The appointment of General Raheel Sharif being the first commander of the “Muslim Nato”, a fledgling military alliance of Islamic states led by Saudi Arabia had led to a flood of criticism initially but later the things got settled and the debate ended. Defence minister, Khawaja Asif, revealed that Sharif would become the first commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), a coalition of 41 countries with its headquarters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The Saudis have long asked Pakistan to contribute to its forces in Yemen, which so far Pakistan has refused to do. Last year Pakistan’s parliament voted against sending Pakistani troops to Yemen. However, the new Islamic alliance led by the Saudis and the appointment of Gen Sharif has altered the strategic picture. Defence ministers of the countries that are part of the Saudi-led Islamic military alliance have unveiled the coalition’s broader mandate that envisages joint military operations against terrorism while suggesting a raft of other steps to deal with the menace. The final declaration suggested that it would be up to the member states to decide the extent of their participation in the coalition, something that would provide enough room to Pakistan to maintain a delicate balance in its ties both with Saudi Arabia and Iran. While agreeing to be part of the coalition, Pakistan had all along stated that it would not allow its troops to participate in any military action outside the country. Islamabad also insisted that it would not become part of any initiative aimed at any other Islamic country.
General (retired) Raheel Sharif has insisted that the Saudi-led coalition was not against any religion or state. While addressing at the first meeting of the Islamic counter-terrorism alliance in Riyadh General Raheel said, “the alliance aims to “mobilise and coordinate the use of resources, facilitate the exchange of information and help member countries build their own counter-terrorism capacity.”
It would be interesting to analyze the efficacy of this alliance in true letter and spirit by looking at various aspects of its formation. In his 2016 visit there, General Sharif described Iran “as a very important neighboring Muslim country” and went on to say that “the people of Pakistan have a great affinity with their Iranian brothers.”
General Raheel Sharif is very popular and considered one of the most effective and capable generals in Pakistan’s history. He served Pakistan’s military scandal-free, did not seek to extend his service, and retired in 2016 after three years serving in his last position. Through a massive ground operation in North Waziristan called Zarb-e-Azb that involved 30,000 Pakistani soldiers, he cleared the region of various militant groups and networks. The operation abolished and reduced the presence of s terrorist networks and boosted General Sharif’s popularity. National Security Adviser Nasser Janjua has also revealed that Gen. Sharif, in his new role, will remove “internal misunderstandings among Muslim countries.” However, he could be widening those misunderstandings.
The two major alliances of post-World War II, including NATO and the Warsaw Pact, were created to provide security to two ideological worlds – communism and capitalism. The members of these military alliances contributed in terms of resources and ideological support. The alliances in turn provided security to member states.
Besides enjoying historic ties, owing largely to religious affinities, Pakistan has strong economic and security relations with Middle Eastern countries, as it provides them a consistent source of skilled manpower. As of 2013-17, the official figure of registered overseas workers in the Middle East – as indicated by the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, Government of Pakistan, is 54.80 per cent30 of the total number of overseas Pakistanis across the globe. The very important area of cooperation between Pakistan and Middle Eastern countries is security. Pakistan has been providing military training and military hardware including arms, ammunition and equipment as well as supported military organisations in these countries since the late 1960s.
This military alliance is an effort towards attainment of self-sufficiency in security related matters, particularly in the wake of increasing internal security related issues in the Arab world and to shed dependency on military assistance. This Alliance is called “North Thunder” with Arab and Muslim nations participating with their land, air and naval forces. It is also declared as the largest and most important military maneuver in the history of the region.
Pakistan faces innumerable challenges from its regional neighbouring states. The strategic challenges faced by Pakistan need re-evaluation and the Saudi proposed Islamic Military Alliance may provide a chance to act as a balancer to the changing strategic realities in South Asia. Pakistan’s objectives in joining this Alliance should not be perceived against any regional Muslim country, rather to seek broad-based strategic partnership with regional and trans-regional partners. The proposed Alliance is emerging as a unique opportunity for Pakistan to lead the militaries of most of the Muslim world and to hold another theatre of operation in the Middle East supported by Muslim countries. This opportunity, if appropriately utilised, may even help in stabilising emerging strategic challenges in South Asia. General Raheel’s role to lead IMAFT speaks volumes about the difference that Pakistan’s participation is making in the coalition. General Raheel has the requisite experience of fighting terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Taliban while they received support from outside states. Given the Saudi resolve to set this alliance, it’s apparent that the kingdom is ready to address its financial necessities. Eventually, a formula to pool finances as well as military hardware will have to be worked out to make IMAFT more sustainable. General Raheel’s previous command was at the helm of a fully functioning military machine. In Jeddah, he must be in a procedure to erect or evolve a force with limited time and resources, drawing soldiers from a variety of cultures, nationalities, and levels of professional experience.
The North Thunder military exercise held in February 2016 offered a glimpse into the capabilities of the militaries of participant nations. More exercises like this must be carried out to strengthen IMAFT into an effective combat force. For the first time, Pakistan is about to fully utilize its tremendous geo-economic potential due to its geostrategic location as it is located at the crossroads of regions. Pakistan’s economic interests and future is tied to these aforementioned initiatives. The coalition was envisaged to serve as a platform for security cooperation, including provision of training, equipment and troops, and involvement of religious scholars for dealing with extremism. slamic Military Alliance had given a clear message to the international community that the Muslims were united against terrorism and would defeat this menace through continuous struggle.
The formation of this military alliance was a strict and straightforward message to extremists and terrorists that Islamic countries would not tolerate any terrorist activity on their soils and General Raheel sharif being the custodian of this alliance is playing his role with utter sincerity.
Author is the President, Center of Pakistan & International Relations Center of Pakistan & International Relations (COPAIR) & Editor-in-Chief of ‘Melange’ & ‘The Asian Telegraph’