Chief of a phantom army

Updated 21 Jun 2017


It is now official. Retired Gen Raheel Sharif will soon be taking over the command of the so-called Islamic army that is still to take shape. The ambiguity surrounding the decision to lend the services of the country’s former army chief to Saudi Arabia has finally been cleared. The defence minister has confirmed what has been rumoured for the past several months.

But there is still no word from the retired general on his new job; nor is there any formal policy statement from the government on Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition of 39 countries. Things are certainly not as simple as Khawaja Asif wants us to believe, that the government has allowed the former chief of army staff to accept the appointment on the Saudi request.

This decision needed much more serious thinking as it implicates Pakistan in a highly contentious situation. Let along it being debated in parliament, it is apparent that the government has not even taken the cabinet into confidence on this critical issue that has a direct bearing on our national security and foreign policy. The secrecy surrounding the move raises many questions about our policymaking process. The argument that the government could not refuse the Saudi request makes us appear more like a client state.

What has added to the confusion is the impression that it was simply a job offer to the former army chief, and that the government was only supposed to give him clearance and waive the restriction stipulating that military officers cannot accept a foreign assignment for two years after retirement. That makes it more imperative for both the government and Gen Raheel to clarify their positions. It is unprecedented for a former Pakistani army chief to seek a foreign assignment and that too immediately after retirement.

How can the government now resist the possible demand to contribute troops to the coalition force?

Whatever the truth may be, the government’s approval indicates a clear departure from our policy of not getting involved in the Middle East power game. It is that much more intriguing as Pakistan has yet to decide what role it will play in the coalition force. A Pakistani heading it will inevitably place us in the hotspot and drag the country into a conflict that we have thus far kept out of, thereby endangering our own national security interests.

From the outset, the very concept of a Saudi-led military bloc is divisive, given the deep involvement of the kingdom in the Middle Eastern civil war. Unilaterally announced by Riyadh last year, the so-called Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism is still a phantom force with no clear structure or well-defined objectives.

Like many other countries, Pakistan was also taken by surprise by the Saudi announcement of the alliance, also described as a Sunni coalition. There were no prior consultations among the countries that were supposed to be part of it. Pakistan agreed to participate in the alliance, perhaps, in order not to further alienate the Saudis who were already upset at the government’s refusal to send troops to Yemen on their behalf.

Interestingly, the Saudi initiative came weeks after the Pakistani parliament unanimously rejected Riyadh’s request. Pakistan, however, made it clear that its participation in the alliance would be limited and it would not commit any troops. But one wonders how Pakistan can keep its promise with its retired army chief heading the force. How can the government now resist the demand that may come next, to contribute troops to the coalition force? All these questions must be clarified.

Some of the contradictory statements coming from the senior cabinet ministers reinforce the doubts that no serious thinking was done before taking the decision. While divulging the information during a TV interview, the defence minister was evasive on the question whether the decision would affect our policy of maintaining neutrality in the Middle East crisis. Understandably there has not been any reaction from GHQ on the issue.

Adding to the confusion were the remarks made by another federal minister, retired Lt Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch, who advised Gen Raheel not to accept the controversial position that could harm his reputation. Similarly, some other senior members of the ruling party insist it was the former army chief’s own decision to take up the job. But there is no answer to why the government is compelled to grant him the permission if it was not in the country’s interest. The opposition parties are justified in asking the government not to issue him the NOC.

Perhaps the strongest defence came from National Security Advisor retired Lt Gen Nasser Janjua, who believes that Gen Raheel’s appointment provides a great opportunity for Pakistan to work for the “unity of Muslim Ummah”. He dismissed the argument that the decision would adversely affect Islamabad’s relations with Tehran.

Some other reports, quoting senior government officials, maintain that there has been high-level consultation with Iran on the issue and that Tehran has no objection to Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-led alliance. However, the veracity of the reports about Tehran’s approval cannot be confirmed. Iran has been publicly critical of the Saudi initiative that it perceives as being directed against it.

Surely Iran’s concerns cannot be ignored given the ongoing proxy war in the Middle East. But that is not the only point to consider in the argument against Pakistan becoming an active participant in the Saudi-led coalition. It is simply not in the interest of the country to get involved in any outside conflict.

Another critical question is; why does a supposed counterterrorism alliance need to raise a multinational military force? If it is only a consultative body and intends to develop a unified counterterrorism strategy, then why the need to have a retired general to lead a ghost force? One expects the government to respond to these questions. Any decision based on external pressure jeopardising our national security must not be acceptable.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2017