Chatter, chatter, chatter
Since the news broke out about General Raheel’s appointment as the first commander of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) there have been two major criticisms of this decision. First that he has taken up an appointment after just two months of retirement as commander of Pakistan army and second that the alliance hasSunni orientation and could become the pivot for the sectarian divide of the Ummah. It is proposed that Pakistan could be seriously affected because of substantial adherents to Shia and Barelvi schools of thoughts.
The first objection is mute because usually such appointments are made with the consent of the government – rather, the government proposes names for such appointments. We have many retired Generals, Admirals and Chief Secretaries that have worked as ambassadors and UN advisers. I don’t think General Raheel would pursue this path without a green signal from the government as well as his former institution. The statement of Defense Minister Khawaja Asif is meaningful in this regard.
Now let’s tackle the second issue of sectarian tensions. It is important to look at all the facts before we form a judgment in this matter. Most international terrorist organisations have Sunni orientation (except Hezbollah in Lebanon). The fact is that Russia and China have taken public posture that terrorism is a serious threat to stability and must be fought on all fronts. In fact the creation of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was to fight regional terrorism. The fact is that Iran, Russia, and Turkey recently blamed the USA for supporting terrorism in the Middle East. The fact is that President-elect Trump has said that fighting ISIS will be his top priority and for that, he is willing to form an alliance with Russia. The fact is that Europe is deeply affected by refugees and terrorism that has roots in conflicts of Middle East. The fact is that Turkey, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, recently negotiated a truce in Syria along with Russia and Iran, considered an opponent of Saudi Arabia. The fact is that Pakistan, Russia, and China recently had a meeting in Moscow regarding Afghan crisis and Saudi Arabia is considered as a supporter of Taliban. The fact is that Saudi Arabia is perceived as a supporter of Wahabi extremism and hence main promoter of most fundamentalist movements. The fact is that Yemen is still a bilateral issue rather than a multilateral one. The fact is that Pakistan has enjoyed good economic, cultural and security relations with all GCC countries especially Saudi Arabia and UAE. Most expat Pakistanis live in these countries and send billions of dollars of remittances. The fact is that main contribution of General Raheel as COAS of Pakistan Army was to uproot terrorist networks all over the country. And finally, IMAFT is not a force yet rather an idea. The name suggests that it would be more a liaison rather than an actual force but we have yet to see how it develops.
When we consider all these facts to me personally it is quite clear that some international platform should be developed to eradicate terrorism and extremism. In my view since Saudi Arabia is blamed for supporting extremism, it was incumbent upon them to take a lead but most probably they messed up the diplomatic messaging because of inexperience. Another thing we have to consider is that both terrorist networks and countries affected by it are Muslims, mostly Sunni majority countries, so the initiative to fight it out should have also come from them. If any Western country had formed this alliance then we would blame them as conspiring against Muslims. So if the platform is developed to coordinate fighting extremist and terrorist networks across the Muslim world then I fully support it.
Now the next question is why General Raheel Shareef? There are only three Muslims countries with institutionally strong armies which are Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt. Turkey is quite heavily and militarily engaged in Syrian conflict so they don’t want to be distracted from that. Egypt recently had a coup and the government there has not gained complete legitimacy from the people. The reaction of Egyptians to hand over some small islands to Saudi Arabia was so strong that they could not conceive sending a General to lead the alliance. Secondly, Turkey and Egypt do not have as much experience in fighting terrorism as Pakistan army has. And lastly, the key qualifier to consider General Raheel was his successful campaign to eradicate terrorists, their supporters, and facilitators. Terrorism in Pakistan has gone substantially down and the credit for most of it goes to him. The only negative against General Raheel is his handling of Iranian President’s visit to Pakistan and bad timing of an ISPR announcement about it. So if the alliance is formed to fight terrorism then there is no better person than General Raheel and no better country to lead it than Pakistan.
Any initiative can turn bad if it is not handled diplomatically. Pakistan needs to take some concrete diplomatic steps to ensure that all our allies and neighbors are on board. I hope that Russia, China, EU, and the USA are taken into confidence about it. Iran is our neighbor and their concerns can’t be ignored. Ministry of Foreign Affairs should brief them about this appointment and take them into confidence. The first meeting General Raheel should hold after the appointment is with the Iranian Ambassadors in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to ensure they are on board with the objectives and aims of the alliance. The charter and objectives of the alliance should be clearly spelled out so that there are no sectarian connotations to it.
Bottom line is that it is a sensitive matter and must be handled with care. Any mishandling could cause serious damage to our social fabric and unity of the Ummah. Transparency and public rational discourse should be encouraged to form a consensus.