Former COAS General (r) Raheel Sharif is expected soon to assume the command of the Saudi-led ‘Islamic’ Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) as the Government of Pakistan has ‘in principle’ decided to allow him to take up this crucial military assignment abroad. Moreover, the Foreign Office spokesman has also formally declared that Pakistan is part of this alliance. Reportedly, Pakistan has also decided to deploy a brigade-sized troops in Saudi Arabia to supplement this military alliance. For a long time, Pakistan has been dilly-dallying over joining this ambiguous and controversial military in the Middle East. Now, after the clarification made by the Foreign Office, there is hardly any confusion regarding Pakistan’s position on this issue.

In December 2015, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Muhammad Bin Salman formally announced the formation of 34-state ‘Islamic military alliance’ to ‘coordinate’ efforts to “protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organisations’’. Strangely, the Saudi government did not even bother to specifically mention the name of Middle Eastern monster ISIS whose terrorist activities had become a matter of serious concern not only for the Muslim countries but also the entire world community. So there has always been considerable confusion regarding the operational strategy, anti-terror modus operandi, command and control, and composition of the proposed alliance.

At present, sectarian polarisation has become the most visible feature of the Middle Eastern landscape. Now this region is heading towards a full-fledged sectarian Balkanisation. Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war to extend their influence in this region. So the pro-Saudi and pro-Iran armed groups are at loggerheads with each other in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In Syrian Civil War, the GCC countries, namely the Saudi Arabia, are actively supporting the Free Syrian Army, Al-Nusra Front and ISIS to topple the Assad regime. On the other hand, the Syrian Armed Forces are being supported by Iran and pro-Iran militant groups like Hezbollah, al-Abbas Brigade etc. Similarly, the major powers like the US and Russia have also joined this proxy war.

Owing to strong opposition posed by Russia and Iran, the US had to give up its plan to topple the pro-Iran government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria through military force in 2013. However, as soon as the US abandoned this plan, there instantly emerged the militant outfit ISIS to accomplish same task in Syria and Iraq. The sudden rise of this organised and well-equipped militant outfit raised my eyebrows. It is no more a secret that the US, Israel and the Saudi Arabia have played a key role in establishing and strengthening the ISIS in this region. Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, has revealed that US and Israel intelligence agencies worked together to create ISIS. That is why Donald Trump also repeatedly blamed the Democrat government for creating ISIS during his US presidential campaign last year.

Presently the Saudi-led military alliance is being projected as an anti-ISIS alliance. However, keeping in view the current strategic perspective in the Middle East, one can easily conclude that this alliance has nothing to do with the ISIS. In fact, the Saudi Arabia and the ISIS are strategically trying to achieve the same objective i.e. the containment of Iran and pro-Iran elements in the region. Moreover, it is also a fact that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the ISIS adhere to same religious ideology.

The UN Security Council, through its Resolution 2249, authorised a global military campaign against the ISIS in Iraq and Syria following the 2015 Paris attacks. Nevertheless, we didn’t witness a befitting global response to significantly curb ISIS militancy in the Syria and Iraq. At the moment, the Syrian, Iraqi and Russian Armed Forces, Kurdish militia, Iran and pro-Iran armed groups are proactively and physically fighting against the ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Apparently, now the US and Saudi Arabia are also going to lead two parallel military alliances in the Middle East to contain ISIS. Strangely, the front-runners of both alliances are deliberately keeping the conventional opponents of ISIS in the region away from the proposed military coalitions. This dichotomy is absolutely incomprehensible. In fact, the instant extinction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is not in line with the broader strategic interests of the United States and GCC countries including the Saudi Arabia.

The Syrian and Iraqi armed forces, while enjoying the military support of Russia, Iran and various Shia militias, have succeeded in substantially containing ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the major stronghold of ISIS in the region. During the last few months, they successfully retrieved the strategically important cities like Aleppo in Syria, and Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq. Now the ISIS activists are withdrawing from these areas. Therefore, at this stage, there is hardly any need to form such a multinational military alliance against the ISIS as it has already been defeated by its conventional opponents in the region. So it is being speculated that the Saudi-led military alliance is only meant for opening another fresh war front against the Iran and pro-Iran elements in the Middle East in the name of fighting terrorism.

The non-involvement in the mutual conflicts and regional rivalries of the Middle Eastern countries has been the cornerstone of Pakistan’s Middle East policy. At the same time, Pakistan is also strongly committed to preserve the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia, and protect the holy places there. However, Pakistan’s current decision to join the Saudi-led military alliance significantly contradicts its long-pursued policy in the Middle East. So Pakistan is now going to become part of the turf war in the region. Currently, there is no apparent threat to the holy sites in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the territorial integrity of the Saudi Arabia or any other GCC country is also not endangered.

For a long time, Pakistan and Pakistanis have been mistakenly obsessed with notions like ‘Muslim Ummah’ and ‘Islamic rule’ of Saudi Arabia. In fact, Islam has nothing to do with the incumbent Saudi dispensation. The House of Saud has established a dynastic monarchy in Saudi Arabia. In the name of Islamic rule, it has only consolidated an autocratic and authoritarian rule in the kingdom- a rule which hardly has any relevance with Islamic concept of Khilafa. This grand and magnificent Kingdom is now outshining all the contemporary monarchical regimes around the world. We have just observed the grandeur of Saudi royal family during the recent visit of King Salman to the Indonesia. Saudi Arabia, the so-called leader of the Muslim world, has been instrumental in burying the concept of the Muslim Ummah by paralysing the OIC. It has just replaced the OIC with GCC after fortifying the Gulf countries through the Peninsula Shield Force. In its antagonism and hate for Iran, it feels no hesitation at all in joining hands with a hawkish state like Israel.

General (r) Raheel Sharif has earned a reputation as a professional and courageous military commander in Pakistan. However, his decision to command the Saudi-led military alliance has utterly disappointed a lot of his admirers like me. I do not doubt his sincere intention to serve the Muslim Ummah is some way. However, his knowledge and understating of the current geo-strategic perspective, and general dynamics of politics in the Middle East are rather shocking. Now I can only guess he will eventually be able to comprehend the nature and purpose of this newly-designed Saudi cobweb in the region. Indeed, the sooner, the better.

Pakistan’s decision to become part of a Saudi military alliance is extremely deplorable. Simply forgetting the bitter past experiences, Pakistan has once again chosen to put its hand in the hornet’s nest. We have yet not succeeded in eliminating terrorism from our own soil. Therefore, there is no point in participating in military expeditions abroad. Surely, discretion should be better part of valour. This decision will adversely affect our domestic counter-terror efforts. Certainly, it will also irk our neighbourly country Iran. A few days ago, the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan also formally expressed Iran’s strong reservations and concerns over this undesirable development.

Iran can play a crucial role in containing terrorism in Pakistan which is currently being planned on the Afghan soil. Instead of endeavouring to improve things in its neighbourhood, Pakistan is going to indulge in a wild-goose chase thousands of miles away. This action would further push Pakistan towards regional isolation. Presently Pakistan doesn’t have comfortable relations with any neighbouring country except China. So our arch-foe India probably doesn’t need to diplomatically maneuver to isolate Pakistan internationally. Obviously we can ourselves do this job better. One wonders how Pakistan will achieve its broader strategic, economic and security objectives in this state of regional isolation? This shows the lack of vision and sense of priority on the part of our policy formulators. Regrettably, now these kinds of strategic and diplomatic blunders have become the hallmarks of our statecraft as well as external policy.