Presumed sectarian dimension of the IMA worries people inside Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: With the official announcement allowing its former army chief Raheel Sharif to head Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) and considering sending of its military troops to Saudi Arabia to defend its territory, Pakistan indicated its participation in a presumed sectarian (Sunni) states alliance in the Middle East amid peoples’ concerns.

Pakistan’s defence minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, last week, publicly confirmed the government consent to Saudi Arabia in writing, allowing its former army chief, Raheel Sharif, to lead the military coalition for three-years. “Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan for it and we have said yes. Only formality of procedures is to be completed now,” he said, adding, “Also, we want to make this clear that neither this Saudi-alliance nor Pakistan will become part of any sectarian conflict or agenda that would harm other Muslim countries (Iran).” Asif said rather Pakistan would like to play a role of mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Following the neighboring Yemen civil war and disposition of Yemeni administration, Saudi Arabia, along with its Gulf allies, announced the formation of the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) in the end of 2015. The alliance, according official Saudi statement, aims “to fight against terrorism led by Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a joint operations center shall be established in the city of Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism and to develop the necessary programs and mechanisms for supporting these efforts.”

Though Pakistan, officially, still denies its participation in the alliance but in the Saudi official statement it is among the countries part of this alliance to fight terror. The coalition started from 34 countries now comprises of 41 Muslim states with expectations of further expansion. Shia majority Islamic states Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are still not part of the alliance raising concerns of people and analysts about the presumed sectarian dimension of the alliance with the possible focus on Yemen. These states presume that Riyadh-led alliance is not motivated by the desire to combat terrorism but sectarian and geopolitical rivalries. However, there are no official details of the role of this alliance yet.

Separately, Pakistan is also considering sending some military troops to Saudi Arabia to defend its territories against any threat on Saudi request.

“The agenda and structure of the IMA is still unclear as details are likely to be shared with Pakistan in May,” federal defence minister said. “

“We have an agreement with Saudi Arabia since 1982 that we will send military aid to defend Saudi territory. It is a bilateral agreement,” he said, adding, “The considerations to send troops are underway under that agreement and even in this case Pakistani forces will be deployed within Saudi territory and will not become part of any external conflict.”

“There are some serious objections to this alliance and Pakistani support to it,” Dr Mohammad Waseem, professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, commented. He said, largely, this Saudi-led alliance is considered as sectarian, anti- Shia and anti-Iran, therefore, with Iran as our neighbor, such step of joining this alliance will be adventurous and could result in worsening relations between the two countries – Pakistan and Iran. Waseem argued that the main objection is that Pakistan is not identified with a sect even though it is predominantly a Sunni Muslim state. “We cannot lose the supra sectarian identity. We cannot identify our state with a sect and such steps will put Pakistan and it military in an embarrassing position,” he contended.

“Secondly, there was the idea about the military help to Saudi Arabia earlier too. In 1991 Iraq war Pakistan sent its military troops in Saudi Arabia but they remained away from the border. Now, there is another situation, a couple of years ago Pakistan managed to convince Saudi Arabia that it cannot send its troops to fight in Yemen. At least, officially, they were not sent and now if we send the troops the question arises is there change of policy?” Waseem questioned. He asserted that the presence of Pakistani troops in a combat position for Saudi Arabia would be highly embarrassing at this point.

Soon after the IMA was formed, Saudi top ministers visited Pakistan and talked about Pakistan’s role in the alliance. Saudi foreign minister Adel Bin Ahmed al Jubeir and Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, separately, visited Pakistan in January 2016 and also met the then army chief Raheel Sharif at General Headquarters (GHQ). A week later, Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and army chief Raheel Sharif together visited Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively, as a peace mission to ease tension between the two countries, especially after the IMA formation. In March 2016, Pakistani PM and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) again together visited Saudi Arabia and also witnessed the joint military exercises of the IMA. Following the reports that Pakistan is becoming a part of Saudi coalition force, against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif publicly declared, “Any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.”

One of the main opposition parties of the country, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, has also opposed the permission of former army chief, Raheel Sharif, to join the Saudi-led alliance. “The military alliance of Muslim states is apparently being formed against Iran and, therefore, the appointment of Pakistan’s former Army chief as its commander would send a negative message that Pakistan is also against Iran,” an official statement by the PTI said. PTI Member National Assembly and senior leader Dr Shireen Mizari said that the issue had already been discussed in parliament a year ago and it was collectively discussed that Pakistan would not become part of such controversial alliance that may increase conflict between the Muslim countries.

In April 2016, Pakistan’s parliament debated reports that country is becoming part of Saudi alliance against Yemen and turned down the Saudi request. Members of the parliament opted instead for a neutral stance on the Yemen conflict to play the role of a mediator between two brotherly Muslim countries – Saudi Arabia and Iran.

At the moment, there is no plan to send military troops to Saudi Arabia. And if there is a need to send them, the matter will be discussed in the parliament before taking a final decision because Pakistan should not become partisan in any conflict between the two Muslim countries,” said the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz senator and former army general Abdul Qayum. He maintained there was agreement in 1982 but a foreign policy decision of such a magnitude could not be taken alone.

“Given the track record, Pakistan may send some troops to Saudi Arabia for the protection of Saudi kingdom, eventually, but still there are many question marks on the role of alliance, its proposed head and the country because it carries serious implications for Pakistan for opting this dangerous and complicated path,” Imtiaz Gull, a prominent security analyst said. Gull argued that there is no Shia-Muslim majority country in the alliance till date and such steps by Pakistan are politically risky and the claimed role of mediation without consulting Iran before joining the coalition or sending any troops will be at the cost of annoying Iran. Therefore, until the IMA purpose and allies are defined further, big questions are looming on Pakistan and its former army chief’s role in this issue.


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