Pakistani general to head Islamic Military Alliance

Sharif’s appointment can be seen as an attempt by Riyadh to solidify military relations with Pakistan.

A file picture shows former Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif at a military exercise in Khairpur Tamiwali in Pakistan. (AP)

2017/04/09 Issue: 101 Page: 10

The Arab Weekly
Mohammed Alkhereiji

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.

Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.

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