- Or not?
Perhaps, the world is witnessing the Middle East version of the NATO in the 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) formed in December 2015 against the menace of terrorism ravaging Islamic countries. The IMA is about to hold the first meeting of its members states (represented through their respective defence ministers), under the theme Allied against Terrorism, in Riyadh, on November 26.
Another aim of the IMA formation was to provide an institutional platform for assemblage of the like-minded countries against terrorism within the framework of fields of military, intellectual, media and curbing terrorism financing. The IMA calls itself a coalition in addition to coalitions existing in the world against terrorism. That is, the IMA is around to add something more to prevalent international efforts against terrorism. Against his background, the aim of the forthcoming IMA meeting is to consolidate bonds of cooperation and integration within the coalition. Does this mean that after two years the IMA is facing the crisis of unity in terms of cooperation and integration? The answer is in the positive. There are two reasons for that.
First, the conflict in the ME, which brought the region to today’s pass, is the legacy of the conflict between Iraq and the US-UK coalition in the post-2001 era. Apparently, the IMA was instituted to set off the effects insidiously affecting the normal tenor of life of the Arabs. In the ME, there is a heavy political presence of the Arab League but the League failed to intervene in the crisis leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The League could have negotiated a deal between Saddam Hussain of Iraq and the US-UK coalition. The League knew of the fate of any conflict as happened in the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. Generally, the Arabs did not persuade Iraq to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, if not to locate the weapons of mass destruction, then to understand where the missing drums of chemicals were present when the import invoice was signifying their arrival.
The unaccounted-for drums of chemicals, which are still missing, were the major justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Consequently, the sectarian balance got disturbed in Iraq and this imbalance is still spilling over into proximate countries such as Syria to create a crisis inviting an armed conflict. In a way, the IMA is readying itself for neutralising the adverse effects of the inaction of the Arabs in 2003. That is why the IMA knows that its non-Arab Islamic member countries may respect the Arabs but they may not stand by them in the hour of crisis.
The conflict in the ME, which brought the region to today’s pass, is the legacy of the conflict between Iraq and the US-UK coalition in the post-2001 era
For instance, on the request of Saudi Arabia, when the Pakistan government sought approval from Parliament to send its troops to Yemen, the request was turned down unanimously. Through a joint resolution on April 10, 2015, both the National Assembly and the Senate asked the Pakistan government to stay neutral, though both houses reiterated their resolve to protect the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. Similarly, even after the joining of Pakistan’s ex-army chief General Raheel Sharif as Commander-in-Chief of the IMA in January 2017, Pakistan is still in search of the terms of engagement, as confessed by the adviser to former prime minister on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz, in Senate, in July 2017.
Second, the recent source of disturbance in the ME is the post-2009 wave of democracy sweeping across the region and jolting one country after the other. Though reluctantly, some countries have embraced democracy and some have introduced changes into their politico-legal systems to accommodate the voice of dissent and award some human rights to their citizens. The problem with this kind of beginning is that it has no end; the beginning keeps on demanding the end. This is why the turmoil is bound to linger on. There is another dimension of this issue. When the Arab commoners visit the West (both Europe and the US), they get mesmerised with the technological development that took place under democracy. Interestingly, the Arab elite craves to live and invest in the West but declines to bring along the gift of democracy. The pro-democracy thought has gone so strong that a counter-narrative is required to stifle the voice. Failure to do so has offered a justification to one Arab country to promote militancy in a neigbouring country against pro-democratic groups and vice versa.
The primary target of the Islamic militants, be they al Qaeda or ISIS, are those demanding democracy in the ME. The ruling regimes are their secondary targets. Every Arab country, even within the Sunni domain, has been found turning Islamic militants against pro-democratic groups and ruling regimes of other Arab countries. The deliberate effort to do so has divided and subdivided the ME internally and the effort of papering over the rifts through the IMA offers a fleeting solution meant for failure in the long run. Instead of using any Arab platform to resolve the ME issues, non-Arab countries have been invited (or entreated) to join the IMA in the name of combating terrorism wrecking primarily the ME. This is like compounding the issue further.
Generally speaking, one of the reasons for the Arab world quickly resorting to an armed conflict is that the region remained devoid of the system of democracy (to accommodate dissent) and democratic norms (to resolve an issue). This is why Pakistan has been treading carefully. In its interaction with democracy and understanding the boundaries of democratic norms, Pakistan is at least a century ahead of the countries of the ME chanting and declaiming the word democracy now.
Pakistan has failed to understand that the IMA offers no solution for the ills of the ME. By joining the IMA, whether or agreed terms of reference or not, Pakistan is retrogressing. Religious bigotry permeating politico-social domains of the Arab world is bound to visit upon Pakistan spoiling peace and harmony in Pakistan. General Raheel Sharif took an indiscreet step to join the IMA; he was not stopped from joining the IMA because the Pakistan government’s reluctance to offend the army, given the internal political turmoil the government was beset with. The visit of army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Tehran cannot allay the fears of Iran about Pakistan’s involvement in any intra-Arab feud. Similarly, ISIS which is almost absent in Pakistan may rear its head.
What Pakistan cannot afford is to please Saudi Arabia at the expense of annoying Iran and vice versa. The compulsion with US President Donald Trump to encourage the IMA is two pronged: first, to earn financial benefits by selling weapons; and second, to snub Iran under one ruse or the other. What Riyadh and Tehran are doing in Syria and Yemen through their proxies is none of Pakistan’s business.
Pakistan can take a stance that it does not want to be party to any intra-Arab or any inter-sectarian conflict in the ME. The mere presence of Pakistan’s army or General Raheel Sharif within the fold of the IMA is a signal enough to indicate that Pakistan is party to the issue. Sartaj Aziz is unjustified in saying that the presence of General Raheel Sharif with the IMA “will not affect Pakistan’s foreign policy and will rather balance the situation”. Pakistan has failed to understand that conflicts and wars are not arranged beforehand. Pakistan must avail itself of this opportunity to tell the IMA of its non-availability.