What role for Pakistan in 'Muslim Nato'?

What role for Pakistan in 'Muslim Nato'?
Comment: Pakistan's Raheel Sharif was recently appointed head of the Islamic Military Alliance, but Lahore should instead look to play a 'neutral arbiter' role, writes Usaid Siddiqui.
5 min read
18 Apr, 2017
Pakistan's former Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif now heads the Islamic Military Alliance [Anadolou]

Earlier this month, Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif sought to play down reports that former Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif was granted a "No Objection Clause" by the government, to head the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA).

Asif, however, has since confirmed that, in principle, the Pakistani government would allow the former general to lead what some are calling the "Muslim Nato".

A coalition of mainly Sunni Arab states, the organisation was formed to fight "extremist groups" threatening the Islamic world, stretching from North Africa to South East Asia. Sharif's success over the past three years in combating violent extremist groups in Pakistan saw him receive widespread praise, both domestically and internationally.

However, the move has ruffled feathers. The government of Iran - obviously not a part of the Saudi-led axis - has shown little enthusiasm upon hearing the decision, asserting that it could "impact the unity of Islamic countries".

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, led by former cricket legend Imran Khan, has expressed concern that Pakistan's role in the alliance - now bolstered by Sharif's selection - may exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Shia in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Furthermore, Pakistan's own fight against armed groups is far from over. The country's involvement in a turbulent Middle East may heighten its profile in a way that increases the country's vulnerability to extremist threats.

What is the scope of the IMA?

When the IMA's formation was publicly announced in December 2015, the Pakistani government admitted it had no idea such an alliance had been established. This is a telling indicator of how little is known about the alliance, and what exactly its goals may be.

For many, one of the main concerns regarding the scope of the IMA remains the Saudi government's leading role in establishing this 39-state coalition. Saudi interests in the Middle East remain entrenched, most notably its role in Yemen fighting the Shia rebel group, the Houthis.

Sharif's success over the past three years in combating violent extremist groups in Pakistan saw him receive widespread praise, both domestically and internationally

The war in Yemen, which began in early 2015, continues to be a highly controversial affair. UN reports state that since it began, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The war has reportedly brought seven million people to the cusp of full-scale famine. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 70 percent of the Yemeni population is dependent on humanitarian aid, and more than two million children are said to be acutely malnourished.

The conflict has found few sympathisers within the international community, and in Pakistan, it has been heavily criticised.

In 2015, when the Saudi government approached the Pakistani government about joining its coalition in Yemen, all opposition parties in the country pressured the Nawaz Sharif-led government to reject the offer, irking the Saudi monarchy - given the close personal ties between the Pakistani PM and the Saudi royal family.

For some Pakistani Shias the country's involvement in the IMA could aggravate sectarian tensions at home. In several periods of Pakistan's history, relations between Shia (20 percent of the population) and Sunni have been tense - most notably in the immediate post-9/11 era.

Pakistan's stable and friendly relations with Iran are likely to be challenged in light of this coalition, which does not include the Shia-majority nation

A prominent Pakistani Shia organisation, Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) expressed concern over Raheel Sharif's appointment, suggesting he turn down the offer. According to MWM's Secretary General Raja Nasir Abbas, the move could push Islamic countries into conflict with each other.

On the international front, Pakistan's stable and friendly relations with Iran are likely to be challenged in light of this coalition, which does not include the Shia-majority nation.

According to journalist Ahmed Rashid, the alliance is being perceived "as a new Saudi-inspired Sunni bloc to counter Iran's growing influence among Shias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen".

The often troubled relationship between the Saudi Arabian and Iranian governments has hit a historic low, with both nations on opposite sides of the conflict in Yemen. In Syria, Pakistani involvement with the Saudi-led IMA has alarmed Tehran, increasingly worried that it may jeopardise its relations with the South Asian nation with whom it has historically enjoyed (for the most part) cordial relations.

Violent extremism at home

One of the main reasons for Sharif's appointment was his success in curbing "terrorism" in Pakistan during his three-year tenure as army chief, which ended last year. Yet in recent months, "terrorist" groups have struck out relentlessly across the country, in Lahore and cities in Sindh, with many fearing more attacks to come.

Earlier this month, four army personnel were killed and 17 wounded in a busy neighbourhood in Lahore, in what appeared to be a suicide bombing. In a heavily patrolled tribal area, a suicide bomb in Parachinar left at least 24 dead and more than 70 injured in an attack that was found to have targeted the area's Shia residents.

In this environment of uncertainty and chaos, Pakistan's resources are best suited to dealing with the domestic issues it is struggling to contain.

Instead of taking a military role, meddling in highly combustible conflicts in a turbulent Middle East, Pakistan would be better off serving the well-being of the Islamic world as a neutral arbiter between Muslim nations at odds; a role far more suited to its interests in the region.

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance Canadian writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.