saudi Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman.

To the extent that the IMAFT is a large bloc of Muslim-majority countries — 39 at the latest count, according to Saudi authorities — focused on combating international terrorists, the retired general with his vast counter-insurgency and counterterrorism leadership skills could be an excellent choice as leader.

The Muslim world, wracked by terrorism across great swathes, needs a coherent and coordinated approach to fight the great threats that stalk its lands. And yet, there is remarkably little known about the Saudi initiative that he has reportedly signed up for.

Two sets of questions are of urgent importance. The first concerns the IMAFT generally. While Saudi officials have touted the broad membership of the alliance, little is known about the role each country is to play.

More importantly, with several countries still outside the fold, what are the ultimate intentions of the Saudi royal family? Is there a realistic scenario for the participation of all Muslim-majority countries or will a sectarian colour be imposed on the alliance? Specifically, with Iran and Saudi Arabia at odds over a number of issues in the Middle East, will Riyadh permit the involvement of Tehran and its allies in the IMAFT?

If not, how will it work towards its self-professed goal of fighting terrorism irrespective of sect and wherever the threat is to be found? It could be a fresh disaster for the Muslim world if the Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuels the creation of a new military alliance in the name of fighting terrorism.

For Pakistan, the challenges are specific. In April 2015, after the Saudi regime had demanded Pakistan contribute to a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, parliament here took the historic and correct decision of declining to authorise the government to send troops to Yemen.

While Gen Sharif is no longer a serving army chief and his decision to join the IMAFT is somewhat independent of the Pakistani state, the fact remains that his high-profile leadership of the alliance will be associated with Pakistan.

The government and current military leadership, therefore, must publicly restate or clarify important foreign policy and national security parameters. Specifically, it must be publicly assured that the April 2015 decision taken by parliament will not be contravened and that any Pakistani contribution to the IMAFT will be for specific and clearly identifiable reasons. Clarity and honesty are needed if the alliance is to succeed.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2017

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