Shahid M Amin
A major initiative was taken by Saudi Arabia on December 15, 2015 when it announced the formation of a military alliance of 34 Muslim countries. Dubbed as the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), its primary objective is “to protect the Muslim countries from all terrorist groups and terrorist organisations irrespective of their sect and name.” The alliance will fight the “disease of terrorism that has damaged the Islamic world.” The coalition would work together to target “any terrorist organisation, not just ISISs, in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.”
The announcement was made by Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi Defence Minister. The young prince has emerged as a dominating figure in the current Saudi leadership. He is proactive and relatively inexperienced. He has changed the traditional Saudi posture in foreign policy matters which was cautious, conservative, low-keyed, and one of consensus-building. In normal diplomatic practice, the announcement of formation of such a military alliance would have come after months of preparatory work and intensive consultations with the countries concerned. Instead, Prince Muhammad first made the announcement and only thereafter the countries involved seem to have been consulted. Even now, observers think that the aims and objectives of the alliance are vague and not clearly defined.
IMAFT is an inter-governmental military alliance of 34 countries in the Muslim world, stretching over a vast area from Morocco in the West to Malaysia in the east. The member countries are: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, and Yemen. All of them are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Three of them do not have Muslim majority population: Benin, Gabon and Togo.
The notable omissions from among OIC countries are: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Cameroun, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mozambique, Oman, Surinam, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda and Uzbekistan. However, some reports suggest the possible inclusion of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.
The non-presence of Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Mozambique, Surinam and Uganda is no surprise: these countries are in OIC by default, but have neither Muslim majority nor Muslim leadership. The five Central Asian countries are not there because they have a secular orientation and Russia continues to have some degree of influence there. Algeria and Oman are Arab countries that often take isolationist positions.
Most observers have commented upon the exclusion from this alliance of Iran and Iraq, the two main Shia countries. Also excluded is Syria, which is in the middle of a terrible civil war where the majority Sunni population is fighting to overthrow the Alawite/Shia regime. Some observers argue that Saudi Arabia is trying to line up Sunni Muslim countries in a sectarian alliance against Iran and Iraq. It is believed that Iran and Saudi Arabia see each other as rivals and a cold war is currently taking place between them, which could deteriorate into something far worse.
The initial reaction in Pakistan to the coalition announcement was one of surprise. Since then, the Nawaz Sharif government has veered closer to the Saudi position on the alliance. Nawaz Sharif attended this week the biggest military exercise conducted by twenty alliance countries, called “Northern Thunder” in the city Hafr al-Batin, near the Iraqi border. He was accompanied by General Raheel Sharif, the Chief of Army Staff. There are some news reports that General Raheel is being pressed by Saudi Arabia to become the head of the alliance forces, after his retirement as COAS in November 2016. The exercise Northern Thunder was described by Saudi sources as one of the largest military exercises in the world, based on the number of troops participating and the area of territory used. The major goal of the exercise was to improve training in responding to the threat posed by “terrorist groups.” Those attending the exercise included Egyptian President el-Sisi and Sudan President Omar al-Bashr.
It would not be wrong to say that several countries among the 34 members of the alliance have little military capability and their inclusion is symbolic and a kind of publicity gambit. However, some members of the alliance do have military muscle, notably, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Turkey welcomed the formation of the alliance. Prime Minister Davutoglu said that “it was the best response to those who are trying to associate terror and Islam.” In official comments, Pakistan has at times sounded equivocal, since opinion in parliament and media has reservations about joining an alliance that could pit Muslim countries against other Muslim countries. Pakistan has always been wedded to a belief in the Muslim Ummah and the concept of Islamic solidarity. Both for internal and external reasons, it is also against sectarian division amongst Muslims. In Pakistan’s view, a war between two Islamic countries would be the wrong war at the wrong time between the wrong enemies.
However, hard-headedness demands that this particular matter must also be viewed from another point of view. Saudi Arabia is a key country for Pakistan. It has stood by Pakistan in good and bad times. It has extended important economic assistance to Pakistan. Over 15 lakh Pakistanis are gainfully employed in Saudi Arabia whose remittances top the list amongst all countries in the world. Over the years, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have taken common positions on many issues. In the words of a Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, there is no other example in the world of two countries having a security alliance even without signing a formal pact. Pakistan cannot afford to allow a crack in this special relationship. It is now a test of Pakistani diplomacy to remain close to Saudi Arabia while convincing Riyadh that the target of the coalition should be Muslim terrorist groups, rather than any Muslim state. In fact, Iran and Iraq are as much against Daesh as Saudi Arabia. This makes a case for cooperation between them rather than rivalry and confrontation. While emphasizing the concept of Islamic fraternity, we should focus on threats from anti-Islam forces and the growing Islamophobia in the West.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.