AFTER he retired as Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif did not have to wait long for his next job. The Saudi Arabian government selected him as the head of the so-called Islamic army that has been in the works for some time now. The stated aim of the “Islamic army”, which the regional media has dubbed as the “Muslim NATO”, is to fight extremism and terrorism in the region and the Horn of Africa. Seen as a “counterterrorism” alliance of 39 Sunni states, it is funded mainly by the Saudi monarchy and the rich Gulf emirates and will have its headquarters in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
The Saudi government announced the military alliance’s creation in December 2015 as it embarked on a fratricidal war against neighbouring Yemen. At the moment, the Saudi-led alliance is fighting a sectarian war in Yemen.
Among the countries listed as members of the alliance are Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, all of which have big and powerful armed forces. Even Nigeria, which is a secular republic with an almost evenly divided population of Muslims and Christians, has pledged support for the alliance. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made the commitment during an official visit to Saudi Arabia two years ago. His decision, taken without consulting the country’s lawmakers or even his own Cabinet colleagues, had taken his countrymen by surprise.
“We are part of it because we have got terrorists in Nigeria who claim that they are Islamic. So, if there is an Islamic coalition to fight terrorism, Nigeria will be part of it because we are victims of Islamic terrorism,” Buhari said then. The Nigerian government has been noticeably silent on the issue since then, preoccupied as it is with the Boko Haram and a nascent secessionist movement in the South which wants to carve out a Christian state.
Some other governments were surprised that their countries figured in the initial list of military partners put out by Riyadh. Pakistan refused to send troops to Yemen despite the Saudi government announcing that Pakistan was part of the Saudi-led coalition waging war against a fellow Muslim nation. Good sense seemingly prevailed over the Nawaz Sharif government at the time. In retrospect, it was apparently a deft and courageous move, given the fact that the war in Yemen shows no signs of ending and has led to the biggest humanitarian crisis, even bigger than that afflicting Syria. Pakistan has, however, committed more than a thousand ground troops to train the Saudi army inside Saudi Arabia but near the theatre of war in Yemen. The Pakistan Army has helped Saudi Arabia and Bahrain maintain internal security and train their armies for a long time.
In 2015, the Pakistani parliament had voted unanimously against joining the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash criticised Islamabad’s decision at that time saying that despite the Gulf countries helping Pakistan economically in many ways, it was not reciprocating their requests for military help. A minor diplomatic spat ensued between Abu Dhabi and Islamabad after Gargash’s statement.
An immediate gainer of that diplomatic spat was New Delhi. The UAE has significantly upgraded its relationship with India and has pledged billions of dollars in direct investments and infrastructural projects. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, was the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Saudi Arabia, too, has strengthened relations with India seemingly in retaliation for Pakistan’s rebuff on the request for ground troops in Yemen.
The Pakistani government gave the impression initially that Gen. Sharif had not kept it in the loop while accepting the Saudi offer to lead the proposed Islamic force immediately after his retirement. Now the government says that it allowed Gen. Sharif to take the job as the Saudi King had personally made a request. An exception was made specifically in the case of Gen. Sharif despite there being a law that prohibits senior Pakistan Army officials from accepting foreign assignments for a period of two years after retirement.
Pakistan’s civilian leadership, despite close ties with the Saudi royalty, was well aware that getting unnecessarily involved in the war in Yemen would be counterproductive in the long run because of its sectarian overtones. As it is, the sectarian divide within Pakistan itself seems to be widening by the day. Besides, the country shares a long border with Iran, where Shias are in the majority. The Saudis and their conservative allies now consider Iran the enemy. That may be one reason why Oman is the only Gulf kingdom that has refused to sign up with the proposed Saudi-led military alliance along with Iraq and Syria.
At the recent Arab League summit in Jordan, a resolution condemning “foreign interference” in the affairs of the states in the region was adopted. The reference was not to the United States or a European power but to Iran, although the country was not named. Reacting to the resolution, Bahram Qassemi, spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said the grouping, instead of paying attention “to core problems facing the region and the Muslim world, mistake[s] enemies for friends” despite the experiences of the past.
Widespread criticism There was widespread criticism in Pakistan after the government formally announced in the parliament in the last week of March that it had given the green signal to Gen. Sharif to take up his new post. The diplomatic and economic gains that India was perceived to have achieved with Saudi Arabia and the UAE could have been an important factor influencing the Sharif government’s decision. The Pakistani parliament has also adopted a resolution proposing that Pakistan “should maintain neutrality” in the conflict in Yemen.
Defence Minister Khwaja Asif said the decision to give Gen. Sharif the go-ahead was an “administrative one” and claimed that it had nothing to do with the conflict in Yemen. Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Retd. Gen. Nasser Janjua, who is close to the military establishment, justified the government’s decision. He said Gen. Sharif’s appointment would provide a great opportunity for the country to work for a “Muslim Ummah”. He dismissed the claim that the move would anger Iran. With Gen. Sharif in charge of a coalition of Islamic forces, Islamabad may find it difficult to ignore requests for the despatch of its troops to Saudi-instigated wars in fellow Muslim countries.
The opposition parties said no decision could be taken without the consent of the parliament. The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf Party (PTI), led by Imran Khan, along with the main opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), opposed the move vociferously.
Iran openly criticised the Saudi initiative, which is obviously against that country’s interests. The decision of the Pakistani government to allow Gen. Sharif to lead the Saudi-led military grouping was conveyed to Tehran before the official announcement was made. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif despatched his Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz to the Iranian capital in February to acquaint the government there about its decision.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the Iranian Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Policy and Security, who was on a visit to Islamabad in January, told the Pakistani media that the aim of the Saudi-led military alliance was “only meant to kill innocent people” in Yemen. “Therefore, no one would like to be part of such a coalition,” he said. Iran’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Hunar Dost, cautioned that the new developments would hamper bilateral relations between the two countries.
Gen. Sharif, meanwhile, claimed that he would be the one calling the shots as the military head of the coalition. He said he would try and persuade Iran also to join the grouping. According to him, the military alliance was solely aimed at combating Islamic terrorism.
The leaders of Pakistan’s Shia community have also criticised the decision. PTI spokesman Fawwad Chaudhry said that his party would raise the issue of Gen. Sharif’s appointment by stealth in the parliament. He said the Saudi-led military alliance was formed to counter Iran and would further widen the existing divide between the Sunni and Shia communities in Pakistan. He reminded the government that it had given an undertaking to remain neutral in the conflicts raging in West Asia that not only involve Muslim nations but also big powers such as the U.S. and Russia.
PPP secretary general Farhatullah Babbar said the government should have informed the parliament before taking the decision on Gen. Sharif. The government, however, continues to claim that there has been no change in policy and that Islamabad under no circumstances will despatch troops to any other Muslim country.