Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will soon face one of the more difficult foreign policy decisions of his current tenure when he sits down to decide whether or not to allow former army chief Gen (retd) Raheel Sharif to head the Saudi-led alliance against ‘terrorism’. It is a decision that will test Pakistan’s longstanding policy of maintaining neutrality in Middle Eastern politics.
The issue will reach the prime minister’s table in almost a month’s time, most probably around March, when the Saudi government will officially seek Islamabad’s consent for the appointment of Gen Raheel as the chief of the 34-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), the brainchild of the Saudi defence minister and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The alliance, formed in Dec 2015, the Saudis say, is meant for Daesh and other terror threats facing Muslim countries. But it is suspected to be an anti-Iran alliance.
The matter may not have been discussed in detail during Saudi Ambassador Abdullah Zahrani’s recent courtesy call on Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa at GHQ, but an Arab diplomat insisted that it was broached during the meeting. An ISPR statement after the meeting said, “[The] COAS reassured the (Saudi) Ambassador that the Pakistan Army holds the defence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at par with its own.”
Although there were a few voices of support, predominantly from hardline sectarian and religious groups, the overall reaction was rather negative for Gen Raheel choosing to head the Saudi alliance as a post-retirement international career
The government, it is said, had some time last year indicated its openness to the Saudi authorities about considering their request for Gen Raheel’s appointment as the commander of the newly established military alliance. Defense Minister Khawaja Asif too had said during a TV interview that the Saudis had kept the government in the loop. This would, in particular, limit the government’s options when it come to responding to Riyadh when it seeks consent for the appointment.
So far, the government may have succeeded in evading Saudi pressure to contribute troops for the Yemen war and subsequently have maintained an ambiguous position on its participation in IMAFT, but that can no longer be the case. A categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would be required here.
The government’s consent will encounter two major hurdles. The first is public perception, which is staunchly opposed to an army chief taking up a foreign assignment after his retirement. The Saudi offer, formally made to Gen Raheel earlier this month, opened the floodgates of criticism for the general, one of the few army chiefs to have retired with high public approval ratings because of the counter-terrorism operation Zarb-e-Azb and his decision to doff his uniform on schedule. Although there were a few voices of support, predominantly from hardline sectarian and religious groups, the overall reaction was rather negative for this as a post-retirement international career.
“The so-called alliance has no formal legal mandate,” argues defense analyst Gen (retd) Masood Aslam. “Neither has it been formed under a UN resolution nor does it have the OIC’s blessings. The Charter of the Alliance is not known either and neither are the rules of employment and engagement and funding, equipping and troop commitments by participating countries.”
To him, the alliance appears to be “a pure KSA initiative” and an “extension of the ambitions of a Saudi prince”.
Another point raised was that the entire idea appeared “quite incongruous”. The executive director for the Center for International Strategic Studies, Amb Sarwar Naqvi, feels that, “A military alliance is an intergovernmental arrangement and does not need a military commander to head it. In fact, a military alliance does not normally maintain a military force nor does it engage the services of a commander. The multinational coalition force of Muslim countries announced by the Saudi government some time ago does not seem to have a military force and hence the question of appointing a commander does not make any sense.” For what it is worth, the former army chief had addressed some of the criticism at home by stating that he had set conditions for accepting the role, which related to his training responsibilities, the advisory role and reconciliation efforts. The controversy may have subsided for the time being, but it is certain to re-erupt when the decision draws near.
The silence of the official rules with regards to the overseas employment of a retired army officer is another problematic area. Apparently, it is manageable because the government has the freedom to amend the rules, but doing so would not come without a political cost. The main opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf have already voiced their opposition to Gen Raheel serving the Saudi alliance.
According to the Civil Establishment Code or Estacode on the employment of government employees: “Whenever any Ministry/Division, or any authority under them propose to employ a released/retired military officer as a result of an application made to them direct (and not through the Ministry of Defence) the Ministry of Defence should be consulted by the Ministry/Division etc. concerned before such an officer is employed by them.” One clear implication of this rule is that a policy decision would be required before allowing Gen Raheel to serve.
“A No-Objection Certificate for Gen Raheel by the government will be against our traditional policies for the Middle East and the Muslim world,” Gen Aslam said. “It would have severe ramifications for our internal cohesion and sectarian militancy.” He warned, in addition, that doing so could “provide greater space for the Indians to exploit our internal weaknesses and could specially put up hurdles against CPEC”. In Amb Naqvi’s view, it would be “interpreted as a blatant reversal of Pakistan’s policy of neutrality with regard to Middle East conflicts.” The government, he emphasized, “will be well-advised not to grant its clearance for Gen Raheel’s appointment to a nebulous organisation whose purpose would be to pursue policies and actions that would compromise Pakistan’s declared position on the Yemen conflict and other intra-Muslim issues”.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bokhari_mr