It’s official once again; after much confusion, contradiction and speculation, defence minister Khawaja Asif has confirmed that former COAS Raheel Sharif will indeed be heading the 39-nation military alliance being championed by the Saudis, though he also perplexingly added that while Pakistan was certainly a member of this ‘alliance’ there was no clarity on the scope, goals and terms of reference of this alliance. Nor had the former army chief, according to Asif, yet been given an NOC by the powers that be.
If this was meant to reduce the confusion and uncertainty surrounding this much-rumoured move, it had the opposite effect. The outrage was as expected, with accusations flying that Pakistan had — contrary to a parliamentary resolution back in April 2015 — given up its neutrality in the bloody Yemen conflict.
However, and while there are certainly grounds for concern, that latter claim doesn’t quite hold up in light of the merry jig that the Pakistani state had to dance to avoid getting embroiled in this conflict and the wider Middle Eastern struggle for supremacy.
Better to send a retired general than a military contingent.
The Saudis were hell-bent on Pakistani participation in their Yemen campaign, an entanglement that was somehow avoided. There were back and forth visits in 2015 with both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and then COAS Raheel Sharif flying to Saudi Arabia. Much misinformation surrounded the issue, and overeager (and sometimes pro-Saudi) media outlets even published infographics and details about Pakistan’s supposed military contributions, citing the ever-available ‘anonymous security sources’. This wasn’t too much of a stretch at the time, given that the inaugural Saudi press conference for operation included Pakistan’s flag among those of Saudi allies in this war.
Luckily, and to everyone’s surprise, Pakistan didn’t take the bait. Now who you credit for this depends on where you stand: Raheel Sharif wanted in, but Nawaz Sharif didn’t. No, it was the prime minister who wanted to repay Saudi favours but Raheel put his booted foot down. No, they were both on board, but the collective wisdom of the corps commanders and parliament prevailed. No, they both wanted out but couldn’t say so and thus had to opt for rejection via democratic procedure.
Regardless, we all breathed a sigh of relief as that particular bullet swooshed by our head, Matrix style.
But this proved a rare chance to praise the wisdom of our policy makers. The recent handling of Raheel Sharif’s acceptance of the offer to lead the military ‘alliance’ once again brought into stark relief the confusion and factionalism that prevails in the system, much like a retreating tide uncovers the rocks and debris that lurk beneath an otherwise placid sea.
Despite this confusion, one must clarify that joining this alliance is not tantamount to joining the Yemen war and thus is not, as some are arguing, a violation of the parliamentary resolution. Now, one could argue — as many are — that this nod to the Saudis serves as a moral justification of the latter’s actions in Yemen and has placed Pakistan in the Saudi corner against Iran; but this would also mean that every other member of the 39-nation (paper) army has done the same and that’s a claim that doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny. In any case, morality and statecraft rarely go hand in hand; morality is in fact used largely as a public relations tool, to be applied selectively and for maximum effect. All of which kind of negates the whole argument.
Then there’s the fact that this alliance doesn’t really (yet) exist in any tangible form. Multi-nation military alliances are unwieldly at best, and difficult to sustain without a common adversary or defined goal. Here these conditions aren’t met, though the marked omission of Iran, Iraq and Syria does make it clear who the Saudis wish to exclude and contain. That’s certainly a red flag, but these wishes aren’t horses and no one is riding them to war against Iran anytime soon despite what Riyadh may want. Getting a bunch of Muslim countries to agree on anything is like herding cats: hard to do and even when you have herded them, what next?
Finally, whether you like it or not, Saudi Arabia has been a long-standing ally of Pakistan and when it comes to giving your allies a sop, well, better to send a retired general than a military contingent.
To state the obvious: the trick here is to simultaneously build bridges with Iran while also not snubbing the Saudis, all the while avoiding any actions that could inflame sectarian conflicts at home. To achieve this will also require constant recalibration of policy in order to keep pace with the rapid geopolitical changes in the Middle East. In the meantime, let’s try not to panic too much.
The writer is a member of staff.Noman Ahmed, "Governance through judiciary," Dawn. 2017-04-03.
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