Published in Dawn January 11th, 2017

THERE has, as yet, not been any denial of Defence Minister Khawaja Asif’s mumbled comments during a TV interview last week about retired Gen Raheel Sharif being appointed the chief of a Saudi-led military alliance. Considering that clear articulation has never been his strong point, one may take the minister’s mutterings as confirmation.

But the minister has left many questions unanswered, adding to the confusion over the government’s position on the issue and whether the appointment of the former chief of army staff indicates a shift in our policy of staying away from the power tussle in the Middle East. It is apparent that the former general’s selection to head a multinational force would hardly be possible without the approval of the prime minister.

It seems that the government is maintaining deliberate ambiguity on this matter as happened when it was first reported that Pakistan had joined the so-called Islamic military coalition. Then there are valid questions too about Raheel Sharif’s own decision to accept the controversial job that may adversely impact the fine legacy that he left as the best-remembered army chief.

He is certainly not a freewheeling retired general who would accept such a politically sensitive position at his own discretion without the consent of the government. There is no precedence in Pakistan of a retired army chief seeking a job and that too outside the country.

Surely the Saudi offer was on the table long before Gen Sharif’s retirement. Is there any strategic reason behind the government’s decision to loan a recently retired army chief, or is it Saudi pressure that we could not afford to resist? Whatever the justification, such a decision can have serious foreign and domestic fallout.

There is no clarity on how the forces of different Muslim countries, with divergent interests, can work together.

It has been more than a year since the young Saudi deputy crown prince, who has been responsible for the kingdom’s disastrous military adventure in Yemen, announced the formation of a military alliance of 34 Muslim-majority nations. This unilateral Saudi declaration took not only Pakistan, but also several other nations on the list, by surprise. Although the coalition was formed to jointly fight terrorism, its very composition branded it as a ‘Sunni coalition’.

There has been widespread scepticism of whether it is really meant to be a coalition against terrorism or just a Saudi pawn in the power tussle in the Middle East. The lukewarm response from many member countries makes it extremely doubtful that such a military alliance can really take off. The exclusion of some Muslim countries including Iran and Iraq makes it all the more divisive.

There are few countries that are willing to commit troops to the alliance. So what is there for the former army chief to lead? Moreover, to fight terrorism, there is a need for closer cooperation among the intelligence and security agencies of these Muslim countries rather than a joint military force.

Interestingly, the idea of a military alliance was floated after Pakistan and some other countries refused to send their troops to fight along the Saudi forces in Yemen. A joint session of parliament had rejected the Saudi request, provoking indignation in the kingdom. It was certainly not in the country’s interest to be a party in the sectarian divide and the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi military adventure has only exacerbated the civil war in Yemen and blocked any move to reach a political solution to the conflict.

Over the past one year, there have been some significant changes in the Middle East’s power dynamics with the heavy losses inflicted on the militant Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, many countries that are listed in the Saudi-led coalition are part of the US-sponsored anti-IS alliance including Iran. In fact, Iran has played a key role in pushing out the global terrorist group from its stronghold in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Russia is also asserting its military and diplomatic power in the Middle East forming a separate trilateral alliance that includes Iran and Turkey to counter IS in Syria. The new nexus has the tacit support of Washington and other Western countries in enforcing a ceasefire among various warring sides in Syria. Saudi Arabia, which has been supporting Sunni militant groups, now seems to be out of the equation in the Syrian crisis.

Interestingly, Egypt, that has been receiving massive Saudi financial aid, has also been supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government against the Saudi-backed opposition. So with all these divergent interests and shifting alliances, the idea of a new Saudi-led coalition does not seem to make much sense. Most observers agree that the formation of a new alliance reflects Saudi Arabia’s growing concern about its own security and internal stability as it no longer sees the US as a reliable ally.

Washington’s nuclear deal with Iran and its reluctance to commit ground troops to overthrow the Assad government in Syria has exacerbated the kingdom’s anxiety. Although the US had welcomed the proposed alliance there are serious doubts about Saudi Arabia’s seriousness in fighting violent extremism.

This widespread scepticism is largely due to the allegation that some Saudi charities continue to provide financial support to radical Sunni sectarian groups in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries in order to impose their own intolerant and retrogressive concept of Sharia laws.

In the past year, there have not been any discussions and consultations among the member countries on what the alliance might do. There is also no clarity on how the forces of different Muslim countries, with divergent interests, can work together. In such a situation, Pakistan’s participation in the controversial alliance, with its former army chief heading the joint military force, has serious political repercussions.

The government must take into confidence parliament and the nation on the issue. It must not allow the former chief to rent himself out to a controversial alliance with a divisive agenda. It is in our national security interest that we keep out of the power struggle in the Middle East.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn January 11th, 2017



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