Rethinking Alliances

Spearhead Opinion – 06.06.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The Trump-led ‘Arab-Islamic-American summit’ was to be the first of many occasions where Pakistan’s diplomatic investment in the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) was going to be recognized and perhaps even applauded— or at least that’s what the leadership in Pakistan had in mind when PM Sharif initially left for Riyadh. It was only natural for Pakistan to expect some share of the limelight as America and Saudi Arabia agreed to hold the “Islamic summit”. After all, Pakistan’s former Army Chief, Raheel Sharif militarily heads the Saudi-led IMA. Added to that, Pakistan ranks fourth on the Global Terrorism Index as one of the most affected states by terrorism. Given Pakistan’s position as both a victim and a counterterrorism advocate, Pakistan looked forward to the summit as an opportunity to push forth it’s narrative on countering ‘Islamist terrorism’, which was essentially to be the theme of the event.

Unfortunately however neither PM Sharif nor the leader of the Islamic Military Coalition, Raheel Sharif was presented an invite to address the summit– which soon became obvious was going to be more of a ‘Gulf gathering’ rather than an “Islamic summit”, as the name suggested. A request for a meeting with the US President was denied to the Pakistani Prime Minister, with whom Trump later only met on the sidelines of the summit while he also had publicized talks with other world leaders.

Added to that, Trump’s speech left little room for Pakistan to imagine any flexibility in Washington’s stance on the inclusion of Islamabad’s voice in the US-Saudi narrative on terrorism.

In his speech, President Trump acknowledged India-not Pakistan- as a victim of terror. New Delhi has already deemed “Kashmiri separatist militancy” as synonymous with “Pakistan-sponsored terrorism”. Added to that, the execution of Kulbhushan Jadhav’s case has caused bilateral relations to further plummet. In identifying India as the sole victim of terrorism, Trump aligned with New Delhi’s stance on Kashmir, consequently turning his back on Islamabad’s claims of “India-sponsored terrorism”.

To add insult to injury, the US president echoed King Salman’s anti-Iran rhetoric, urging the Muslim world to isolate Iran as he described it as having “fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror”. Trump’s calls to develop a united front with the leadership of Arab states against extremism may as well be construed as a reference to Iran sponsored militancy in the region.

Indeed, this does not sit well with Pakistan’s oft-repeated guarantees to Iran regarding the nature of the Saudi-coalition as being an impartial body, not against any specific country but against terrorism. Spearheading the Saudi-led military alliance might be a lot more difficult for Pakistan than it was intended or anticipated at its birth. In joining this alliance Islamabad has in a lot of ways alienated Iran. Tall claims that were once made on upholding the impartiality of the alliance, in view of recent events and Trump’s speech, have only further damaged Iran’s trust in the Iran-Pakistan relationship; Iran’s armed forces have reportedly threatened to attack “areas sheltering terrorists” in Pakistan unless Pakistan stops “cross-border  attacks”.

Under any other circumstances, Pakistan’s narrative being pushed back would still have been a setback for the country, but for this to happen under a US-Saudi leadership and that too at an “Islamic summit” is of particular significance.

Riyadh has never supported Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir nor has it ever spoken out on the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan and its impact on Afghan-Pakistan relations, despite all of Pakistan’s efforts to deepen the Pak-Saudi relationship by at times going out of its way to back Riyadh against the “Shia crescent”.

For almost five decades, Saudi Arabia is known to have been involved in spreading a “regressive and intolerant version of Islam” across the Muslim World—perhaps doing more damage than Iran is recorded to have ever done to stability in the region.

According to a recent article by Saad Rasool (A Wicked Congregation), “Saudi nationals make up the second-largest of foreign fighters in the ISIS”. A leaked German intelligence reports indicates “that charities closely connected with government offices of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait are funding mosques and schools that propagate violence and extremism”. On the other hand, according to a report by Professor Leif Wenar (King’s College London), more than 94% of deaths caused by Islamic terrorism since 2001 were executed by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists- none of which can be linked to Iran. Holding Iran responsible as the source of terrorism in the way President Trump did hence is highly unfair and, not to mention, inaccurate.

Riyadh backing Washington’s stance on sidelining Islamabad’s interests and denying the country the opportunity to contribute or even voice its “Muslim narrative” against terrorism certainly puts things in perspective.

Perhaps it is time for Pakistan to reevaluate its foreign policy options and finally abandon ‘Islam as a foreign policy tool’.

Reports of General Sharif pondering over leaving the Islamic Military Alliance have been circulating ever since PM Sharif was denied the opportunity to deliver a speech at the Riyadh summit. A commentator called the Saudi-led coalition “dangerous” while one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers branded it as a “theater of the absurd”. According to reports, General Sharif feels American intervention in the alliance is pushing the Saudi government to limit Pakistan’s role.

As of now, Pak-India ties continue to deteriorate, Pakistan’s decades-old Afghan foreign policy seems to be doing little to help the Pak-Afghan relationship, and Iran has labeled Pakistan as an important part of the Saudi camp—Pakistan must rethink its policy options with respect to the military alliance as it is surrounded by neighbors that are gradually but surely uniting against what they claim is militancy emerging from Pakistan.