IN the wake of turmoil in the Middle East in general and Yemen conflict in particular, Saudi Arabia had announced the formation of a 34-state “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT)”, to bolster counter terrorism effort in the Middle East region, in 2015;now the coalition has 39 members, all these countries are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well. Thus the force takes the Islamic coloration in its composition. Critics are of the view that exclusion of Iran and Iraq makes it a predominantly “Sunni coalition” which, according to doubters, has been raised to contain “Shite version of Islam. It has been called “a sectarian coalition” by Hakeem Azameli, a member of the Security and Defence Commission in the Iraqi parliament.
The concept of a joint Muslim military force is an old one, which became a necessity after the collective failure of the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Countries’ (GCC) failure to take charge of the unravelling of Middle East in the aftermath of so called Arab Spring that gradually turned into biting winter. The ensuing chaos is now under no one’s control. No single country of the world has the capacity and capability to handle the fall-out, hence there is necessity of a collective effort. In unison with the UN, IMAFT could render valuable contribution towards countering the regional dimension of terrorism in the Middle East.
There is nothing wrong with a retired military officer taking up such an assignment. General Raheel’s main contribution as Army Chief was to uproot terrorist networks all over the country. Even though 2016 was a bad year with respect to high profile terrorist attacks, such attacks which were a daily routine earlier, have become a rarity. And towards the second half of 2016, terrorist activity stood restricted to Balochistan, which could be partially attributed to external interference aimed at subverting the CPEC. General Raheel was chosen for the task well before his retirement, however due to likely conflict of interest it was not prudent that the General holds the command of national (Pakistan) Army alongside that of an international military organization. Appointment as commander of a multi-national Force is compatible with General Raheel Sharif’s stature, and one may even say that it is indeed an elevation.
A point is being raised that by doing so, Pakistan would become a party to sectarian war going on in the extended neighbourhood of Pakistan; mainly the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). From legal perspective, any government employees ceases to represent the country immediately after retirement. And as he is not a nominee of the government of Pakistan, his actions as commander of IMAFT would not have any bearing on Pakistan’s policy and vice versa. During Yemen crisis Pakistan maintained a semblance of neutrality; and jointly with Turkey, Pakistan played a balancing act. As Army Chief during those tumultuous days, Raheel Sharif played an active part in maintenance of this balance. He did not fall prey to the temptation of sending troops to the conflict zone. And he is likely to maintain the same mindset.
Iran-Saudi relationship has historic context as well as complex dynamics, but both countries meticulously avoid crossing redlines. While both do occasionally end-up in brinkmanship, they know how to pull back. They appear to have put behind the hard feelings of Yemen fiasco days and the Saudi government has extended formal invitation to Iranian government for sending its people for forthcoming Haj (Muslim pilgrim of Holy places located in Saudi Arabia). Notwithstanding, General Raheel’s handling of Iranian President’s visit to Pakistan in 2016 was a faux pas which may continue to haunt him during his new assignment.
As most of the Muslim countries are affected by terrorism in one way and the other, and Muslim-non-Muslim polarization on the issue of terrorism and how to counter it is on its peak, a counter terrorism force raised by Muslim countries alongside requisite political ownership by the Muslim Ummah has a place in the international system. And when such force is commanded by a Muslim General of repute like Raheel Sharif, it is likely to have greater acceptance amongst the Muslim counties and international entities, with a proviso that it is expanded to include left-out Muslim countries, especially Iran and Iraq.
Up till now, IMAFT is a concept only, it is about a force which is yet to evolve and formulate. Raheel Sharif has the credentials to convert the concept into reality. Raising, operationalizing and employing such a multi-national force is an onerous job, for which Raheel Sharif would be sacrificing his golfing years. Yet he might get bogged down by the burden of a venture that became controversial right from its inception and is likely to remain so. Nomenclature of the Force suggests that it could be more of a liaison entity, sort of a force in being, rather than an actual supranational combat force in counter terrorism role on the pattern of ISAF /NATO or Mission Resolute Support.
One has to wait and sees the form and shape this force takes. Its command structure is also lop-sided as it’s headquarter is Riyadh that radiates an impression of this force being an extension of Saudi counter terrorism effort. There is widespread skepticism as to whether IMAFT is really a coalition against terrorism or just a Saudi pawn in the power tussle in the Middle East. The lukewarm response from many members of this proclaimed Force makes it extremely doubtful whether such a military alliance could really take off.Many similar earlier concepts like GCC Force and Arab League Force could not become a reality out of fear of Egypt dominating such force. Similar fears could inhibit growth of IMATF beyond drawing boards.
Moreover, Pakistan does not intend to become embroiled in sectarian conflict in the Middle East which could have a negative fallouts in Pakistan’s domestic sectarian balance. That is why government of Pakistan did not sponsor General Raheel’s appointment at government to government level, however the government of Pakistan was taken into confidence on the matter. In all likelihood General Raheel would ensure that his new appointment does not create any negative impact on the delicate balance that Pakistan strives to maintain between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Hopefully in due course, the good sense would prevail and the Force would be brought under the OIC command through a consensus decision ensuring troop participation by all 57 members and it could eventually take up the role of a Muslim peace keeping force. However, in all probability, General Raheel is not likely to have a free hand on deciding the composition, doctrinal choices and operational strategy of the Force. He will indeed have to walk a tight rope.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.