Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khwaja Asif’s admission in the Pak Senate, that the country’s just retired Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif took up the headship of the Saudi-led 39-nations’ Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) without taking a No-Objections Certificate (NOC) from the government, does not say if the Nawaz Sharif administration is unhappy about it. Or, if it is, does it plan to take any disciplinary action against the erring General? Asif has hinted that the Saudis directly made the offer to Gen Sharif without taking Pakistan government into confidence. He referred to the General’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with the King there.
Some Pakistani commentators and newspapers believe that the Pakistani government was kept out of this deal. If so, will Islamabad protest to Riyadh officially through diplomatic channel or convey its displeasure by any back-channel interlocutor? The concerned Article 259 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan says: “No citizen shall accept any title, honour or decoration from any foreign State except with the approval of the Federal Government.” The above two questions, howsoever relevant in normal diplomatic relations, are absolutely irrelevant to the type of relationship which exists between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and its generals. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is personally obligated to Saudi Arabia, has been struggling to appease Saudi anger against Pakistan Parliament’s rejection of the Kingdom’s request two years ago to send troops to Yemen. This rejection had mortified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who allegedly had given full assurance to the Saudi King on compliance of his request.
Whatever may be the prevailing public opinion in Pakistan, Islamabad has no alternative to swallowing the insult Riyadh has hurled on Pakistan by directly appointing Gen Sharif as head of the IMAFT. Policy makers in Islamabad will definitely ponder how best to exploit the fait accompli by supporting Gen Sharif’s appointment. A face saving device for the Sharif government as suggested in DAWN, could be to make a formal announcement about Gen Sharif’s appointment as the IMAFT commander. The announcement would eulogise the former Pak CoAS for those years of crackdown on terrorists by launching Zarb-e-Azb, brought peace in Karachi and “stabilised” Baluchistan to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) etc. etc. In other words, the IMAFT partners could not have made a better choice than they have made in Gen. Sharif.
Pakistan joined the IMAFT without knowing its details, aims and objectives. Gen Sharif accepted its leadership without really knowing Saudi Arabia’s and other alliance partners’ concept of terrorism and its root causes. The General’s own concept of terrorism is exceptionally debatable. He divided terrorists in Pakistan in two categories: good and bad. Good terrorists were patronised by the Army. They, in turn, committed acts of terrorism in the neighbouring countries: Afghanistan, India and even Iran. Notwithstanding international watch and condemnation, these outfits also perpetrated sectarian violence against religious minorities within Pakistan. Bad terrorists were those who mostly targeted Pakistan’s military installations, as claimed by the Pak Army, across the border from Afghanistan. In between these two groups, there are sectarian terrorist groups created by Gen Ziaul Haq in the 1980’s. They have also committed acts of terrorism inside Iran.
The IMAFT is basically a Sunni alliance. It may regard Shia militants as bad terrorists while the Islamic State (IS) being the outcome of the Saudi Islamic thought and therefore may be considered as good terrorists. The declared enemies of IMAFT are the IS and other un-named terrorist groups. The IS has threatened Saudi Arabia a number of times. This threat cannot be taken as hollow because within the Kingdom there are Saudi citizens who owe allegiance to the IS. According to the Saudi Home Ministry, there are 5085 terrorists of 40 countries in five intelligence jails in the Kingdom. Out of them 4254 are Saudi nationals. Middle East’s total tally of terrorist arrested in Saudi Arabia is 4864 including those 4254 Saudi nationals. From outside Middle East, Pakistan has the largest number of terrorists (68) lodged in Saudi jails. By now, this number may have increased because almost every day Pakistanis are arrested. Certainly the figure 4254 of Saudi nationals may just be a fraction of the number of Saudis who challenge their government on different courts.
This development evokes a very important question: what would include the theatres of action of the IMAFT? Will the Saudi territory be included in it? If it is unimaginable then, can the IMAFT be used against the IS stronghold in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere? The IMAFT is described by some Pakistani analysts as the NATO of the Muslim world. But can it operate like NATO? A Pakistani writing in DAWN says Gen Sharif is supposed to lead an alliance which “exists only in the figment of the Saudi royal family’s imagination”.
But whether or not, the reality is it may not affect Gen Sharif’s appointment and his salary. He should also be in a position to employ many of his former colleagues’ in the Pak Armed forces as well as their children. It is unthinkable that as the commander of the Saudi–led military alliance, Gen Sharif will go out anywhere in the world, except Pakistan, to fight terrorists. China and the Pakistan government will welcome him and his alliance if they start “anti-terrorist” operations in Baluchistan and tribal areas, in order to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and lives of Chinese workers. This is how Gen Sharif can kill two birds with one stone: (1) to ensure the Saudis that their military alliance is alive and kicking and (2) to satisfy the Chinese that he still stands by his pre-retirement commitment regarding the security of CPEC and Chinese workers. The Nawaz Sharif government will try to hide its embarrassment by creating one impression that Gen Sharif joined the IMAFT with the official consent and thus atone for its Parliament’s rejection of Saudi request for sending troops to Yemen.
Whatever the reality about the Saudi-led IMAFT, it is certain that Pakistan, being a partner in it and a just-retired ‘illustrious’ General being its Commander, will try to achieve at least two objectives: (1) sell its small arms to Middle East countries and (2) plead with oil-rich Gulf countries not to throw out Pakistani workers from jobs.