AFTER a succession of army chiefs reluctant to hand over the baton of command, we saw Gen Raheel Sharif retire right on schedule last November — only to un-retire, as we now know, to lead the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). The name brings to mind the scimitars of yore.
And with reason: IMAFT is the brainchild of Saudi Arabia or, to be more exact, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is, in order of importance, son of King Salman, deputy crown prince, defence minister, chief of the royal court, and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs. He is also 31 years old; around the time Raheel Sharif was commanding an infantry brigade, the prince — as per Saudi paper Al Jazirah — was in tenth grade.
That’s not to say the prince’s age should be held against him, but his rise at home has coincided with the kingdom’s fall abroad. While its arch-enemy Iran props up allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia is beset with its own woes, courtesy low oil prices and riotous spending.
That’s where this grand alliance comes in: the House of Saud may be rattled, but it’s putting its best foot forward. Unveiled by the prince in 2015, IMAFT aims to fight the militant Islamic State group in particular and ‘global terrorism’ in general. And by offering Raheel Sharif its command, the Saudis have pulled off a coup (pun unintended); the man led a stunning turnaround in Pakistan’s war, the largest inland counterinsurgency in the world. In many ways, he is IMAFT’s redeemer – which marks the start of everything that’s wrong with this picture.
He may be the right general, but this is the wrong alliance.
To turn to the issues at hand, there’s Iran first and foremost. Doubtless, ever since the revolution, Pak-Iran ties have been testy. The ayatollahs are every bit as complicit in sectarian high jinks as Riyadh: backing the ghastly Assads, remote-controlling Hezbollah and massing militias for Baghdad.
But it is also our neighbour, a partial cure for our gas woes and, as Western sanctions are lifted, a trade partner with a future. To embrace an alliance that excludes Iran, Iraq, and Syria is a political message wrapped in a sectarian bow. Pakistan’s success is defined by its neutrality: a parliamentary democracy siding with neither Sunni kings nor Shia theocrats.
Second, a Khaleeji vanity project is the wrong vehicle to be fighting IS and affiliates anyway. As Kamel Daoud puts it, “Daesh [IS] has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex.” The kingdom may make the right noises, but it refuses to go after the radical trends it has encouraged for decades. The Gulf’s financiers privately bankroll bandits abroad, and will continue to create other Daeshes.
Third, why fight Zarqawi’s boys at all? IS of Iraq and the Levant is not Pakistan’s problem: its Pakistani chapter, IS-Khorasan Province, is. It claimed responsibility for murdering Ismailis in Karachi’s Safoora Goth, massacring lawyers in Quetta, and bombing the Shah Noorani shrine in Khuzdar. That Islamabad has ‘approved’ its ex-chief fighting IS abroad, when it can’t even acknowledge the group’s presence at home, is distressing.
Fourth, that very approval — floating an NOC without parliamentary involvement — points to unease on both sides of the aisle. The appointment has already been opposed by Safron minister retired Lt Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch and PTI chairman Imran Khan alike.
Lastly, what else are we getting ourselves into? Will it involve Yemen, a string of war crimes? Will it involve Syria’s slaughterhouses? The Middle East is the one place on Earth more complicated than ours, yet we’re bent on learning that the hard way.
Take Jordan: we’re told that, had then brigadier Ziaul Haq not quashed Black September, King Hussein might not have survived 1970. But the conflict is a perfect example of how nothing can be isolated in the region — PLO fighters fleeing Jordan streamed into Lebanon, which led to civil war (and the birth of Hezbollah). In Syria, the humiliation made the elder Assad launch a coup, installing mass murderers in Damascus for half a century. As one gentleman put it, “Everything is connected to everything else.”
Then, as now, the region is a powder keg soaked in petrol: what we sow there, we shall reap here — once we’re done with the entire Afghanistan-reaping first.
Raheel Sharif retired as the most successful army chief in a generation because he fought the right war for the right reasons. We still have much to learn from him. He should remain in the country he rescued rather than be reminded of why it needed rescuing in the first place.
The writer is a barrister and co-host of a current affairs show.
Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2017