Raheel Sharif’s reticence

Published March 28, 2017

Undeterred by the controversy that the possibility of an appointment had generated, former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and the government appear to have accepted Saudi Arabia’s offer for the retired general to lead the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism.

But the latest criticism of the decision by the PTI and ambivalent comments by senior government officials indicate that there remains a great deal of concern and uncertainty.

Saudi Arabia is clearly an important ally of Pakistan and the IMAFT should be assessed on its merits. With 39 countries reportedly on board — though it remains unclear which countries are willing to provide troops — and the seemingly determined backing of the Saudi leadership, the IMAFT could become an important platform to fight terrorism and extremism in the Muslim world.

At the very least, there is a need for greater coordination and cohesion among Muslim-majority states, but the moribund Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, though it has a larger membership than the IMAFT, does not appear to be in a position to forge such a consensus.

Yet, there remains too much that is unknown about Pakistan’s role in the IMAFT and its overall goals. The PTI’s response to the government’s decision and the ambivalence shown by some government officials suggest a continuing concern inside Pakistan: is the real purpose of the alliance to combat all forms of militancy, whatever hue and colour, or to pull countries closer into the Saudi orbit of influence and away from Iran?

Given Gen Raheel’s experience with militancy and expertise in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism measures, a purposeful, empowered, all-embracing IMAFT could have a significant impact. It is puzzling, then, that the government and Gen Raheel himself have preferred a veil of secrecy instead of frankly and publicly stating the policy objectives.

As a retired military chief seeking a high-profile job that will likely involve a great deal of shuttle diplomacy, why is Gen Raheel not seeking the government’s approval to address the media and respond to the misgivings in person? Surely addressing the nation’s concerns ought to be the priority.

Similarly, and as rightly demanded by the PTI, why has the government avoided a debate in parliament on its broader policy objectives? Indeed, it was to parliament that the government turned two years ago when Saudi Arabia demanded that Pakistan contribute to the Yemen war effort. And there was an unequivocal parliamentary consensus on the matter — namely, that while Pakistan must do everything it can to protect Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia, it was not in this country’s interest to be drawn into Middle Eastern conflicts and sectarian proxy wars.

The government’s unnecessary evasiveness and the clandestine manner in which Gen Raheel’s imminent appointment has been handled have created an impression of secret deals — an impression that must be emphatically dispelled in parliament.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2017

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