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Should Pakistan ex-army chief lead Islamic military alliance?

By Ahmed Rashid
The appointment of Pakistan's former army chief General Raheel Sharif to head a 39-country Saudi-led military alliance of Muslim countries to combat terrorism has set off intense debate in Pakistan and in the region.
The alliance is seen by many observers, but in particular by Shia Muslims in Pakistan and the Middle East, as a new Saudi-inspired Sunni block to counter Iran's growing influence among Shias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
After months of silence from Gen Sharif, Pakistan's defence ministry has now said that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have come to an agreement on his posting.
So far at least there does not seem to be an army made up of soldiers from any of these 39 countries and what exactly Gen Sharif will do in Saudi Arabia has not been disclosed.
But Pakistanis are anxious given that 20% of the population are Shia, there are large numbers of Shia officers and soldiers in the army - which has never faced sectarian unrest - and memories of the horrors of the 1980s when Saudi Arabia and Iran were accused of fighting a proxy war on Pakistani soil live on.
Each state, it was alleged, funded and supported militant Sunnis and Shia respectively in Pakistan to kill each other.
Even today there are still widespread attacks launched largely by Sunni militants against Shia across Pakistan and the government has so far failed to bring this sectarian war to an end. Many Shia have left the country.

Unity hit?

The deal has prompted enormous debate in Pakistan, with the main opposition coming from Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which says such a deal would worsen the Sunni-Shia rift in Pakistan.
The main advocate of the plan is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who owes the Saudis several political debts, including his release from a jail sentence imposed a decade ago after he was toppled in a military coup. Mr Sharif then lived for many years in exile as a guest of the Saudis.
The army has also been historically close to the Saudis, providing troops and training in the 1980s to the Saudi armed forces and receiving help for the purchase of weapons systems.
Many Pakistanis are desperately keen that the country stay out of the crises that have gripped the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are jointly trying to defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are Shia. The Saudis are also suspected of supporting a variety of militant Sunni groups fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and of having helped Bahrain crack down on protests led by its majority Shia population.
Pakistan would like to avoid any involvement in these countries.
The Saudis have long asked Pakistan to contribute to its forces in Yemen, which so far Pakistan has refused to do. Last year Pakistan's parliament voted against sending Pakistani troops to Yemen. However the new Islamic alliance led by the Saudis and the appointment of Gen Sharif may alter the strategic picture for some.
Meanwhile Iran has increased its presence throughout the Middle East particularly in providing military aid to regimes in Iraq and Syria, while it is also allegedly helping the Houthis and other Shia in the region.
Iran has strongly objected to the appointment of Gen Sharif as head of the alliance. ''We are concerned that it may impact the unity of Islamic countries,'' said Iran's Ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi Honardoost on 4 April.
Islamabad insisted that it had told Iran of the appointment, but Tehran said that did not mean it had accepted the decision. Instead Iran has offered to help form a ''coalition of peace'' in the Middle East rather than forming a military alliance.

'Neutral referee'

Raheel Sharif's acceptance of the job has led to intense debate on political talk shows on TV channels, with many people questioning why a very popular former army chief should now enter the quagmire of the Middle East, which may ultimately force Pakistan to make difficult strategic choices and almost certainly sour its relationship with Iran.
Much of the print media has been critical of the appointment, which has not been helped by the total blackout of information from both the government and the army as to what exactly this alliance hopes to achieve or how it will benefit Pakistan.
''The government is pursuing a course of action that undermines Pakistan's status as a neutral referee in the Muslim world,'' said Pakistan Today in an editorial.
Newly appointed Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua has pledged that Pakistan will maintain a balance in its relations with Tehran and Riyadh "even though it's very challenging".
There has been longstanding criticism from politicians and the media that Pakistan has been ignoring Iran, even though it is an important neighbour. So far Gen Sharif's appointment has only increased that criticism and created considerable unease as to the future course of Pakistan's foreign policy.

