ISLAMABAD: Former army chief retired Gen Raheel Sharif on Friday left for Riyadh to assume the command of the 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) after the government quietly cleared him to serve the coalition, which is gradually taking shape.
“Gen Raheel Sharif has been issued an NOC to join IMAFT after GHQ’s consent and meeting legal formalities,” Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told a TV channel, as a special aircraft sent by the Saudi government landed in Lahore to take the retired army chief to Riyadh.
Gen Sharif was lauded at home for leading Operation Zarb-i-Azb that centered on North Waziristan, once considered the hotbed of terrorism, but his decision to serve the Saudi-led alliance has been severely criticised. The alliance, believed to be the brainchild of ambitious Saudi defence minister and deputy crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, was formed to help member states deal with the problem of terrorism, but people fear that it may get involved in the Middle East’s political disputes.
Defence minister says NOC issued after GHQ consent and meeting legal formalities
This perception got strengthened after Saudi defence forces spokesman Gen Assiri told the Wall Street Journal that the alliance wasn’t restricted to confronting terrorist organisations like the militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda. He said the coalition could, at the request of a member, move against rebel groups and militias posing a threat to member countries such as Yemen’s Houthis, which are supported by Iran.
The absence of countries like Iran, Iraq and Syria, which have been at the forefront of fighting terrorism, from the alliance has led many to believe that the coalition is nothing but a sectarian show of force to counter rising influence of Iran in the region.
Iran has publicly expressed its reservations about a Pakistani leading the alliance. Pakistani officials have in both private and in bilateral engagement tried to assure Tehran that Gen Sharif would not act against Iranian interests.
The final terms of reference of the alliance and its structure are expected to be announced at the upcoming conference of the defence ministers of the member states. Contributions by the individual member states, both in terms of hardware and personnel, will be made at the conference.
The alliance will be governed by a council of defence ministers of the member states. The Joint Command Centre would, meanwhile, be based in Riyadh.
The government had in a statement in the Senate assured that the house would be informed before issuance of the NOC, which had so far not been sought by the former army chief. The assurance was not fulfilled and the announcement regarding the NOC was made only when the general prepared to leave.
Apparently the government and the military processed the entire issue with great secrecy after strong public criticism of the earlier disclosure that Gen Raheel would be joining the alliance.
Additional troops deployment
The Wall Street Journal quoting Pakistani officials had earlier reported: “Under pressure from Riyadh, close ally Pakistan will provide a separate force of some 5,000 men to Saudi Arabia to help guard its vulnerable south, close to the border with Yemen.”
The report further said that the troops “to be dispatched will be an operational deployment, aimed at protecting installations against terrorism and repelling any incursion into Saudi Arabia”.
The deployment, it is said, would be in addition to any commitments that Pakistan could make for the alliance which Saudi Arabia is building up for ‘fighting terrorism’.
Pakistan already has 1,180 troops in Saudi Arabia under a 1982 bilateral agreement. The deployed troops are mostly serving there in training and advisory capacity.
The army says Saudi Arabia has so far not formally requested for additional troops deployment.
“Formal” request “for troops has not been yet received”, ISPR Director General Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor told Dawn. “If (additional) troops are sent they will not operate outside KSA,” he added.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia soon after assuming the command, Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa had assured the kingdom’s leadership of continued commitment to security and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia had after the start of offensive against Houthi militia in Yemen asked Pakistan for troops deployment. However, due to domestic pressure the government did not then commit any troops for Yemen war. The Saudi request was then politely declined on the pretext of military’s extensive involvement in Operation Zarb-i-Azb.
Any deployment, if it happens, would test a 2015 parliamentary resolution that asked the government to “maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict”. The resolution adopted after a five-day joint parliamentary session had at the same time stated that Pakistan should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Saudi Arabia to protect the latter’s territorial integrity.
A source told Dawn that discussions on additional troops deployment were at an advanced stage between the two countries.
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2017