Anti-terror alliance: Will it serve the purpose?

Pakistan's newly appointed army chief General Raheel Sharif attends the change of command ceremony in Rawalpindi
Leading the row: Gen Raheel has become chief on military alliance between Islamic countries but all are not happy about it

Should Pakistan have allowed its former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif to accept the offer of commanding the 39-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT)? This was a new major challenge before Islamabad sometime back when the offer came, as it was from Saudi Arabia, the main aid-giver to Pakistan and leader of the new alliance in the process of being formed by Muslim-majority countries. General Sharif, yet to complete two years after retirement, was bound by the rules to obtain a no-objection certificate from the Nawaz Sharif government to respond favourably to the strategically significant offer.

Before this development, Pakistan had already agreed to join the controversial alliance as a member-state but was hesitant about granting permission to its ex-army chief to go ahead owing to security and other implications.

Reports, however, indicated then that the Pakistan Prime Minister was in favour of General Sharif being allowed to accept the offer, perhaps, owing to Mr Nawaz Sharif’s closeness to the ruling elites in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, in the meantime, admitted in the course of an interview with the media that the NOC had already been granted to General Sharif. Whatever the Pakistan government’s decision, one thing was clear: there was no unanimity in that country over the issue.

There are parties like the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan which expressed their reservations to the very idea of the denominational military alliance. A spokesman of the PTI, Mr Fawwad Chaudhry, reportedly said, “We strongly oppose this decision (of granting permission to Gen Raheel Sharif) and will soon raise the issue in parliament.”

Some time ago Pakistan’s parliament had decided that Islamabad would remain neutral in the ongoing crisis in West Asia following the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) factor. The IMAFT idea was considered contrary to that approach. However, it was felt that if the Pakistan government had already decided to allow General Sharif to accept the offer made to him, it must have taken parliament into confidence, the opposition parties argued.

The political parties and others opposed to a whole-hearted participation of Pakistan in the new alliance also argue that it cannot serve the interests of Islamabad because Shia-majority countries have been excluded from the military grouping. Pakistan’s Shia population, in their opinion, would feel alienated if Islamabad fully associated itself with the military front idea. The militant outfits in Pakistan would get encouraging signals in such a situation.

But could Pakistan really afford to say “No” to Saudi Arabia? The Saudis have always been financially bailing out Islamabad whenever it faced an economic crisis. Pakistan’s “No” to the Saudis was, therefore, bound to jeopardize its relations with the richest West Asian country. Thus, Pakistan was faced with a big dilemma: should it say “Yes” or “No” to the offer from Riyadh?

General Sharif, in a state of confusion, asked Saudi Arabia to include Iran in the military alliance so that it did not appear to be aimed against Shia interests in West Asia in the guise of fighting global terrorism. The truth is that the ex-Pakistan army chief is more bothered about his own country’s interests than the larger interest of eliminating terrorism through the collective efforts of the countries where the hydra-headed monster had been getting sustenance. The same charge can be leveled against Pakistan as a state too.

Moreover, Pakistan must be feeling insecure because of the Saudi-led drive for an anti-terror multinational military initiative with its focus on Muslim countries. At this stage, the initiative is aimed at meeting the threat posed by the IS and its sympathisers. But such an anti-terror campaign, once it becomes operational, cannot leave Pakistan alone as it is home to many terrorist and extremist outfits. Pakistan-based terrorists have been mainly focused on India and Afghanistan, but they have been found to have links with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, believed to have had connections with Taliban factions, active in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan. Bin Laden, who spent his last days in Pakistan’s Abbottabad, could not have found sanctuary there without local support. The ISI, Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, is reported to have been behind most of the outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Taliban factions. Pakistan’s worries have other elements too. Since the headquarters of the IMAFT will be in Saudi Arabia, the biggest financier, will General Sharif be allowed to command the force independently? Will the IMAFT’s command and control lie with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)? What will be the system of drawing troops and procuring military hardware from the member-countries? These questions are also unnerving Pakistan.

The IMAFT was hailed as an excellent idea when its formation was announced as an inter-governmental alliance first by Saudi Defence Minister Muhammad bin Salman on December 15, 2015. The alliance idea included the use of religious scholars too to tame the terrorist monster. However, even before the IMAFT has become operational doubts are being expressed about its ability to deliver the goods because of infirmities like the non-inclusion of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. A good idea has got weakened owing to Shia-majority countries like Iran and Iraq remaining away from it.

Its present complexion indicates that the basic idea behind the IMAFT is to ensure that the Shias remain sidelined in the West Asian region. It is also possible that the Shia Muslim-majority countries themselves prefer to remain outside the military front as they may not be able to fund the extremist organizations like the Hizbollah to protect their interests in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, etc, if they get entry into the IMAFT. These countries may think of setting up a separate alliance on the lines of the IMAFT to counter Sunni influence. Such a scenario may defeat the very purpose behind the IMAFT idea, providing a fertile ground for denominational terrorist outfits to emerge in West Asia, South Asia and elsewhere. In an atmosphere where military might is used on sectarian lines, outside powers are bound to get involved, posing a serious threat to peace and stability in the region concerned and beyond. The situation can lead to a world war, which cannot solve any problem.

The use of force has never helped handle any crisis effectively. It has created new and more complicated problems. If military might is at all to be created to provide confidence to the people, first of all, their opinion must be sought for the purpose. If this is not possible as most of the countries behind the IMAFT move are not democracies, then the use of force should be limited to deterrence. Terrorism, however, can best be fought and eliminated if a massive ideological drive is launched to prevent terror outfits from getting new recruits to their destructive cause. The factors helping in the spread of terrorism can be eliminated with a far-sighted approach provided there is a strong will to do so. The message that is intended to be conveyed here can be understood clearly by learning from the American experience. The US spent millions of dollars with the sacrifice of hundreds of its world class fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is the result at the end of it all? The Taliban factions in Afghanistan have proved that they cannot be defeated with merely the use of force. And the US intervention in Iraq has only complicated the security scenario in the region, creating an atmosphere for the emergence of terrorist outfits like the IS the world had never experienced before.