Outgoing COAS (retd) Gen Raheel Sharif’s acceptance of the command of a multi-country Saudi military coalition, or maybe just an advisership, may be viewed by many as providing a COAS with a job post-retirement, but it not only means that a Pakistani general has been plunged into the whirlpool of maintaining a military alliance, but also that Pakistan has made a commitment of troops to an alliance that the population knows nothing about. It should be noted that the confirmation of General Raheel taking up this assignment is actually a commitment by Pakistan of at least one soldier (a retired officer) to the coalition.

Historically, being the commander of a multi-national alliance is no bed of roses. The commander has not just to command the force, a taxing job in itself, but he has also got to keep competing national egos in balance. This is aside from the task of resolving clashes of differing regimental traditions. The most problematic disputes arise where one partner’s tradition marks a victory where another partner lost. In the coalition General Raheel is to head, there are bound to be examples of conflict between the Turkish forces and the forces of Arab countries which had gained independence from it.

Another destabilizing factor in a military coalition is the fact that the forces have been contributed by differing countries, often with differing interests to promote. The force contingents have two allegiances: first, to the force commander, and also to the national command authority, which might be the relevant ministry or (if the force itself is large enough) the head of government personally. This leads to the violation of a principle beloved of the military, the unity of command. General Raheel has spent his career in an institution where that principle has been so sedulously observed that the Army has considered loyalty to the commander so far above loyalty to the government, that that commander has been able to take over the government four times.

While COAS, General Raheel himself had resisted numerous calls to become the fifth, and his successful negotiation of these temptations themselves establish that he has the necessary skills to be the commander of a multinational force. Such a commander might find that he needs political and diplomatic skills more than merely military. That has been the experience of all military alliances, going back to at least the beginning of the 18th century.

However, that same history also shows that the weight of the commander also depends on the amount of forces his government is contributing to the coalition. The appointment of a Pakistani commander also indicates that Pakistan is going to provide a large component of the forces of the coalition; if it does not, there will be no point in having a Pakistani commander even in a titular capacity.

This will lead to a situation which Pakistan has so far avoided, that of having its forces used against Arabs. It should be remembered that Pakistan has resisted all blandishments so far to have its troops used against Arabs, even as an occupying force. The Musharraf government resisted the proposals that Pakistani troops be used in Iraq. This was not as part of the invading force, which was purely American, but afterwards.

It should be noted that in 1991, the USA provided significant forces for Operation Desert Storm, not to mention the overall commander, Gen Norman Schwarzkopf, who had already been Commander Central Command. Saudi Arabia did provide a titular joint commander in Gen Khalid bin Sultan, but he was also commander of the joint Arab force. This makes it seem that General Raheel’s command will depend on how many troops he brings to the table.

This in turn will depend on the current COAS, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. It should depend on the Prime Minister, but as Mian Nawaz Sharif seems to have devolved responsibility for anything the military is interested in, to the COAS, it will depend on the COAS. The view of the Foreign Office will be taken, but it is not likely to be decisive. It is not sure how the Foreign Office would view one of the firmest principles of policy, of not getting involved in Arab disputes.

This has extended to refusing to provide forces for use by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This might be the reason that General Raheel’s exact role is not clear, and he might be joining the coalition as an adviser. While this would mean that there do not have to be any forces contributed by his country, it also creates an unusual situation, as there is no room in a military organisation for an adviser. A battlefield commander might seek any individual’s advice, but that is usually the commander’s prerogative. As no commander has been appointed, appointing advisers would appear premature.

Even if this is a device to save the Pakistan government from having to commit itself, it appears very impolitic for Pakistan to be involved in any way in a conflict just because Saudi Arabia wants it to. It should realise that first of all, it should not be so anxious to please Saudi Arabia that it finds itself opposing Iran. Second, it should realise that it will not be backing Saudi Arabia in this conflict so much as the USA. While General Raheel might find it appropriate himself to be on the same side as the USA, he should also be made to realise that his personal wishes, his post-retirement plans, cannot hold Pakistani policy hostage.

Saudi Arabia may well find that the coalition option has to be activated if it hopes to keep itself relevant in the region. However, it should be noted that the fall of Aleppo has meant that the Assad regime has not only lived to fight another day, but the balance has shifted not just in favour of the regime, but also of Russia. The Turkey-Russia rapprochement has meant that US intervention faces another factor against it. Under those circumstances, the USA itself may find that it can only intervene through a Saudi coalition.

Pakistan will find itself in an even uglier situation than it earlier imagined. Not only would it find itself intervening in an intra-Arab dispute, but it would find itself opposing Russia. Apart from everything else, it has found its ally, the USA, caring little for it when the opportunity arose for it to befriend India; now for the USA’s sake, it would have to jeopardise its chances of developing relations with Russia. It seems that this might be the price of General Raheel accepting even an advisership; and seems too high a price to pay.

It is possible that Pakistan may come to some sort of arrangement, roughly analogous to that of the First Gulf War, when it only would allow its troops to be used in combat to defend the Holy Places against attack. That helped define Pakistan’s military interests in Saudi Arabia, which was the security of the Harmain Sharifain. That interest remains, but it should not make the wishes of the Saudi government so important that they outweigh the other interests of Pakistan.

Even if this is a device to save the Pakistan government from having to commit itself, it appears very impolitic for Pakistan to be involved in any way in a conflict just because Saudi Arabia wants it to.