Asif Haroon Raja
Displacement of pro-Saudi Mansoor Hadi’s govt in Yemen and capture of the capital city of Sanaa by the Huthis (Zaidi Shias in northern Yemen) and large swathes of territory in southern Yemen alarmed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), since its vulnerable backyard was threatened. It was already feeling uneasy because of Iran’s expanding ideological war with the help of its allies comprising of Iraq ruled by Haider’s Shia regime, Syria under Assad and Hezbollah in Lebanon. To give heart to embattled Hadi’s forces, KSA joined by other Gulf States started an air war against the Huthis in March 2015 but have so far not achieved any results except for causing destruction and human fatalities to civilians. To an extent the air response has grounded the Huthi’s offensive. PM Hadi who had fled to Riyadh after the capture of Sanaa by the Huthis returned to Aden last year and has made the port city into his temporary Capital/HQ. The war has given space to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh and both have managed to acquire areas of influence in southern parts of the country.
The Huthis aligned with loyalists of former President Saleh of Yemen and militarily backed by Iran have posed a threat to the integrity of KSA. Huthis also threatened to target Harmein Sharifein with the missiles provided by Iran, which is the major supplier of arms, and have kept the border belt heated up. For KSA, Yemen is an extremely important backyard which sits on the mouth of strategic choke point of Bab al Mandab through which large part of global oil shipments pass through. It was on account of the severity of threat from Yemen that KSA had requested Pakistan for troops to guard its border with Yemen as well as to provide security to the holy places of Mecca and Medina and preferably take part in the Yemen war.
Besides the disturbed strategic backyard along Yemeni border and vulnerable Bab al Mandab, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is also faced with the ideological threat from Iran which is striving to expand its Shia arc in the Middle East. Iran’s position has become stronger in the wake of its nuclear deal with the P5+1 last July and lifting of part of sanctions. In case Yemen comes under the influence of Iran, the latter would be in a position to encircle KSA by virtue of its strategic ties with Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The other threat is from the Daesh based in western Iraq which had threatened to capture Mecca and Medina and claim to have over one lac supporters in KSA. Daesh has carried out several attacks in Shia heavy eastern provinces of KSA as well as city of Medina. Internal simmering of the have-nots and extremists is also matter of concern for the Kingdom. Tiff with USA owing to latter’s sudden backtracking on Syria to topple Assad regime in August 2014 and the US-Iran coziness were other irritants that has added up to the woes of King Saud.
Multi-directional threats faced by Saudi Arabia impelled the House of Saud to come out with the idea of a 34-nation Sunni Islamic Force to fight against terrorism and to safeguard the territorial integrity of KSA and most importantly to secure the two holy places. Visiting Saudi Defence Minister gave an indication in early 2016 of hiring the services of Gen Raheel Sharif after his retirement on November 29, 2016 and making him the Commander of an Islamic Alliance comprising 34 Sunni Muslim nations. The blessing of Gen Raheel and of the PM Nawaz Sharif was obtained at Riyadh on the occasion of first joint exercise of Islamic forces in July 2016. Raheel however spelt out certain conditions to accept the post. These were: 1. Iran should be included to ward off the impression that it is sectarian in nature. 2. He will act as an arbitrator whenever there is any conflict between two Muslim States. 3. He will not be lorded over by a Saudi commander.
It was given a final shape in December last and final announcement was made on January 6th, 2017 stating that Gen Raheel has been appointed the Commander of military contingents of 39 Muslim countries. The main reason why he has been chosen is that his performance as Pak Army chief in counter terrorism has been rated as the best in the world and duly acknowledged. What Pak Army achieved against the scourge of terrorism, no other country could achieve! Pakistan Army has learnt the art of counter terrorism the hard way and today it is fully battle inoculated and in a position to train other armies in this field and it has imparted training to several foreign military contingents as well as held joint military drills.
