It is reassuring that the Pakistan Foreign Office recognises the need for a balance in our relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehmina Janjua, Pakistan’s new Foreign Secretary, while briefing the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee on 4 April, stated, “It is important to keep the balance even though it’s very challenging. Saudi Arabia is a very important relationship while Iran is a neighbor.” These remarks were meant to dispel the impression that Pakistan by joining the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) was siding with Riyadh as against Tehran. The Foreign Secretary assured the Committee members that despite being a member of the Alliance, Pakistan or its retired military personnel serving in it would not act against Iranian interests. She further clarified that IMAFT whose structure and procedures were yet to be developed would focus on combating terrorism. It was neither for nor against any country.

On the face of it, the clarifications provided by the Foreign Secretary should have put to rest the apprehensions which have been expressed by some in Pakistani political circles and media regarding the government’s decision to join IMAFT and allow retired General Raheel Sharif, the former COAS, to head the Alliance at the request of Saudi Arabia. A closer and more careful look at the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, however, leaves many questions unanswered. To begin with, it is not sufficient to tell the nation that this Alliance should be acceptable to us just because it would focus on combating terrorism. The government must explain which definition of terrorism would guide the operations of IMAFT. As the famous saying goes, one country’s freedom fighter is another country’s terrorist. This is perhaps the most important point in considering the pros and cons of IMAFT since the Saudi Defence Minister, while announcing the formation of the Alliance on 15 December, 2015, declared that it would coordinate efforts to combat terrorism in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan. Interestingly Saudi Arabia has categorised Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation but the point of view of the Bashar al-Assad-led Syrian government and its supporters like Iran, on the issue is totally the opposite. In Afghanistan, the views of the Afghan government and Pakistan differ regarding the Afghan Taliban as to whether they are terrorists or not. Further, are the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are being suppressed by the current Egyptian government through use of force, terrorists or just a dissenting political group?

It is, therefore, too simplistic to assert that IMAFT should be considered acceptable simply because it would focus on combating terrorism. The government of Pakistan must elaborate the definition of the terrorism that this Alliance would fight and explain how and by whom the decisions to combat terrorism would be taken and implemented. Unless satisfactory clarifications are provided by our government to answer these legitimate questions, the danger is that in our misplaced enthusiasm to combat terrorism and please the Saudis, we may put at serious risk our friendly relations with several Muslim countries and may unwittingly aggravate the threat of terrorism against Pakistan and its interests. There is also the risk that, if proper care is not taken, this Alliance may become a force for further divisions in the Muslim world instead of strengthening its unity.

Besides the definition of terrorism that IMAFT would accept and act upon, it is important to understand the Alliance’s precise role and function. Will it be merely an advisory and coordinating body offering its advice, good offices, and training facilities to various Muslim countries on the issue of terrorism at their request or will it consist of an operational military force to be deployed for combating terrorism in different Muslim countries? In the latter case, will the deployment of the force to combat terrorism be carried out at the request of the legitimate governments of Muslim countries concerned or independently of that? For instance, at whose request and against whom will it operate in Syria or in Afghanistan? Further, what would be Pakistan’s position if the Afghan government requests military support through this Alliance for fighting the Afghan Taliban? What would be the extent of the commitment of Pakistan’s manpower and resources to IMAFT? Are we in a position to bear this extra burden considering our prior commitments in fighting terrorism within the country? Finally, is it wise to assume additional anti-terrorism responsibilities far beyond our borders when we have not yet put our own house in order? These questions must be carefully considered by our government before the member countries give a concrete shape to the Alliance at the meeting of its Defence Ministers to be held in Riyadh next month.

There is also the allegation that IMAFT is in fact an alliance of Sunni states to serve the Saudi strategic interests as against those of Iran, its rival in the region. Despite the denials from several quarters, the reality is that no Shia majority state has joined it. It is also a fact that Iran has repeatedly expressed its reservations against the Alliance. Obviously we cannot give a veto power to either Saudi Arabia or Iran in our foreign policy decisions which must be taken in Pakistan’s best interests and in the best interests of the Muslim Ummah as a whole. Still it is not enough merely to repeat, for the benefit of Iran, assurances about a balance in our relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead it is more important that our authorities concerned take practical steps to ensure that IMAFT does not become sectarian in character or assume the role of an anti-Iran Alliance which would have disastrous effects on Pakistan’s internal peace and stability as well as on our critically important friendly relations with Iran. In fact, our participation in it should be conditional on meeting these two important considerations besides satisfactory answers to the questions raised earlier.

The Arab world is right now in a state of turmoil because of the powerful internal and external forces which are tearing it apart. Even a cursory glance at the situation in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen is sufficient to bring out the complexity and the intensity of these destabilising forces which have the potential to change the map of the region in the foreseeable future. We, therefore, need to be extremely careful lest we get bogged down in the quagmire that the Middle East has become. The main thrust of our policy concerning the region should be to avoid getting embroiled in intra-Arab disputes or in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead our policies should aim at defusing tensions and promoting peace, stability and the resolution of regional disputes in accordance with principles of justice and fairness. Our best interests would be served by policies which aim at bringing about peace, stability, and unity in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East, rather than those that unwittingly exacerbate divisions and aggravate conflicts.

Jumping into the Middle East quagmire is the last thing that we need, especially at present when we are faced with a serious threat to our security emanating from India and a challenging situation on our border with Afghanistan besides the menace of terrorism confronting us internally. We, therefore, need to give hard and careful consideration to the whole concept of IMAFT to ensure that it becomes a factor of peace and unity in the Middle East and the Muslim world at large rather than an instrument of divisions and conflicts.