Gen Raheel Sharif’s Opportunity
Vol 10 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2017
RaheelSharifs appointment as Commander of the IMAFT provides Pakistan a challenge and an opportunity
Monday, February 6, 2017
General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s erstwhile Chief of Army Staff who retired from service in late November has been appointed as the first Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). The selection of a former Chief of amongst the most powerful of militaries of the Islamic world to head a coalition of forces drawn from Islamic militaries came as a surprise as it was firstly, assumed that the Force would be headed by a representative of Saudi Arabia at whose initiative the Alliance has been formed. Second, that the honours would go to Pakistan whose association with the Alliance itself is potent with compulsions and contradictions. The security and the ethno-political factors that underlie the selection and the expectations from the Commander-in-Chief to be therefore require a clear understanding.
What is the IMAFT?
The IMAFT is an inter-governmental military alliance of Muslim countries in the world united for military intervention against ISIS and other anti-terrorist activities across the Middle East and other countries. Founded on 15 December 2015 at the initiative of Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defence, the Alliance had an initial 34 member nations with this number now rising to 39. The Alliance has its Headquarters at Riyadh and its prominent members with notable military strength being Nigeria, Turkey, Bahrain, Bangladesh, UAE, Libya, Malaysia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan besides Saudi Arabia itself. Though termed an alignment of ‘Muslim’ nations, the members presently are all Sunni nations with the notable exclusions being Iran and Iraq.
The primary objective of the IMAFT is to protect Muslim countries from terrorist groups and organizations. Its operations would be in compliance with and conformity to the provisions on terrorism as stipulated by the United Nations and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The IMAFT has stated that it could use force against terrorists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan and has colloquially come to be referred to as a ‘Muslim NATO’.
Though Pakistani troops have been in Saudi Arabia since the mid-1960s the guiding principle for their operational deployment thus far has been to serve only within the territorial boundaries of Saudi Arabia. The IMAFT mandate would be different with operations mostly outside the realm of Saudi Arabia and within the territory of another, perhaps even a friendly Islamic nation. It was therefore a difficult choice for a nation like Pakistan to join the IMAFT.
While Saudi Arabia has been Pakistan’s foremost patron and a home to several thousands of Pakistani expatriate workers, Iran is its immediate geographic neighbour. Importantly, it is also a nation with natural gas reserves that Pakistan needs to meet its own energy requirements. There has also been a decades-long standoff between Sunni Saudi Arabia and the principally Shia Iran – with both nations being silently accused of backing their favoured militant groups operating from Pakistan and is causing sectarian violence, particularly in Shia regions such as in Gilgit -Baltistan.
There is no gainsaying the extent of political obligation that Pakistan has towards Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, in 2013-14, ‘gifted’ Pakistan a largesse of $1.5 billion, which was disbursed towards various projects even without a formal agreement having been signed between the two nations. It was widely believed that this grant is linked to the Pakistan’s military playing an active role in the Gulf.
The call to play this role came in 2015. However Pakistan, even in the face of relentless Saudi pressure, refused to join military operations against Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen as it apprehended its involvement in operations against the Yemeni Shias would exacerbate sectarian divides within its own borders. Another important factor underlying the refusal had been a condition placed for the Pakistani contingent to consist only of Sunni personnel, which was rightly regarded by Pakistan as being against the grain of the ethos of a professional force.
In March 2016, the Saudis offered a $ 67 million package to Pakistan through five grant agreements for construction of Home Economics and Management Sciences College at Islamabad, construction of Islamabad General Hospital, reconstruction of permanent houses for earthquake-affected areas of Balochistan, construction of government buildings in Balochistan and livelihood restoration in Balochistan. The signing ceremony for this grant, significantly was during the Pakistan Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia to attend the closing ceremony of a multi-nation ‘Thunder of the North’ military exercise. Interestingly, General Raheel Sharif himself, as the then Army Chief, was also present.
It is in this backdrop that both the offer made to Gen Raheel Sharif and of his acceptance must be evaluated.
Pre-conditions for Acceptance
While there has been much debate and discussion as to whether the selection has the concurrence of the Government of Pakistan and whether the General himself has been granted a ‘no objection’ to accept the appointment. While in the context of the realpolitik of the region, these can hardly be deemed insurmountable, it is the pre-conditions that Gen Sharif is reported to have placed for him to accept the challenge that are veritable ‘game changers’. The conditions raised by Gen Sharif relate to:
– Inclusion of Iran in the military alliance.
– The Command and Control chain being such that he would not work under anyone’s command.
– That he, as Commander, would have the mandate to act as an arbitrator if there is a need to promote harmony among Muslim countries.
These are significant caveats that would provide the Commander authority, freedom to assess threats and deploy his Forces as per his own professional judgement and most significant, to play the role of an arbitrator between the belligerent adversaries.
This latter is of significance as it first gives ‘peace’ a chance before the commencement of operations and second, provides Gen Sharif as Commander in a position to ‘negotiate’ that peace.
Gen Sharif’s Opportunity
The Military Commander of a potent multi-national force with authority to negotiate is unique in the annals of present day concepts of peace keeping and peace-enforcement. The condition for membership of the coalition being extended to Iran augurs well for inclusivity.
Signs of a thaw are emerging with Iran having indicated its acceptance of Pakistan’s role in mediating Yemen crisis and expressed its willingness to cooperate and even using its goodwill to bring the Houthi rebels to negotiate.
With the ‘enemy’ to be fought being co-religionists who are controlled by largely non-state actors (having tacit support of some or other nation, even of a member state of the coalition), the language of a Commander equipped with robust military power along with the authority to negotiate would be far more clearly heard and understood. Herein lies Gen Sharif’s opportunity. How the General crafts his military and diplomatic skills could well become a determinant for a similar model to empower military commanders in conflict zones elsewhere.