Idea of Sunni alliance was vehemently criticized by certain lobbies through the media. Although the US didn’t officially censure the concept, but the idea of an independent Islamic military force bigger than NATO was naturally unpalatable. Pressure was built up and at one stage it was thought that Riyadh had abandoned the project. Breaking of news of Gen Raheel’s appointment drew mixed feelings. The degenerates shrieked that it has demolished the high image of most popular army chief. They say that it smells of sectarian bias since only Sunni Muslim states have been included. Major concern relates to the negative effect on Pakistan-Iran relations since it will intensify Shia-Sunni conflict. Other concerns are that the alliance is vague and no one is clear of its role, aim and objectives, whether it is meant to fight terrorism, or to protect House of Saud. In their view, it will prove harmful for Pakistan.
It must be understood that membership has been kept open and any Muslim country is welcome to join the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). Besides combating terrorism, it can also act as a peace keeping force, particularly within the Muslim world. This will remove the total dependence on the UN which engages many Muslim countries for peace keeping missions in troubled regions. Pakistan has the best record in this as well and has earned laurels from the UN several times.
Some defence analysts are feeling edgy as to how the hotchpotch of military contingents from 39 different countries speaking different languages, with different dress codes and habits, trained on different training systems, will get amalgamated. They are questioning as to how will the security apprehensions of Iran be addressed? In their view, Gen Raheel should not have accepted this controversial post which is bound to besmirch his prestige as well as that of Pakistan. Political forces joined the bandwagon of critics and are straining their lungs on media by quizzing as to how Gen Raheel had proceeded to Riyadh and accepted this post without clearance from the govt. In their view, as a retired officer he cannot do so without obtaining ‘no objection certificate’ (NoC) from GHQ and the govt. The latter already haunted by Panama leaks, has buckled under media pressure and say it has no knowledge whatsoever.
If military contingents of 48 countries can operate for 15 years under ISAF, why militaries of 39 countries can’t be integrated? If Pak Army can conduct joint military exercises with China, Russia, Central Asian States, USA, Turkey and Arab States, and can impart training to others, what is the problem in the amalgamation of contingents from 39 countries under one training system and tuning them to the counter terrorism doctrine practiced by Pak Army? Have we not been imparting extensive training to the Gulf States including KSA since 1970s and earned their respect and admiration? As regards NoC, a govt official is bounded for two years after retirement from taking part in politics, but is free to take up a job. For a job abroad, there is no need for a senior army officer to seek permission from GHQ/Ministry of Defence. Gen Raheel is cognizant of the Army rules and there is no plausible reason that he failed to abide by it.
As regards sectarianism, the criticizers fail to understand that sectarian conflict is centuries old which has its origins in the tragedy of Karbala. After 1917 Accord, the Anglo-French combine created rift between the Arabs and the Turks which ultimately led to the demise of Ottoman Empire and division of Muslim Ummah into 57 States. Arab-Iran hostility is also western inspired and aimed at weakening the foundations of Islam. Sectarianism has been constantly stoked by the west and was intensified in the Middle East after the capture of Iraq in May 2003. The Muslim Ummah is being systematically enfeebled under the ploy of terrorism. Pentagon Memo had earmarked seven Muslim countries as targets. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen have been destroyed. Muslim world has no plan to prevent its piecemeal fragmentation.
The pseudo-intellectuals and west lovers have hardly expressed any concern about the Indo-US-western-Israel agenda to change the boundaries of Middle East by stoking chaos, capturing oil resources and neo-colonising the Muslim world. Space is being created for Israel to fulfill its age old dream of establishing Greater Israel stretching form River Nile to Euphrates. KSA, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan are among the future targets. It is indeed unfortunate that the Muslim leaders have still not got out of their snooze and have no plans how to prevent further ruination of Muslim countries and robbery of their resources. Worst is, the Muslim States collaborated with the US-NATO forces to destroy and capture neighboring Muslim countries.
