Has Pakistan walked into a Saudi trap?

Former Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif is going to take up command of a Saudi-led Islamic military alliance to fight terror

Published: 04th April 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th April 2017 04:07 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration : Amit Bandre

It’s now official: Pakistan’s much acclaimed former Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif is heading for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to take up command of the yet-to-be-formed and Saudi-led 39-country Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). The alliance has been variously described by pundits as an Islamic Nato.

Defence Minister Khawaja Asif informed the Pakistanis in a television interview, over the weekend, that the government had conveyed its formal ‘no objection’ to the general’s new assignment to the Saudis in response to an official request from them to requisition his services for what’s still, in a sense, a pie-in-the-sky.

The news about the Saudis luring General Raheel, who’d stepped down as army chief last November, had first surfaced earlier in January this year. But at that time the government took the ‘babu’ (bureaucratic) line of defence and claimed it hadn’t received any thing formal in that respect.
The uproar, then unleashed, didn’t focus on General Raheel donning a new mantle within months of his retirement. Rules of business in Pakistan, otherwise, frown on any soldier taking up a foreign government’s employment before two years of retirement.

The uproar, instead, was centred on a Pakistani military chief heading a clap-trap conjured up by the Saudis who’d tried earlier, but failed, to rope in Pakistan, militarily, on their side in the ongoing war against a hapless Yemen.

Much to the chagrin of Nawaz—whose abiding and unquestioning loyalty to the Saudis is an open secret in Pakistan—the Pakistani parliament had, unanimously, shot down the idea and forbidden Pakistan from assuming any role in the Yemeni imbroglio. The lawmakers’ objection had a ring of authentic visceral reading of the pan-Islamic crisis the Saudis had spawned off their own bat against a weak and dirt-poor Yemen.

The Yemenis, according to the Saudi narrative justifying their flagrant violation of the Yemeni sovereignty and territorial integrity, had been blamed for working as Iranian proxies to challenge Saudi Arabia at its traditional turf in their underbelly Yemen.

The Pakistani lawmakers, as well as the much-maligned ‘chattering class’ of the intelligentsia not in hog to the Saudi-servile and pusillanimous Nawaz regime, however had no problem in seeing the Yemeni adventure as a product of Saudi-Iranian tug-of-war for one-upmanship within the Islamic Ummah. IMAFT smacked too brazenly of the Saudis beefing up their ranks, with as many followers as they could cajole, coax or coerce, in their war of nerves against the Iranians.

Pakistan, the nay-sayers argued, was a majority Sunni Muslim state with a sizeable Shiite Muslim minority, numbering at least one-fourth of its total population. On top of it, Pakistan shared a long—and lately increasingly troublesome—border with Iran, while sharing none with Saudi Arabia. Pakistan, common sense dictated, shouldn’t burn its fingers in joining an alliance that didn’t include an Islamic state as important and sensitive as Iran. Walking into the Saudi trap would be suicidal for Pakistan.
At that time, some mealy-mouthed pundits had reasoned that General Raheel himself, wasn’t in favour of becoming the head honcho of any scheme palpably calculated to become a divisive force and had so informed the Saudis.

But the latest turn of events suggests that either the general had no such reservations to begin with, or had since been won over by the Saudis and the Nawaz government working in unison. A defence ministry spokesperson literally seemed to put a stamp of authenticity on it by telling the media that smoothening the way for Raheel to head IMAFT was part of the “state policy.”
According to official sources, the general will be taking up the command of his still-nebulous force in Riyadh in April, weeks ahead of a May meeting in Saudi Arabia of defence ministers of participating states in the ‘alliance’ to chalk out its structure and modalities. They will arguably be fleshing out the putative alliance’s bare bones.

However, putting the general in harness before the Ministerial conclave seems apparently motivated by the Saudi tactic to pre-empt any move from any quarters to have some other soldier, from some country other than Pakistan, heading the alliance’s command.

That, Raheel-specificity, precisely, is the sore point for the visceral Pakistani pundits, lawmakers and intellectuals objecting to what they see as a crooked Saudi scheme to rope in Pakistan against a neighbour of such sensitive dynamics as Iran. They may have lowered their guard in the months since the idea was first mooted but are losing no time to scramble to it in the face of the Nawaz clique succumbing to crude arm-twisting of their Saudi mentors.

It makes sense for a beleaguered Nawaz—whose fate hangs in the balance with the apex court still sitting on its judgment in the case about his and his children’s corruption and wholesale money-making—being desperate to do a last service to his Saudi mentors. He may, if the throw of the dice goes against him, still end up seeking another refuge with them, as he did earlier in 1999.

But really perplexing is the military brass’ change of heart. Earlier the generals were in sync with those who loathed any idea of Pakistan going out on a limb in an intra-Islamic feud; it was a hot potato they rather shouldn’t relish. What has transpired in just two months, since last January, to have made such a sea-change?

The Pakistani pundits are lost for a logical answer other than a premonition that their civil and military leaders may blindly be walking into an abyss of national shame.

Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat


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