A tough call



M. Ziauddin

Iran has expressed serious reservations over Pakistan’s decision to approve former army chief General (retd) Raheel Sharif’s appointment as the chief of the Saudi sponsored 41-nation Islamic military coalition formed ostensibly to combat terrorism.
The headquarters of the Saudi-led coalition would be based in Riyadh. However, so far no details of its terms of reference (TORs) have been revealed.
On being questioned various relevant officials side-stepped a clear-cut answer saying the TORs would be finalized when the defence ministers of the participating countries would meet for which no dates have so far been finalized.
Pakistan had initially found itself in the crosshairs of Middle Eastern politics as Saudi Arabia last year named it as part of its newly formed military alliance of Muslim countries meant to combat terrorism, without first getting its consent.
However, after initial ambiguity, the government had confirmed its participation in the alliance, but had said that the scope of its participation would be defined after Riyadh shared the details of the coalition it was assembling.
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.
Pakistan had already made it very clear that it would not participate in the Saudi military operation against Yemen but had pledged to safeguard the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
Then late last year Saudi government surprised many countries by announcing that it had forged a coalition for coordinating and supporting military operations against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.
Interestingly Iran which is already fighting against terrorism in Iraq and Syria in support of the respective government troops has not been invited to join the Saudi sponsored armed coalition.
Observers felt Saudi Arabia’s archrival for influence in the Arab world—Iran—, was absent from the states named as participants, as proxy conflicts between the two regional powers raged from Syria to Yemen.
To assuage the general sentiment in Pakistan an impression was attempted to be created soon after the approval in question was granted that with General Sharif taking over the command of the coalition forces Pakistan would be in an ideal position to play the role of ‘facilitator’ to end the conflicts in the Muslim world.
Indeed, Gen. Sharif is perhaps the right man for the job because of his recent up front experience of combating terrorism in Pakistan with his Zarb-e-Azb which had succeeded in controlling the menace to a considerable extent. Besides, he had, in keeping with Pakistan’s intrinsic culture and traditions, even-handedly led a force made up of persons from almost all sects of Islam including a significant presence of those belonging to the Shia community.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has already made it crystal clear that it would not take part in any conflict that could result in differences in the Muslim world, causing fault-lines present in Pakistan to be disturbed, ‘the aggravation of which will have to be borne by Pakistan’.
On Tuesday (April 4, 2017) Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua reiterated that Pakistan remained committed to its policy of non-interference in the conflicts of Muslim countries.
She gave the assurance during a meeting of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs which discussed the issue of clearance given to former army chief Gen Sharif to lead the Islamic military alliance and also Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
She was addressing concerns that Islamabad’s decision to send the former army chief to lead the alliance will complicate the already fraught Pak-Iran ties. The foreign secretary said Pakistan is making efforts to reduce the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“It is difficult for Pakistan to maintain equal relations with both countries but Pakistan will not go against Iran’s interests,” she assured the panel. Raheel Sharif will not act against Iran as the head of the military alliance, she asserted.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi rightly raised concerns that the Foreign Office’s statements regarding the Saudi military coalition are contradictory and said that Pakistan must make careful decisions regarding the Islamic military alliance.
He said a tilt towards either side in Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran was not advisable.
Meanwhile, former Interior Minister and Qaumi Watan Party Chairman Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao questioned the very decision of Pakistan government to become a member of the coalition without first finding out the aims and objectives of the alliance.
The FO has avoided an immediate reaction to media statement by Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Honardoost who expressed reservations about Pakistan clearing Gen Sharif to lead the Saudi sponsored military alliance.
But let the Pakistani decision makers be warned that things would get more awkward if they were to try justifyingtheir decision by pointing to Iran’s friendship with our enemy No1, India.
Gen Sharif is likely to assume command of the anti-terrorism alliance, dubbed the ‘Muslim Nato’, sometime this month.
The government had issued an NOC for Sharif to join the alliance after an understanding was reached between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on the matter, retired Maj Gen Ijaz Awan, a defence analyst and close associate of the former army chief, told media.
Most Pakistanis would perhaps feel too tentative if asked for their opinion on the issue.
They would certainly not want to annoy the Saudis and the governments in Gulf countries where nearly two million of their countrymen are gainfully employed. There is a threat that in case Pakistan dilly –dallied on this score Saudis and Gulf countries would replace Pakistani workers with Indian and Bangladeshis.
Moreover, Saudis have been very generous in times of our crises and helped us out with moral and material support. And above all, most Pakistanis would feel terrible refusing the invitation extended by the custodians of Islam’s holiest of holy places to Gen Sharif to take over the command of troops being formed in the name Ummah.
On the other hand, most Pakistanis would equally certainly not want Iran to be annoyed by any of our decisions that appeared to them as not in their national interests, no matter what our compulsions. We share so much with Iran besides religion, culture and a common border. Besides, no Pakistani would like Iran to get the impression that Pakistan was part of a coalition of armed forces that posed any threat to Tehran.
But then, suppose Pakistan had refused to issue NOC to Gen Sharif and Saudis out of pique gave the command of the coalition troops to some country which viewed Iran through the lens of the Saudis, how would Iran feel?
And how would Pakistan feel if that country looked at Pakistan through the eyes of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is out to isolate Pakistan? For example Bangladesh which currently seems to be on the warpath against Pakistan.
To get out of this irresolution or the ‘to be or not to be ‘kind of a situation one would need to know the details and the fine print of the TORs of the coalition forces. Meanwhile, it would be advisable for either the Prime Minister or the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) or the two together to visit Iran for more in-depth discussions on the pros and cons of approving or disapproving the Saudi call.