Pakistan - ''Middle Eastern temptations''

Afrasiab Khattak
It is hardly surprising to see the eruption of a heated debate in Pakistan over the decision of General (retired) Raheel Sharif (GRS) to become head of the so-called Islamic Military Alliance which is cobbled together by Saudi Arabia. Many Pakistanis are concerned about the possible fallout of this new adventure while the country is still profusely bleeding because of her old Afghan adventure. It is particularly so as the Middle Eastern adventure has the potential for taking the sectarian divide in the country to a new level.
Many Pakistanis vividly remember that up till mid 1970s Pakistan was one of the favorite destinations of tourists from all over the world and was known in other countries for producing good quality of cotton. Then came General Zia’s despotic dictatorship that derailed the country by imposing the so-called Jihadi project on the country with the support of western countries and Arab kings. After that Pakistan came to be known for exporting Taliban and other high quality terrorists. Therefore many people believe that with serious problems of religious extremism and terrorism on her plate, Pakistan can ill afford to jump into the sectarian quagmire of the Middle East. It was with this background in mind that the Pakistani Parliament had passed a resolution opposing the country’s involvement in the on-going military conflict in Yemen.
Pakistan has a history of military relations with Saudi Arabia in terms of providing training facilities and deploying troops for purely defensive purposes. But this time round it’s going to be a new ball game altogether due to the following monumental political and geo-strategic changes in the Middle East.
One, after the defeat of the Sassanian Empire of Persia at the hands of Muslim Arabs in 651 AD it is for the first time that Iranians have been able to deploy their army on a large scale in Arab lands. The post Saddam Shia majority Iraq is part of the Iranian camp. The Alawite regime of Bashar-ul-Assad in Syria has so far survived the devastating civil wars and proxy wars mainly because of Iranian support. Iran has strong and loyal allies in the shape of Hizbullah in Lebanon. Ascendancy of Yemeni Houthies has opened yet another Arab country to Iranian influence. Sheikdom in Bahrain has had a difficult time in quelling Shia uprising. Saudi Arabia, like many of its neighbors, is facing internal sectarian fault lines apart from the threat from the expanding influence of Iran. So the ideological threat from Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 is now turning into a real military threat for which Saudi Arabia is least prepared. It is looking for boots on ground in the war in Yemen, the outcome of which is vital for the future of the Saudi ruling clan.
Two, the mass uprising in recent years, known as the Arab Spring has badly shaken almost all the Arab countries. The Saudi monarchy was able to keep it out of KSA but it had to provide financial incentives to the population for keeping it away from the uprising, leading to financial difficulties. These financial strains have intensified due to the falling oil prices for the last so many years.
Three, Saudi relations with western countries in general and US in particular have seen a definite decline. US is not as dependent on Saudi oil as it used to be. Wahabism and Salfism, the official ideology of ruling Saudi elites, is regarded to be the ideological basis for violent religious extremism. Many in the west believe that Saudi terror financing hasn’t come to an end despite lots of pressures and persuasions. Unlike the past experience, the Saudis weren’t able to stop western countries from entering into a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue that resulted in lifting stringent financial sanctions from Iran. Saudi insecurities have further deepened with the growing hostile attitude of the western media towards its archaic and repressive state system (although one must add that when it comes to repression the Iranian theocracy is hardly any different).
In view of all the above it is pretty clear that the aforementioned military alliance is needed by Saudi Arabia to contain Iranian political expansion and military domination in the Middle East, for defending herself and other Sheikdoms. Winning the war in Yemen is crucial for achieving the aforementioned objective and the experience of the last two years has proved it beyond any doubt that KSA cannot do it by herself. Hence the so-called Islamic Military Alliance against terrorism. Saudis have their eyes on the Pakistan Army. General Raheel Sharif’s joining the force will be the first step towards committing Pakistani soldiers to the so-called military alliance. After all GRS is not an ordinary citizen who can go and seek a job anywhere in the world. He was until very recently military leader of Pakistani state and his joining the Saudi led alliance will only indicate the state’s inclination towards physically joining it. This will amount to attracting a Saudi-Iran proxy war into Pakistan, a country already suffering from sectarian terrorism.
Apart from the recent resolution of the Parliament against becoming a party to the war in Yemen there was another policy decision a few years ago. After the US attack on a Pakistani border post in Salala the then Parliamentary Committee on National Security had prepared some recommendations that were subsequently approved by a joint session of the Parliament. One of them made it obligatory for the government to present every agreement or treaty with foreign countries to the Parliament. That policy is still binding. Unfortunately the present federal government has a very poor record in making Parliament the main forum for policy making and oversight. In the present case the situation is more difficult in view of the close relations of the Pakistani ruling clan (the Sharif family) with their Saudi counterparts. Also of no less importance is Saudi investment in the Pakistani defense sector and military establishment (remember Musharraf’s confession about flowing of Saudi money into his bank accounts). But history will never forget the rulers if they bring sectarian wars into the country by falling for Middle Eastern temptations.
To avoid in future situations like the present one the Parliament needs to legislate and the relevant government ministries need to make rules for the foreign employment of persons who have served on high and sensitive security institutions of the country. It shouldn’t be free for all.