We in Pakistan saw how the US ditched us after achieving its objectives in Afghanistan in 1990 and to add insult to our injury, embraced India. We learnt no lesson from this betrayal particularly when seen in the backdrop of the US role in 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars. All Muslim states including Pakistan stood behind the US after 9/11 to attack, destroy and capture Afghanistan in October 2001. We saw Afghanistan falling into the lap of India and did nothing. We learnt at some stage that the so-called friends had marked Pakistan as a target and were fully supporting the proxies to destabilize Pakistan using Afghan soil and FATA, but instead of taking counter measures kept doing more. No Muslim State protested when Iraq was invaded and destroyed in 2003 and that too on fake charges. Same was the case when Libya was attacked in 2011. We remained mum when most dangerous Indo-US nuclear deal was inked which had direct bearing on Pakistan’s security. We made no noise on Pakistan specific Cold Start Doctrine aimed at undermining our minimum nuclear deterrence.
We kept fighting US dictated war on terror all these years and never reflected over the conspiratorial aspects and the injurious fallout effects on Pakistan and Pakistani society. We blindly allowed our people to be bled and property destroyed. After losing well over 60,000 fatalities at the hands of foreign abetted terrorists and losing $118 billion in fighting war on terror, we finally woke up after the most horrid terror attack on a school in Peshawar in December 2014, and then started naming RAW for the first time. We have still remained silent on the deleterious role of allied intelligence agencies that had collectively planned and executed massive covert war against Pakistan from 2003 onward. We quietly allowed India to strategically encircle Pakistan. Traditionally, policy of our leaders has always remained defensive and apologetic but our policy of appeasement of our adversaries never bore any fruit. We allowed our media to play the game of adversaries of Pakistan. In short, losses were too many and gains too few.
The biggest complaint against the leaders of the Muslim world is their alliance with the western world and habit of dancing to their tunes like puppets and making no effort to unite the Muslim Ummah and making it stand on its own legs. Need for Muslim unity has never been felt so acutely than today because of the current hostile environment in which the Muslims are under the axe and on receiving end. Under the perilous conditions, what is the harm if 39 Muslim States are being brought under one banner to fight terrorism? Under the able leadership of Gen Raheel, hopefully, rest of the 18 Muslim countries including Iran would also join this Muslim club which will hopefully be more potent than NATO to protect the interests of the Muslims. Only USA, Europe, Australia, Israel and India would be particularly distressed over the establishment of an Islamic Force and to some extent other non-Muslim countries.
Unfounded concerns and anguish expressed by some Pakistanis is quite mystifying, intriguing and puzzling. Instead of feeling proud, this incorrigible lot has sounded alarm bells. Probably, they cannot digest anything which is of comfort to Pakistan or to an individual. They do so to please their paymasters sitting abroad and have no interest in the wellbeing of Pakistan. These pseudo intellectuals demonstrate their intellectualism by indulging in negative discussions, spreading gloom and doom and by making an issue out of non-issue.
Selection of Gen Raheel is indeed a great honor for him as well as for Pakistan and is yet another proof of his being the best Army chief in the world. Although Pakistan has been fighting war on terror since 2003, it was during his tenure that the back of terrorism was decisively broken and the writ of the state fully re-established in the whole of troubled northwestern region. Additionally, separatist movement in Baluchistan was to a large extent controlled and teeth of militancy of MQM in Karachi extracted. Achievements of Pakistan security forces against the foreign paid terrorists was far superior to the combined armies of over 35 countries with abundant resources in Afghanistan or in Middle East.
The 39-nation alliance could be a precursor to a bigger Muslim alliance and is essentially aimed at restoring peace and stability in the Middle East and has no expansionist designs, or has plans to topple regimes as in the case of USA. Peaceful western flank is vital for Pakistan’s security as well as for the progression of CPEC. It is now an established fact that terrorism is the biggest threat faced by the world in general and Muslim world in particular. Daesh has threatened to capture Mecca, Medina, Najaf and Karbala. Although Islamic Caliphate has shrunk in size, but it has spread its tentacles far and wide. It is also a known fact that the US and Israel secretly make use of terrorists groups to serve its sinister agenda. What if the kind of chaos prevalent in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria creeps into KSA? Already some suicide attacks have taken place in Shia dominated eastern provinces of KSA. Materialization of this threat will compel Pakistan to honor its commitment and send at least 2 divisions with armor component to safeguard the sovereignty of KSA and of the two Holy Mosques. Establishment of Islamic Alliance under Gen Raheel will absolve Pakistan from shedding combat troops.
