By Syeda Mamoona Rubab
01 Dec 2017
The Saudi-led ‘Muslim NATO’ has become formally operational with the pledge to wipe terrorists from the “face of the earth” but amid apprehensions that it will stoke regional tensions. More specifically, it would make Pakistan’s delicate balancing act in the Gulf tougher.
Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir represented Pakistan at the inaugural ceremony of the coalition, which has changed its name from the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) to the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). Dastagir outlined the nature of Pakistan’s participation, saying it would “share experience and capabilities” in the military sphere; on the intellectual front; against terror financing; and for the development of communications strategy.
The government has so far not been forthcoming at home in revealing the extent of its participation in the new military bloc.
Pakistan’s participation in the coalition has domestically always been a hot button issue, precipitating intense debates at every stage because of fears that it could cause the country’s sectarian fault-lines to erupt and aggravate an already uneasy relationship with neighbouring Iran. But the inaugural meeting of the Defence Ministers’ Council of the coalition on Nov 26, 2017 was hardly discussed here because of the situation in the country, which had been virtually locked down by religious protests and the subsequent accord facilitated by the military and the premier intelligence agency.
Pakistan’s participation in the coalition has domestically always been a hot button issue, precipitating intense debates at every stage because of fears that it could cause the country’s sectarian fault-lines to erupt and aggravate an already uneasy relationship with neighbouring Iran
A visit by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa and DG ISI Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar to Saudi Arabia, which many are convinced was also linked to the newly inaugurated coalition, too got little spotlight. It is speculated that the prime minister and his foreign policy, defence, and intelligence team had been called to Riyadh to finalize Pakistan’s commitment to the IMCTC. This view is strengthened by the prime minister office’s statement to the Kingdom at the conclusion of the visit in which it is said that he assured the king of “full support” for “peace and stability” in the region and lauded the monarch’s policies in this regard.
Taken together, the statements by the prime minister and defense minister, constitute an assurance to the Kingdom of full participation in all activities of the coalition of which the most important would be the military component. The communiqué issued at the end of the Defense Ministers’ Council meeting “stressed the importance of the military role in combating terrorism, enhancing security and peace in the Coalition member countries, and contributing to regional and international security and peace.”
The communiqué has left the exact nature of military participation open and vague, saying it would depend on “each country’s capabilities and resources, as well as in accordance with each country’s desire to participate in a given military operation”. Therefore, seemingly the decision on troop contribution would be on a case-to-case basis.
Pakistan’s former army chief, who is now heading the IMCTC as its commander, Gen (retired) Raheel Sharif, has in way tried to dispel concerns about the coalition getting involved in regional and sectarian conflicts, saying it was not against “any country or any sect,” but rather against the “faceless enemy with extremist ideology”.
There is no denying either that Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition, and retains all major decision-making powers of the coalition, calls Iran the “number one state sponsor of terrorism” and its leader “the new Hitler of the Middle East”. Few contend that the IMCTC’s branding as a “counter-terrorism coalition” is rooted in the Saudi view that Iran is a “terrorism exporter”. The IMCTC is, therefore, seen as a Saudi project to assert and defend the Kingdom’s interests in the Middle East against Iran.
Moreover, countries such as Iraq and Syria, which proudly claim to have defeated Da’ish from their territories, have not been included in the group, on what is believed to be sectarian grounds. Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who is chairman of the coalition, in his keynote speech did mention seeing extremist ideology’s “defeat in many facets around the world [and] especially in Muslim countries,” but he did not acknowledge the contributions of Iran, Iraq and Syria in those achievements.
Similarly, Qatar, an estranged member of the 41-nation IMCTC, was made to sit out because of its diplomatic, economic, and political boycott by the KSA.
Beyond these political divisions and disagreements, what is more significant is that as the IMCTC sets out to fight terrorism, it has not defined what in its view constitutes terrorism. Uprisings in troubled areas of Saudi Arabia’s Qatif province and Bahrain, for instance, are seen differently by Saudi Arabia and its allies and others in the civilized world. One can’t say if the growing closeness between Riyadh and Tel Aviv would also lead to a review of the definition of the Palestinian intifada.
Muhammad bin Salman is absolutely right when he says that “the biggest threat from terrorism and extremism is not only killing innocent people and spreading hate but tarnishing the reputation of our religion and distorting our belief” and vows not to allow that to happen. But, even if one takes it as a belated realization that extremism does not work in today’s world, what concrete evidence is available to prove that the Kingdom has stopped exporting its extremist brand of Islam? If he has at home taken a few steps towards moderation, he has also taken several more backwards.
Going back to the communiqué of the inaugural meeting that has five sections, few specifics are known about the other three areas of activities of the coalition: combating terrorism in the ideology domain, in the communications domain and the counter terrorist financing domain. For example in the ideology domain, it was agreed that terrorism will be addressed “through education and knowledge, to highlight correct Islamic concepts, and to establish the truth of moderate Islam, which is consistent with human nature and common values.” But, there is no word on who would define those correct Islamic concepts. The same Saudi clerics?
The protracted Yemen conflict that has created a disastrous humanitarian situation, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation fiasco, and the failed attempt to force Qatar into submission, all tell a tale of how well Muhammad bin Salman’s external policies are delivering. Alliances and coalitions may be good for power projection, but what Saudi Arabia needs more is Muhammad bin Salman to show political maturity and prudence or else he risks pushing the region into a major conflict.
Pakistan’s compulsion of millions employed in Saudi Arabia and the remittances they send back home and being in the same bigger geo-political camp notwithstanding, it merits how far would Islamabad be able to back the crown prince’s risky positions.
Syeda Mamoona Rubab is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.