Saudi temptation

There has, as yet, not been any denial of Defence Minister Khawaja Asif’s mumbled comments during a TV interview last week about retired Gen Raheel Sharif being appointed the chief of a Saudi-led military alliance. Considering that clear articulation has never been his strong point, one may take the minister’s mutterings as confirmation.
But the minister has left many questions unanswered, adding to the confusion over the government’s position on the issue and whether the appointment of the former chief of army staff indicates a shift in our policy of staying away from the power tussle in the Middle East. It is apparent that the former general’s selection to head a multinational force would hardly be possible without the approval of the prime minister.
It seems that the government is maintaining deliberate ambiguity on this matter as happened when it was first reported that Pakistan had joined the so-called Islamic military coalition. Then there are valid questions too about Raheel Sharif’s own decision to accept the controversial job that may adversely impact the fine legacy that he left as the best-remembered army chief.
He is certainly not a freewheeling retired general who would accept such a politically sensitive position at his own discretion without the consent of the government. There is no precedence in Pakistan of a retired army chief seeking a job and that too outside the country.
Surely the Saudi offer was on the table long before Gen Sharif’s retirement. Is there any strategic reason behind the government’s decision to loan a recently retired army chief, or is it Saudi pressure that we could not afford to resist? Whatever the justification, such a decision can have serious foreign and domestic fallout. It has been more than a year since the young Saudi deputy crown prince, who has been responsible for the kingdom’s disastrous military adventure in Yemen, announced the formation of a military alliance of 34 Muslim-majority nations. This unilateral Saudi declaration took not only Pakistan, but also several other nations on the list, by surprise. Although the coalition was formed to jointly fight terrorism, its very composition branded it as a ‘Sunni coalition’. There has been widespread scepticism of whether it is really meant to be a coalition against terrorism or just a Saudi pawn in the power tussle in the Middle East. The lukewarm response from many member countries makes it extremely doubtful that such a military alliance can really take off. The exclusion of some Muslim countries including Iran and Iraq makes it all the more divisive.
There are few countries that are willing to commit troops to the alliance. So what is there for the former army chief to lead? Moreover, to fight terrorism, there is a need for closer cooperation among the intelligence and security agencies of these Muslim countries rather than a joint military force. Interestingly, the idea of a military alliance was floated after Pakistan and some other countries refused to send their troops to fight along the Saudi forces in Yemen. A joint session of parliament had rejected the Saudi request, provoking indignation in the kingdom. It was certainly not in the country’s interest to be a party in the sectarian divide and the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi military adventure has only exacerbated the civil war in Yemen and blocked any move to reach a political solution to the conflict.
Over the past one year, there have been some significant changes in the Middle East’s power dynamics with the heavy losses inflicted on the militant Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, many countries that are listed in the Saudi-led coalition are part of the US-sponsored anti-IS alliance including Iran. In fact, Iran has played a key role in pushing out the global terrorist group from its stronghold in Iraq. Meanwhile, Russia is also asserting its military and diplomatic power in the Middle East forming a separate trilateral alliance that includes Iran and Turkey to counter IS in Syria (abridged).

The writer is an author and journalist.

Source : The Dawn


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