The Saudi-led alliance of Muslim nations called the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism commanded by Pakistan’s retired army chief, Gen. (R) Raheel Sharif, seems to be going nowhere because it does not have a clear agenda so far.
The Military Alliance
of Islamic countries that Pakistan’s former Army Chief of Staff is commanding still does not
have a clear agenda.
Gen (R) Raheel Sharif is now in Saudi Arabia to lead the Islamic Military Alliances. It was in 2015 when it, it dawned on King Salman of Saudi Arabia that, as Khadim al Harmain al Sharifain it devolved upon him to lead the ummah in its fight against terrorism. This led to the founding of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) with 39 out of the 57 OIC members in the first instance. More countries have joined, since, but quite a few, including Malaysia, are still out.
The coalition is envisaged to serve as a platform for security cooperation, including provision of training, equipment and troops and involvement of religious scholars for dealing with extremism.
The announcement that the Saudi government had forged a coalition to coordinate and support military operations against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan, surprised many countries, because the name of Pakistan which is said to be the nursery of terrorism, was initially not included in it.
However, the most noteworthy feature about the Alliance is that to date, all members are countries with Sunni-dominated governments. It does not include any country with a Shia government, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. As for Iran, it has already expressed its reservations regarding the Alliance, because, it had not been extended an offer to join the coalition. This policy of keeping Shia majority countries out of the proposed Alliance gives it the look of a Sunni organisation, in which Shias would have no role, and makes it controversial.
The Alliance is being touted as the “Islamic NATO.” But, NATO is based
on the concept of collective defence “whereby its member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party.” Moreover, it comprises a compact group of countries.
The IMAFT, by contrast, is “offensive” in its nature, because, it proposes to go after terrorists instead of providing a collective defence against terrorist attack and its members are scattered far and wide over two continents, from Gabon and Guinea in Africa, to Malaysia and Indonesia in Asia.
But more importantly, IMAFT’s goal to fight terrorism is vague. How would terrorism be defined and who will be designated terrorists by the Alliance, needs need to be clearly explained. It would require special care to avoid any ambiguity and arrive at a consensus definition, given Saudi Arabia’s seething hatred against Iran and the Shias. For instance, would the Houthis of Yemen, who are Shia, be treated as rebels against their government, or terrorists? If they are defined as rebels they would be the responsibility of the Yemen government. But if they are designated as terrorists, then the Islamic NATO would come into action. Besides, terrorism is a problem only for a few Muslim countries. Others all over the world are free from this menace.
Opinions also differ about who is a terrorist. History is witness to the fact that those whom one group denounces as terrorists, are heroes for another group - such as the Irish Republican Army and the Jewish Irgun and Stern Gang. Irgun cadres were even absorbed in the Israeli Defence Forces in 1948 after the country was founded. And nearer home, while India denounced the attackers of its army camps across the border from Pakistan as terrorists, Pakistan considers them as freedom fighters. Arriving at a consensus definition would therefore, be a mega challenge.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s retired army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif has been appointed the first chief of the “Islamic NATO” after the government of Pakistan gave its nod.
Saudi Religious Affairs Minister Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz, addressing a public meeting during the centenary celebrations of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F), hailed the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia military alliance is a “victory of Islam” whose main objective was the “renaissance of Islam.” But how fighting terrorism, which is the main objective of the IAMFT, can be equated with the “renaissance of Islam” defies common sense.
Many details are still to be made public, such as the quantum of men each member will contribute. One columnist pictures Raheel Sharif, (the Chief of the Alliance), “going from one Muslim capital to the next, asking for firm commitments on troops, planes and ships. There will be much solemn nodding of heads among his hosts before a litany of excuses is trotted out. They will then ask for Saudi aid to buy new weapons.”
The appointment of Gen Sharif as the leader of the military alliance has not been popular in Pakistan. It has sparked debate over how the move will impact Pakistan's foreign policy in general and particularly its relations with its close neighbour, Iran. No wonder, PTI has decided to submit a resolution in the National Assembly against Pakistan’s decision to join the Saudi-led Islamic military alliance and appointment of General Raheel Sharif as its head. Imran Khan’s move is prompted by the apprehension that Pakistan openly embracing the Saudis might imperil PakIran relations.
However, despite the Saudi hoopla, analysts do not put much store by the socalled Islamic NATO, primarily because it lacks the urge that had brought the members of NATO on a common platform in Europe.
They recall that, “starting from the defeat inflicted by Israeli soldiers and guerrillas on the combined Arab armies in 1948, to the military humiliations of 1956, 1967 and 1973, Arab generals and soldiers have not exactly covered themselves in glory.”
Politically, too, Muslim cooperation remains a disappointment. “The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has been blundering around like a zombie for years and has achieved nothing. It is a creature of the Saudis. It provides a sinecure for retired Muslim politicians and makes an occasional empty declaration. It has done nothing to help the Palestinians, Kashmiris and the Rohingyas. Wars and quarrels between Muslim states fester on without the OIC taking a position.”
So, with all these splits and inaction, there are serious doubts that the new Saudi-led alliance will do any better. Lack of enthusiasm is evident from the fact that two years have elapsed since the Alliance was launched yet it has not yet taken off.
Nonetheless it is an ambitious programme which will be watched by the international community with keen interest. It would be too early to pass any judgment until the Alliance takes a clear shape and starts functioning.
For the present, therefore, Raheel Sharif will be the chief of a phantom legion, chilling out in Riyadh without having to do any fighting any time soon.