By Naveed Ahmad
Since its formation in 2015, few operational details have been released about the Saudi led anti-terror coalition—the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). In the coming months, Riyadh plans to host a ministerial-level meeting of member states to sharpen the focus of IMAFT’s mission. However, one critical development has already been made public: Pakistan’s former army chief of staff General Raheel Sharif has been appointed as IMAFT’s founding commander-in-chief. Gen. Raheel’s appointment coincides with planned deployment of 5,000 Pakistani soldiers to guard Saudi Arabia’s southern border. This paper explores the domestic and regional politics behind Gen. Raheel’s appointment and Pakistan’s participation in IMAFT.
Formation of a new military alliance
In December 2015, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told media in Paris, “It is time that the Islamic world take a stand, and they have done that by creating a coalition to push back and confront the terrorists and those who promote their violent ideologies.”
The joint operations center to coordinate counter-terror efforts is to set to be based in Jeddah and the member-states would target “any terrorist organization, not just ISIL, in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan.” The Saudi foreign minister also noted that all operations would be carried out in accordance with local laws and in cooperation with the international community. Thus, operations won’t require any new national legislation, and cooperation with the international community can be understood as an extension of existing intelligence sharing channels. The original announcement caught some member off-guard, but since 2015 the number of member states has grown from 34 to 41, with initially reluctant countries like Oman and Pakistan eventually joining. Nonetheless, IMAFT’s operational blueprint remains vague.
The impetus for IMAFT developed at the end of the Obama administration as the US’s traditional Middle Eastern allies became concerned that America was increasingly reluctant to act forcefully in regional conflicts. However, after the formation of IMAFT the US offered a note of support. Ashton Carter, then US Secretary of Defense, reacted with cautious optimism on a visit to Turkey: “It appears [IMAFT] is very much in line with something we’ve been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL by Sunni Arab countries.”
In addition to rising threats from terror groups, IMAFT was formed against a backdrop of assertive postures in the region by revanchist states like Russia and Iran. Many observers view the creation of IMAFT as mechanism to consolidate Saudi-aligned military power in the face of Iranian ascendance. Indeed, IMAFT was announced during the final stage of the internationally brokered Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to halt Iran’s nuclear program—a deal that Riyadh worries could reorder regional power dynamics.
On the ground, the Middle East and North Africa region has become increasingly embroiled in conflict as various non-state actors fight for local control, often at the behest of outside states seeking geopolitical and ideological influence. The results are horrific: the Syrian civil war has claimed half a million lives and displaced over five million; Libya remains war-torn by rival factions; Yemen is succumbing to a full-blown insurgency and counter-insurgency; and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL) still controls many areas and reaches many more through toxic propaganda. The need for a military alliance is clear, but it is yet to be seen if IMAFT will coalesce into an effective fighting alliance.
Predictably, the military bloc has met with stiff challenges as it takes shape. While the number of participating nations has increased, opposition has also intensified. The complex regional politics of IMAFT membership is most evident in Pakistan, which despite the government’s public commitment to fight terror has faced intense criticism for drifting the country toward larger sectarian conflict.