Gen Raheel Sharif leading the Islamic military alliance could be Pakistan’s greatest ever diplomatic masterstroke


Raashid Wali Janjua

How does General Raheel Sharif ensure that he does not meet the fate of Spartan General Pausanias in the service of Greco-Spartan alliance? The Spartans had allied with the Greeks during the first two decades of Greco-Persian wars acting as the “dues ex machina” for a militarily enervated alliance of Greek city states that accepted Spartan military shield against the marauding Persian Empire. In 479 B.C the Delian League was formed as a reaction to the Greek estrangement with their Spartan allies during the famous siege of Byzantium that was under Persian occupation. The estrangement was a consequence of a Spartan General named Pausanias’ ham handed treatment of Greeks during the siege where he was sent to help the Greeks against the Persians.

There are very interesting parallels to the two situations. Saudi Arabia is a close political ally with strong cultural ties that feels threatened by non-state actors abetted and encouraged by another Islamic country, i.e Iran, the proud legatees of once mighty Persian Empire. The strategic insight of Raheel Sharif a military general of present day Islamic Sparta, i.e Pakistan, is much valued by Saudi Arabia. He, however, like Spartan General Pausanias runs the risk of alienating his allies and complicating things for Pakistan. Contrarily he might go on to win laurels through his military acumen and mature handling of the command of the 39-nation Saudi sponsored Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). A cold calculating analysis of the cost and benefits for Pakistan is de rigueur before giving green signal to General Raheel Sharif to get into catbird seat of the purported alliance.

Pakistan at this juncture of CPEC driven engagement with China is in a very delicate situation politically and diplomatically. The strategic convergence of interests between the USA and India to contain the Chinese juggernaut in South and Central Asia leaves Pakistan in a very parlous spot. In simple words, India and USA would do all they could to dissuade Pakistan from too tight an embrace with China. The strategic location of Gwadar and its potential to challenge the commercial interests of existing Gulf ports bring threats of Gulf states’ envy in the Indo-Pakistan zero sum game equation. With the present Afghan government under strong US and Indian influence Pakistan has a two frontier challenge as well. Iran that was once a strategic balancer in the region is no longer playing that role. With its own interests vis-a-vis Pakistan in Afghanistan and India it is in no position to offer any assistance to Pakistan.

The diplomatic isolation of Pakistan due to aforementioned facts and a policy of neutrality in Gulf have started hurting Pakistan. The Arabs including Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies have started making overtures towards India after refusal of Pakistan to send troops to fight Houthis in Yemen. Pakistan today stands diplomatically isolated whether we like or not. Except China all other regional and global powers have little convergence of interests with us. What measures could break this diplomatic logjam for us without compromising on our core foreign policy and security interests? What state instrument or institution could help us thaw the diplomatic ice? Kenneth Waltz’ classic structural realism theory recommends external balancing wherein smaller nations confronted with a regional hegemon seek security in bandwagoning with militarily and economically strong world powers. Since external balancing through China has its limits, Pakistan has to look towards a new concept of soft external balancing by leveraging her diplomatic and economic strengths.

What are those soft balancing tools that can offer Pakistan a way out of present diplomatic impasse? Pakistan has a very strong military instrument and leadership that is respected the world over for its expertise and professionalism. Having been baptized in the fire of brutal asymmetric conflict for well over a decade now the soldiers as well as officers are a lethal fighting instrument capable of holding their own in any adversity. A heavy spending on defence as a compulsion has invested Pakistan armed forces with an efficacy and professionalism that rivals that of any modern nation. With its nuclear status burnishing its credentials as a formidable fighting instrument, Pakistan Army stands as a logical choice for any friendly Arab country for military support in terms of training as well as defensive deployment against state as well as non-state actors. Saudi Arabia presently is threatened with a spate of threats from Al-Qaeda, Daesh, and sectarian militants. The conflict with Houthis Yemen and its putative Iranian connection is another threat that has started challenging Saudi borders lately.

With the current Trump administration’s cozying up to Saudis yet again due to differences with Iran have brought a thaw in the US-Saudi relations. It is a development that presages another cooperative engagement by US in Middle East with Arabs at the cost of Iran. The Saudi threat perception and its offer of military alliance to Pakistan act as veritable soft external balancing options that can help her break her diplomatic isolation besides countering the challenges emanating out of Indo–US strategic convergence. Pakistan can effectively safeguard its security interests as a military foil to a US ally in Middle East countering Indian intrigues indirectly. General (r) Raheel Sharif can play an important role in above scenario by acting as commander of Islamic Military Alliance due to his military professionalism and diplomatic sangfroid. He could act as a military advisor to the OIC as well as GCC while working closely with the Saudi military and political leadership.

It needs, however, to be understood that if Pakistan has thought through all dimensions of this Saudi engagement in the shape of leadership role for Islamic Military Alliance for its ex Army Chief some home truths should be clear to all. General Raheel Sharif would do no service by being a symbolic head of an effete alliance with no teeth or fighting ability. His appointment in fact is a tacit admission of the greater Pakistani role in Middle Eastern threat matrix. Raheel Sharif is therefore a vanguard of a greater Pakistani military engagement with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries and a personification of Pakistan’s soft balancing ability through military diplomacy. His appointment would logically be followed with some effective military deployments. Pakistan despite its heavy involvement in the asymmetric warfare is capable of sending a Division’s strength of force comprising a balanced mix of armour, infantry and supporting arms. With General Raheel in the alliance headquarters and Pakistani troops on Saudi soil Pakistan’s clout with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE would increase manifold.

For optimal diplomatic advantages Pakistan must have a symbiosis between General Raheel’s role and Pakistani force deployment. General Raheel should be given an important role to play as a military diplomat for Pakistan deriving strength from the presence of Pakistani troops on Saudi soil. Pakistani troop deployment under a serving Major General should have its own vertical and horizontal command and staff linkages with Pakistan, Saudi Arabian and Islamic Military Alliance military headquarters. It is a veritable win win situation for Pakistan minus a caveat and that caveat remains Iranian sensitivities. If Pakistan and Raheel Sharif could act as a bridge between the Arab-Iran angularities the Islamic Military Alliance structure would act as the greatest diplomatic achievement ever pulled by Pakistan. courtesy The Nation blogs.