Retired army chief Gen Raheel Sharif has left for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to head a 41-nation military alliance, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said on Friday.
Media reports suggested that the former chief of army staff was granted approval to serve as head of the alliance for three years.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told Geo News that Sharif had been "given permission to head the military alliance after completion of all legal formalities and requirements" by the federal government.
A military source, while speaking to Dawn.com, said approval for Raheel Sharif's departure had also been granted by General Headquarters Rawalpindi according to established procedures.
Geo News further reported that Sharif had departed for Riyadh earlier today on a special aircraft and was accompanied by his wife and mother on the flight.
It was not immediately clear if the government had discussed its decision with opposition parties, which recently expressed serious misgivings regarding the issue in light of the possibility that the alliance may be used against Iran.
The news also seemed to go against what the defence minister himself had assured Parliament of on April 13.
Responding to a call to attention notice, Asif had informed the house that the Saudi government would hold a grand meeting in May, where it would unveil the alliance's Terms of Reference (ToR).
“Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former COAS Gen Raheel Sharif will attend the event,” he had said.
He had further said that the former COAS would formally apply for an NOC after the ToR was made public.
He also said that the ToR and the aims and objectives of the alliance would be presented to Parliament before a formal decision would be made on whether Pakistan should become a part of it or not.
Concerns about the Saudi military alliance
The 41-nation armed coalition was initially proposed as a platform for security cooperation among Muslim countries and included provisions for training, equipment and troops, and the involvement of religious scholars for devising a counter-terrorism narrative.
Since news of the alliance first surfaced, there have been concerns about its nature and how it may affect a pre-existing parliamentary resolution on Yemen passed unanimously by lawmakers calling for "neutrality in the conflict" in 2015.
On April 13, Asif had told the National Assembly: "We will stick to our prerogative when it comes to Yemen, and the agreement we have will remain binding."
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf's (PTI) Shireen Mazari had raised concerns, saying that a military alliance cannot be a solution to terrorism. The PTI urged the government to determine the nature and purpose of the alliance and make its Terms of Reference clear.
"There are at least 10 militaries present in the alliance who are also a part of a Saudi alliance against Yemen," Mazari earlier cautioned.
PTI's Asad Umer had said, "The matter is not of Raheel Sharif's appointment, the question is if we should be part of the alliance or not."
Earlier this week, in a meeting at GHQ in Rawalpindi, Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa had assured Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Honardoost that Pak-Iran ties would "remain unaffected by recent developments".
“Pakistan greatly values historic Pak-Iran relationship and the same shall continue based on mutual trust and respect for each other’s interests,” Gen Bajwa told Honardoost.
Extraordinary importance was attached to the meeting by diplomatic circles because it was the second between the two in around six weeks, a rare happening in Pakistan-Iran relations given the mutual mistrust.