Dangerous alliance

Published June 4, 2017

WHAT was always a possibility now appears to have all but been confirmed. The Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance against terrorism may have some counter-militancy aims, but it is also increasingly clear that it has been conceived by the kingdom as an anti-Iran alliance. The admission by foreign adviser Sartaj Aziz in the Senate on Thursday that the recent summit in Riyadh, headlined by US President Donald Trump’s presence and attended by dozens of leaders of Muslim-majority countries, has widened the sectarian divide in the Muslim world ought to lead to a reassessment of Pakistan’s involvement in the IMA. Two decisions — to participate in the IMA itself and allow former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif to accept a Saudi offer to militarily head it — appear to have been taken in haste and, more worryingly, without keeping in mind Pakistan’s true national interest.

To be sure, the Muslim world needs leadership and coordination when it comes to the fight against militancy, terrorism and extremism. Saudi Arabia, with its enormous resources and status in the Muslim world, is an important plank in any attempt to forge a consensus against the danger. Theoretically, the IMA could be a meaningful platform from which the fight against militant violence and extremism can be led. But that would require one non-negotiable, inarguable condition: participation by the full spectrum of Muslim-majority nations and a reflection of all mainstream strains of Islamic belief. The IMA is plainly the antithesis of that, and, therefore, a potentially dangerous and destabilising alliance. It is not so much what critics of the alliance are alleging as what the participants themselves are claiming. The Saudi leadership has explicitly stated that Iran is a threat to Saudi Arabia and countries allied with it. President Trump and his administration have explicitly embraced the Saudi-led IMA as a potential counter to the influence of Iran in the Middle East.

Not only can Pakistan not afford to be part of an overtly sectarian military alliance, membership and leadership of the IMA is inimical to the historical and future strategic interests of this country. While a close relationship with Saudi Arabia is warranted, better relations with Iran are necessary too. Pakistan shares a border with Iran; there are commonalities between large sections of the two populations; sound economic policy demands greater trade and connectivity with Iran; Iran can help Pakistan mitigate a persistent deficit of affordable energy; Iran and Pakistan have several common security problems along the border that demand cooperative solutions — the reasons why the two countries must progressively build closer relations is long and substantive. Courageous voices in parliament, like that of Senator Farhatullah Babar, have underlined the risks and emphasised the senselessness of aligning Pakistan along sectarian lines. The government, the military leadership and Gen Raheel Sharif must urgently reconsider their position.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2017

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