Pakistani general to head Islamic Military Alliance
London - The Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), led by Saudi Arabia, has found a leader.
The announcement that retired general Raheel Sharif, a former Pakistan Army chief, would be the first commander of the 41-country counterterrorism Muslim coalition was a surprise to many geopolitical analysts and quickly developed into a point of contention for Iran.
Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a military alliance to combat regional terrorism in December 2015. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who founded IMAFT and is the country’s Defence minister, said at the time that the alliance would have its headquarters in Riyadh “to coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism and to develop the necessary programmes and mechanisms for supporting these efforts”.
He said the coalition would coordinate efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir said members could request assistance from the coalition, which would address the requests on a case-by-case basis.
The Pakistani government approved Sharif’s appointment in late March. However, some in parliament politicised the move. Imran Khan of the Tehreek-e-Insaf party voiced concern that it would upset Iran. Tehran’s envoy to Islamabad expressed his country’s displeasure at the appointment but the objections were not enough to derail the plans.
The Saudis’ motivations for selecting the former Pakistani general as commander appear to be plentiful and serve a number of purposes. Sharif, 61, has a record in military counterterrorism operations and is known in Pakistan as the only man feared by the Taliban.
Sharif, who has excellent ties in the global military community, including the United States, led a 2014 military campaign against the Taliban. Dubbed Operation Zarb-e- Azb, the campaign was critical to counteracting the growing militant presence in areas such as North Waziristan, South Punjab and Karachi.
The operation, which continues, has been credited for a 40-45% drop in terror-related incidents in Pakistan, government statistics indicate.
Sharif’s appointment can be perceived as an attempt by Riyadh to solidify military relations with Pakistan, particularly considering growing economic ties between Islamabad and Tehran.
Despite financial support from Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members, Riyadh is under the impression that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation to the newly appointed commander), who lived in exile in Saudi Arabia from 2000-07, has tilted towards Iran, especially on the economic front.
Islamabad’s motivation for the shift is tied to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, a development strategy aimed at fostering cooperation between China and Eurasian countries. To be successful, the policy requires supports from both Iran and Pakistan, making improved economic relations between the two countries a priority for Beijing.
Besides Saudi Arabia being the biggest buyer of Pakistani-made weapons, the two countries have extensive military ties that date back decades. They have engaged in joint military exercises and Pakistani troops have occasionally been deployed to the kingdom, such as during the first Gulf war in 1991 when troops from Islamabad helped secure the kingdom’s holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
As in Egypt, Pakistan’s military plays a major role in the country, including in the political realm. Since independence in 1947, the Pakistani Army has staged three coups. Many consider the position of army chief to be more important and powerful than that of prime minister.
That made cementing military relations a logical step for Riyadh. Bringing Sharif on as commander of what some have dubbed the Muslim NATO is both a practical and symbolic victory for the kingdom.
Sharif is expected to arrive in Saudi Arabia this month. Pakistani officials said he would then begin establishing the alliance’s military structure.
Besides Pakistan, the counterterrorism coalition includes countries with established armies such as Egypt and Turkey, which is the only NATO member in the alliance. Other Gulf countries in the coalition are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.