If the membership of the alliance has jumped from 34 to 39 in such a short time, it is most likely to touch the figure up to 50. In that case, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen are bound to join it since they cannot afford to get isolated because of deep-seated animosity of the US led west and Israel against the Muslims. Iran has gone through a very long period of trial and tribulation because of the harsh four-fold sanctions imposed by the US, EU, UN and hostility of US-Israel. Even after rolling back its nuclear program, the US is reluctant to lift all the sanctions on Iran because of Israel’s security concerns. While Israel is skeptic about Iran’s nuclear roll back, both Israel and USA are worried about Iran’s potent missile program. Iran-KSA ideological rivalry as well as sectarian war are most harmful for the Muslim Ummah but suit the enemies of Islam. Earlier the two rivals shun their differences and jointly work for the promotion and security of Ummah, better will it be. Pakistan can act as a bridge between the two antagonists and who else but Gen Raheel could be a better conduit.
In the end, I may hazard to ask the faultfinders finding faults in the IMAFT whether KSA is a security risk? KSA has been stoking Wahabism to counter Iran’s ideological proxy war in Pakistan, but KSA has never taken part in anti-Pakistan activities or supported another country to do so. It has all along supported Pakistan’s stance on its national issues and extended economic assistance both in terms of cash and oil generously whenever Pakistan was in dire strait.
When KSA requested for the troops to tackle the threat posed by Huthis in Yemen, and Pakistan govt reeling under the pressure of the opposition parties in the parliament declined the request, it earned the ill-will of KSA and other Gulf States. India exploited the silent rift and hastened to get closer to them and sign high profile economic and security agreements with KSA and UAE. KSA didn’t take Pakistan’s rebuff on Yemen issue to its heart. Nawaz Sharif and Gen Raheel had to work hard to allay their misgivings and managed to heal the rift after a firm commitment was given that Pakistan military would fully defend the integrity of KSA and Holy Mosques whenever threatened. Gen Raheel had also made a sincere effort to assuage Saudi-Iran rivalry.
Iran had not raised objections since it had no business to meddle in Yemeni affairs and threaten KSA’s backyard. More so, instead of being thankful to Pakistan for favoring it at the cost of annoying the Gulf States, Iran looked the other way to RAW network operating from Chahbahar since 2003 in Baluchistan and Karachi. When RAW agent Yadav (serving naval commander) was arrested in March 2016, and the visiting President Rouhani was politely informed about it, Iran got so vexed that it signed trilateral agreement with India and Afghanistan at Chahbahar to develop it as a strategic port to undermine Gwadar Port. It must not be forgotten that Iran has played a significant role in the sharpening of the sectarian divide across the Muslim world.
For Pakistan, both KSA and Iran are equally important and it cannot afford to annoy any. Religious harmony, sectarian concord and unity among the 57 Muslim States are direly needed to beat back dangerous designs of enemies of Islam. Detractors and hypocrites are equally dangerous if not more. In my humble view, biased and uncalled for harshly worded criticism by some, were driven by element of jealousy and lack of comprehension. White and grey areas have been turned into black areas. Impediments, difficulties and teething problems are encountered in any new venture. Complications shouldn’t deter us from taking the plunge. Gen Raheel had achieved a milestone against terrorism in his 3-year tenure and earned worldwide respect. Can he be a forerunner in uniting the divided Muslim world? I guess so. I stand by him and back him.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, DG Measac Research Centre. [email protected]