Pak Lands in ‘Muslim NATO’

Pakistan Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif

Appointment of Raheel Sharif as chief of IMAFT is nothing but balancing act by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman post freezing of Dawood’s assets worth Rs 15,000 crore

Picture: Raheel Sharif with Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman; Sushma Swaraj in Saudi Arabia

By Chandan Kumar

In a dramatic move, Pakistan’s former Army chief Raheel Sharif was appointed first head of a Saudi Arabia-led military alliance of Islamic countries, put together to fight Islamic State and other terror outfits gaining stronghold in the region. The move looks an important development in global politics as the platform is comprised of 39 countries in Asia and MENA (Middle-East North Africa) regions with predominantly Muslim populations. Before decoding the details of this development let’s understand the significance of Saudi Arabia-led military alliance of Islamic countries.

The idea of Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) was first mooted by Saudi Arabia in 2015 to counter the growing reach of ISIS in the region. Among several times, Pakistan was reportedly invited to this group during the Riyadh led air-strike campaign in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who had overran large swathes of the country with little resistance faced from Yemen’s government forces. Originally, the military group had 34 members. Pakistan had reportedly refused to participate in the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen, with many Pakistan-watchers believing that Islamabad’s close energy cooperation with Iran held it back from joining a military venture with Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is one Islamabad’s largest benefactors and has provided aid to the tune of $1.5 billion in recent years, which put Islamabad in a quandary as to which side to go on. Saudi Arabia and Iran are strategic and religious rivals, with both the powers claiming leadership of the Islamic world. Pakistan, which has one of the strongest armed forces among Islamic countries, has in the past also been wary of sending its troops to overseas military campaigns. According to a Pakistani defense expert quoted by The Guardian, the “guiding principle” of Pakistani troops, who have been serving in Saudi Arabia since 1960s, has always been that they would serve only within the territorial boundaries of Saudi Arabia.

According to some news reports, Islamabad’s decision to join IMAFT has been met with criticism from the Shia Muslim community of Pakistan, which makes up around 20 percent of the population of the South Asian country. The move risks further worsen the Shia-Sunni divide in the Pakistani landscape. According to a news report, banned Sunni group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat has expressed support for Shareef’s appointment as head of the group. Whether the group will operate on the lines of UN Peacekeeping Force or follow a NATO like command is not known yet. Doubts have also been raised over the objectives behind the military group, which is basically led by Sunni Arab monarchies hostile to Iran, Syria and Yemen. However, from the Indian perspective, entry of Pakistan into the Saudi Arabia-headquartered group could lead to increased support for Pakistan from other Sunni Muslim countries, when it comes to Kashmir or any other dispute with India.

Since, IMAFT is dominated by the Sunni Muslim nations, it certainly make Russia unhappy as Russia feels that Sunni Muslims are behind the ISIS and they are flourishing due to the clandestine abetment from the Sunni Muslim countries. That’s why when Saudi Arabia asked Islamabad to participate in its fight against Yamen, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif out rightly declined to participate in this move coined by Riyadh. It irked Riyadh and in result, India scored and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to Saudi Arabia was planned in a hurry. Since, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has been instrumental in isolating Islamabad in the global politics, this Saudi move too led to India’s crackdown on the terrorism. The recent Saudi Arabian government’s move to freeze Dawood Ibrahim’s assets worth Rs 15,000 crore is a glaring example of it. However, appointment of Raheel Sharif as IMAFT chief should be seen as a balancing act by the Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and need not to be seen more from any specs. Since, Russia and other Shia nations including Iran won’t like this move by Saudi Arabia, there is no room for any re-alignment of Middle East regime.

In actual, Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia wants to develop a Sunni dominated global platform where each and every Sunni dominated nation would participate and stand for each other member nation’s interest into the global set up. Since, Pakistan officially declined to join IMAFT, Mohammed bin Salman who is defense minister of Saudi Arabia too, found another route to bring Pakistan in this group of Sunni Muslim countries. However, this appointment should not be seen as government to government diplomatic decision. It’s just a unilateral decision taken by Mohammed bin Salman and Raheel Sharif, who just retired after serving three years as chief of Pakistani army, found the offer lucrative because it is reported that the former Pakistani Army chief has been appointed at very high salary. But, by accepting this offer, Sharif has completely overlooked the Pakistani interest as Iran and Russia won’t appreciate this move by Saudi Arabia and it would be Pakistan that will have to pay for it.

In fact, the US would also feel agitated by this appointment as the US secretary of defense has repeatedly warned Pak army during Raheel Sharif’s days or abetting cross-border terrorism in India. So, Raheel Sharif having nod of the US administration doesn’t hold any root in the ground and hence India need not to feel worry with this development. In fact, India should be happy that the Riyadh has responded to New Delhi’s demand over Dawood Ibrahim, though it knew that it would affect its tie with Pakistan.