Iran envoy expresses reservations about fmr Pakistani army chief’s role in military alliance

Islamabad, April 3, IRNA - Ambassador of Iran to Pakistan has expressed reservations on issuance of No Objection Certificate (NOC) by the Pakistani government for appointing former army chief General (retd) Raheel Sharif as the head of Saudi-led military alliance.

Mehdi Honardoost talking to different media of Pakistan said that it was correct that Pakistan had contacted Iranian officials before issuing the NOC, but it did not indicate that Iran was satisfied with this decision or it had accepted the same.

He said that Tehran had informed Islamabad that Iran would not become a part of any alliance like the 'military alliance' nor such kind of offer was extended to Iran.

He strongly believed that all important Islamic countries should come together to form a coalition of peace to resolve their issues rather forming a controversial military alliance.

Earlier Pakistani defense minister Khawaja Asif confirmed that the government had issued an NOC to the former army chief to lead the military alliance.

The decision of the government is drawing a lot of criticism from analysts, former diplomats, and opposition parties because they believe that such a move could create more problems for Pakistan on diplomatic front. 

In April 2015, days after Saudi Arabia launched heavy strikes on Yemen, Pakistan parliament unanimously approved a resolution urging the government to stay neutral in the face of demands from Riyadh to join its military strike against Yemen.

PPP will continue to pursue the mission of a strong and egalitarian Pakistan: Bilawal Bhutto

Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has pledged that his Party will continue to pursue the mission of a strong and egalitarian Pakistan for which country’s nationalist and democratic leaders Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and thousands others laid down their lives fighting the overt and covert anti-Pakistan elements.
PPP Chairman conducted interviews from the candidates for PPP office-bearers of Dera Ghazi Khan Division, Districts Layyah, D G Khan and Rajanpur, and Multan Divisions’ Khaniwal and Vehari of South Punjab at Bilawal House, Lahore. Senior PPP leaders who were present during interviews include former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Makhdoom Ahmed Mahmood, Natasha Daultana, Shaukat Basra, Bashir Riaz, Abdul Qadir Shaheen etc.
The PPP Chairman said that we are not fighting war for power instead it is a war of ideology and the PPP is torch-bearer of the ideology of Pakistan professed by our founding fathers and their successors who embraced martyrdom but never accepted any adulteration in the ideology.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari stated that PML-N has launched attacks on the PPP leaders and workers in Punjab and launched a multi-billion campaign of media advertisements portraying fake and false development schemes.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari pointed out that Nawaz Sharif government has increased total public debt of the country by an unprecedented 35% i.e. Rs 5 trillion during last four years while it stood at Rs 13 trillion during 66 years since independence. Trade deficit has risen to $11.71 billion as exports have declined by whooping 16 % during Sharif government, which is a big challenge to the national economy and next government, he added.
He asked the candidates for the Party offices to get ready for a final showdown with the opponents in the next elections as the PPP organizations are being put into full gears to fight for the federation and the democratic rights of its federating units and the masses.