The alliance in question

TNS – The News on Sunday

Pakistan joining and heading the 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) seems to have raised more questions than it has answered.

To begin with, the secrecy around the terms of reference of the alliance was pointed out in newspapers. What is its mandate? How will the decisions be taken? What will be the implications for Pakistan and the region, including Iran and Qatar, which is divided on clearly drawn sectarian lines?

A short backgrounder first. According to news reports, the government of Pakistan gave its approval to former chief of army staff General (r) Raheel Sharif in March this year to lead the alliance, issuing him a no objection certificate (NOC). In January this year, Sharif was appointed as the chief of Islamic military alliance and posted in Saudi Arabia. In 2015, Saudi Arabia had announced the formation of the military coalition to combat terrorism.

Since Raheel Sharif left for Riyadh in April this year to assume the command of the IMAFT, questions have been asked about the purpose of joining such an initiative and whether an NOC was issued to Sharif for leading the group. On paper, the alliance, mentioned as the brainchild of Saudi defence minister and deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, is meant to help member states deal with the problem of terrorism.

But the absence of important regional players like Iran, Iraq and Syria from the alliance strengthens the notion that the coalition gives a sectarian message to counter the influence of Iran in the region. Iran has expressed its reservations about Pakistan leading the alliance.

As far as relations with Iran are concerned, Khaled Ahmed believes that “Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif will have to walk back and view the pro-Pakhtun policy that damaged its relations with Iran but also got thousands of its innocent citizens killed, not to speak of the Shia Hazaras of Quetta that it doesn’t have the capacity to stop.”

Back home, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, Tehmina Janjua, made it clear in April after Iran showed its concerns that “the Saudi-led alliance is against terrorism and not against any country.” She said this in response to a question by National Assembly Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs chairman, Awais Leghari. In the same meeting, she also emphasised that Pakistan is committed to its policy of non-interference in the conflicts of Muslim countries.

Pakistan had to issue this statement after Iran expressed concerns over former Pakistan army chief heading the Saudi-led alliance.

It should be noted that the Saudi authorities clearly suggested at the Arab Islamic-US summit in Riyadh on 20-21 May that the alliance was also meant to counter Iran, leaving Pakistan with no option but to issue a statement on May 29, stating that Pakistan has drawn certain “redlines” for becoming part of the alliance and that a final decision in this regard will be taken later.

Analysts following the issue have raised their concerns regarding the alliance and observed how the alliance should be looked at with the Riyadh summit as the backdrop. Moonis Ahmer, an expert on the Middle East issues, believes “Pakistan joining the Saudi led alliance (IMAFT) can render positive results if the alliance is able to deal with threats which exist in the Muslim world and for Muslim minorities.”

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At the same time he also adds that, “it will be unwise to expect quick results because proper planning and rules of engagement have to be devised by the alliance before it is properly launched.”

He is very clear on what Pakistan should do. “Pakistan, as the second largest Muslim country, must communicate to Saudi Arabia, the country under whose initiative IMAFT was established, that using the alliance against a Muslim country, particularly Iran, will not be supported as the focus of IMAFT should primarily be to help liberate Muslim territories under the occupation of Israel,” he says.

“Most important, Pakistan must avert the impression that its joining the alliance is pro-American or anti-Iran,” he adds.

It is for this very reason that, “Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif left for Tehran to mend some foreign policy fences while his boss Nawaz Sharif is in the political wilderness Pakistan is so used to,” says Khaled Ahmed, senior analyst.

Some misgivings about the alliance have been allayed though, according to Lt Gen. (retd) Talat Masood, senior defence analyst. “General Raheel Sharif leading the multi-nation army was initially a subject of severe criticism within the country and viewed by Iran with considerable skepticism. However, assurances by Pakistan government that it will not take sides and play a conciliatory role and General Sharif’s mature response to the sensitivities have largely allayed these misgivings,” he says.

However, he believes that “The ideological and power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been a cause of great concern to the Muslim world. It further divides the Muslim countries that already face enormous internal and external challenges and allows major powers to exploit these divisions to their advantage.”

Moonis Ahmer suggests what the alliance should do with Raheel Sharif as its head, “It is true that violence and terrorism are the fundamental threats faced by the Muslim world, particularly from IS and other organisations perceived to be involved in terrorism in many Muslim countries, IMAFT must consider two major threats. First, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights and its siege of Gaza strip. IMAFT must exert pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Arab occupied areas. Second, the Indian military occupation of Jammu & Kashmir and serious human rights violations against the Kashmiri Muslims should also become a cause of concern for the alliance.”

As far as relations with Iran are concerned, Khaled Ahmed believes that “Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif will have to walk back and view the pro-Pakhtun policy that damaged its relations with Iran but also got thousands of its innocent citizens killed, not to speak of the Shia Hazaras of Quetta that it doesn’t have the capacity to stop.”

Ahmed contextualises Pakistan’s relations with Iran, “Iran has been more circumspect after its isolationist President Ahmadinejad. The current President Rouhani is a moderate who would like to sell some gas to Pakistan. But Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs are not good — there is a proxy war on in Yemen between the two sides — and Iran is politically pretty close to India while allowing big Chinese investment into its infrastructure.”

And what does this mean for Pakistan? “Pakistan’s policy playroom is too narrow compared to Iran’s and Khawaja Asif is too callow in his job and too scared back home to achieve anything groundbreaking. Pakistan is simply more anti-Iran than anti-America,” he adds.

Masood also points to the Riyadh summit and Pakistan’s precarious position in the grouping, “President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the first to any country after assumption of office, clearly demonstrated that he was interested in using it to exploit the divide and put pressure to isolate Iran. The presence of Pakistan in this summit placed it in a difficult situation.”

He cautions Pakistan against taking sides, “First, as all the members of this coalition or grouping comprised of Sunni countries. Obviously, with a substantial Shia community in Pakistan and Iran an important neighbour, Pakistan cannot afford to take sides. Besides, the parliament, too, had advised against it. Despite that, former Nawaz Sharif, due to his close relations with Saudi monarchy, has ensured that Pakistan remains a part of it.”

Pervez Hoodbhoy, senior analyst, believes the nature of Pakistan’s relations with Iran is also tied to the nature of its relations with India, “In lieu of foreign policy, Pakistan has substituted kneejerk anti-Indianism. It demands from Afghanistan and Iran that they reject Indian development programmes without offering anything comparable.”

He also cites the example of what went against Pakistan at the BRICS summit. “The BRICS declaration came as a rude shock because even China — which has long protected Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Muhammad from UN condemnation — has indicated that it has grown weary of Pakistani shenanigans. Surely, it is time that Pakistan stops asserting what no one is prepared to believe and recognises that simple denials will no longer work,” he adds.