It’s now official: Pakistan’s much acclaimed former Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif is heading for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to take up command of the yet-to-be-formed and Saudi-led 39-country Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). The alliance has been variously described by pundits as an Islamic NATO.
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif informed the Pakistanis in a television interview, over the weekend, that the government had conveyed its formal ‘no objection’ to the general’s new assignment to the Saudis in response to an official request from them to requisition his services for what’s still, in a sense, a pie-in-the-sky.
The news about the Saudis luring General Raheel, who’d stepped down as army chief last November, had first surfaced earlier in January this year. But at that time the government took the ‘babu’ (bureaucratic) line of defense and claimed it hadn’t received any thing formal in that respect.
The uproar, then unleashed, didn’t focus on General Raheel donning a new mantle within months of his retirement. Rules of business in Pakistan, otherwise, frown on any soldier taking up a foreign government’s employment before two years of retirement.
The uproar, instead, was centered on a Pakistani military chief heading a clap-trap conjured up by the Saudis who’d tried earlier, but failed, to rope in Pakistan, militarily, on their side in the ongoing war against a hapless Yemen.
Much to the chagrin of Nawaz—whose abiding and unquestioning loyalty to the Saudis is an open secret in Pakistan—the Pakistani parliament had, unanimously, shot down the idea and forbidden Pakistan from assuming any role in the Yemeni imbroglio. The lawmakers’ objection had a ring of authentic visceral reading of the pan-Islamic crisis the Saudis had spawned off their own bat against a weak and dirt-poor Yemen.
The Yemenis, according to the Saudi narrative justifying their flagrant violation of the Yemeni sovereignty and territorial integrity, had been blamed for working as Iranian proxies to challenge Saudi Arabia at its traditional turf in their underbelly Yemen.
The Pakistani lawmakers, as well as the much-maligned ‘chattering class’ of the intelligentsia not in hog to the Saudi-servile and pusillanimous Nawaz regime, however had no problem in seeing the Yemeni adventure as a product of Saudi-Iranian tug-of-war for one-upmanship within the Islamic Ummah. IMAFT smacked too brazenly of the Saudis beefing up their ranks, with as many followers as they could cajole, coax or coerce, in their war of nerves against the Iranians.
Pakistan, the nay-sayers argued, was a majority Sunni Muslim state with a sizable Shiite Muslim minority, numbering at least one-fourth of its total population. On top of it, Pakistan shared a long—and lately increasingly troublesome—border with Iran, while sharing none with Saudi Arabia. Pakistan, common sense dictated, shouldn’t burn its fingers in joining an alliance that didn’t include an Islamic state as important and sensitive as Iran. Walking into the Saudi trap would be suicidal for Pakistan.
At that time, some mealy-mouthed pundits had reasoned that General Raheel himself, wasn’t in favor of becoming the head honcho of any scheme palpably calculated to become a divisive force and had so informed the Saudis.
But the latest turn of events suggests that either the general had no such reservations to begin with, or had since been won over by the Saudis and the Nawaz government working in unison. A defense ministry spokesperson literally seemed to put a stamp of authenticity on it by telling the media that smoothening the way for Raheel to head IMAFT was part of the “state policy.”
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Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat. He can be reached at K_K_ghori@yahoo.com