ISLAMABAD -  The government’s formal go-ahead signal to former army chief Gen (retd) Raheel Sharif to lead the proposed Riyadh-based Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) has put Islamabad in a challenging situation. It’s challenging not only because of the stark difference of opinion among political forces in the country on national issues but also due to the complexity of the strategic environment in the Middle East.

Although the majority of Muslim countries were supporting the proposed 39-nation military force to cope with the menace terrorism, yet Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen as well as Afghanistan were looking at the development with scepticism.

It, therefore, becomes imperative for Pakistan and maybe for the non-Arab Muslim nations to coax the role and scope of the IMAFT to make it more need-based not only for the members of the alliance but also for the entire Muslim Ummah. Also, there is a need for IMAFT to take into account the position of the United States which is believed to have supported the Muslim military alliance. Whereas Russia is with Iran and militarily involved in the complex conflict in Syria where major countries including the US were also involved, Pakistan needs to be careful while defining its role in the IMAFT and its relations with Iran, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although there is no official word from Pakistan armed forces about Gen Raheel Sharif’s leading the proposed IMAFT, there seem to be no signs of any concerns, which suggest that Pakistan is not eyeing a combat role. 

Yet, the growing political divide across the country demands of the government to take the main opposition parties including the PPP and the PTI on board and revisit Pakistan’s role in the IMAFT. The PTI has already announced its opposition to the appointment while the PPP is holding its cards close to the chest about supporting or opposing the decision.

“We are waiting for the government to take the parliament into confidence as per its commitment made by the defence minister as well as Adviser to PM on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz,” PPPP Secretary General Senator Farhatullah Babar told The Nation on Tuesday.

He recalled that both the leaders had assured on the floor of the Senate and the National Assembly that Parliament will be taken into confidence about the role of Pakistan in the IMAFT. He was of the view that the people of Pakistan need to know about the implications of the government’s decision to give a go-ahead to the former army chief on country’s foreign policy. On the other hand, the government remained tight-lipped about its course to address the opposition concerns. Some members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz seem confident that the appointment of Gen Raheel Sharif would help defuse tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Chairman Senate Committee on Defence Production Lt-Gen (retd) Abdul Qayum dismissed the notion that the appointment of Pakistan’s former army chief would have any adverse impact on Pakistan’s relations with Iran. “Appointment of Gen Raheel Sharif as IMAFT commander would help bring Saudi Arabia and Iran closer,” he claimed. He said that Pakistan’s position on Yemen war remains unchanged.

Analysts urge Pakistan to be cautious about defining its role in the IMAFT. One of the leading defence analysts and Pakistan’s former defence secretary Lt-Gen (retd) Talat Masood believes that the government needs to define Pakistan’s role in the Muslim military alliance. He believed that the growing perception that the proposed alliance would essentially serve security interest of Saudi Arabia as well as Arab Gulf states. He was of the view that since these states were deeply concerned about growing the military power of Iran and look at it as a major threat to their security, they have decided to go for IMAFT. Likewise, he said that the situation in Syria was far more complex for IMAFT to play any role as the nature of the Syrian conflict was more political and needs political solution than contemplating any combat role for IMAFT to change the dynamics. In Afghanistan, he said, the IMAFT may not have any effective role in quelling the insurgency. “That too needs a political solution,” he said. 

He sounded optimistic that leaders and members of the IMAFT countries will have to chart its objectives and operational option very carefully.

Lt-Gen (retd) Amjad Shoaib was of the view that the appointment of Gen Raheel Sharif would greatly help in bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran closer. He believed that Pakistan has already taken Iran into confidence in this regard.

He was of the view that Pakistan would help train the force of the IMAFT, sharing of intelligence and to some extent help in procuring arms for fighting terrorism.  

The news of the appointment of Gen Raheel Sharif went viral after Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif revealed at a TV talk show last week that the government has issued a no-objection certificate to the former army chief. Saudi Arabia announced the establishment of the IMAFT on December 16, 2015, and had requested Pakistan to allow Gen Raheel Sharif to lead the force.