By: Waqar Gillani

Pakistan’s former army chief, Raheel Sharif, is all set to lead the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) formed by Saudi Arabia.

News of the IMA has generated a serious debate among the Pakistani intelligentsia. The deal, purported to be a “give and take” between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and General (retd) Raheel Sharif, is the first of its kind where the recently retired chief of a much-decorated Pakistan army will be leading a controversial military alliance of the Muslim countries.

“Saudi Arabia sought no objection certificate for General (retd) Sharif to lead the IMA, an alliance of 41 states and Pakistan has given its consent in writing. Now only some formalities are left,” Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif tells The News on Sunday.

“However, the objectives and structure of the alliance are still unclear to Pakistan, and hopefully a conference of the IMA members will be held in May to discuss the issues,” he adds.

He further confirms the reports that Pakistan is considering another Saudi request of “sending some troops to defend Saudi territory in case of any threat”.

“Under the 1982 agreement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, we can send troops to help Saudi Arabia in its defence. Such troops are supposed to protect Saudi territory only and are not meant to become part of any conflict,” he discloses.

Following the civil war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, along with its Gulf allies, announced the formation of the IMA in December 2015. The purpose of the alliance is supposedly to fight terrorism.

This alliance of predominantly Sunni Muslim states does not include Shia Muslim majority states like Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, thus adding a sectarian dimension to this Riyadh-led alliance. No wonder, the Shia majority states are questioning if this move is motivated by the desire to combat terrorism or sectarian and geopolitical rivalries.

This alliance of predominantly Sunni Muslim states does not include Shia Muslim majority states like Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. No wonder, the Shia majority states are questioning if this move is motivated by the desire to combat terrorism or sectarian and geopolitical rivalries.

News of the offer to a serving Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif to lead the IMA appeared in press for the first time in mid-March 2016, soon after his official visit to Saudi Arabia along with PM Sharif. This was the time when General Sharif was running a full-fledged operation against terrorism in the country. The same year, the two Sharifs, Nawaz and Raheel, also visited Iran together while the bigwigs of these countries also came to Pakistan. His popularity graph was high at the time, and there were rumours of extension in his tenure.

Prominent columnist and political analyst Imtiaz Alam says: “It was a coincidence that the Saudi offer came at a time when the pressure for the extension of General Sharif’s tenure was on. The offer was accepted by the government, and later by the general. Perhaps, there was some kind of give and take”.

He adds that there is a possibility Saudi Arabia wanted a general from Pakistan because its army is recognised as “great and professional”.

The Sharif family was in exile in Saudi Arabia between 2000 and 2007, and enjoyed the Saudi king’s hospitality while living in a palace. There, they were also allowed to run private businesses. So, the agreement between the Sharif government and the Saudi royal family that Pakistani troops, retired army soldiers and, as some people allege, students from ‘like-minded’ seminaries, will be sent to defend the Saudi borders does not come as a surprise. And, this, while the parliament had passed a resolution not to become part of the Saudi-Yemen war.

The government’s unnecessary evasiveness is raising a lot of questions among the country’s intelligentsia and political parties. Given the murky contours of the IMA, they maintain that it is purely a fight against Iran. They are keen to know how this deal happened, why is the Pakistan parliament not taken into confidence, or can the Pakistan army be sent to defend other countries? They are curious to get details on what this alliance entails, why is Pakistan compelled to join the IMA at all… why Raheel Sharif? And, more importantly, why is the government relaxing rules to allow Raheel Sharif to join the IMA? What will be its impact on the Pakistan Army? How will it impact Pakistan’s foreign policy?

Alam says, “Pakistan has close relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The matter of becoming a part of such an agenda must be referred to the parliament, and people of Pakistan must know the details.”

According to him, a number of Shia organisations in Pakistan have already expressed concerns at the news of Pakistan’s involvement in this Saudi-led alliance, and they have opposed General (retd) Sharif joining the alliance.

Former Air Vice Martial Shahzad Chaudhry shares Alam’s concerns. He says, “Why is Pakistan intervening in this war? We are sending army to Saudi Arabia and we don’t know its role. This is ridiculous. Why can’t a Saudi general lead it?”

He adds, “By joining this controversial force Raheel Sharif may distort his good image. There are many missing links in this story of alliance. It will have a serious impact on our country’s foreign policy.”

However, political analysts are not alone in their criticism of the IMA. It is inviting resistance from with the PML-N as well. The PTI wants to take up the matter in the parliament and its spokesperson has strongly opposed the government decision to allow this to happen.

However, some former army generals and critics believe Pakistan and its former army chief will never be part of any sectarian alliance. “The deal was made with PM’s full consent. General (retd) Sharif accepted the offer to head the coalition with conditions that he would operate independently; will make it a Muslim alliance against terrorism rather than a sectarian force to act against other Muslim countries; and will talk to Iran to convince it to become part of the coalition force,” says defence analyst General Amjad Shoaib while supporting defence minister Khawaja Asif’s statement that Pakistan intends to play a role of mediator between Muslim countries rather than siding with one country.