by Eldar Mamedov
On April 21, General Raheel Sharif, the former chief of staff of the Pakistani army, left for Riyadh to head a 41-nation, Saudi-led Islamic military alliance against terrorism.
When this appointment was first announced in January, it was met with disapproval by Iran, which, alongside its allies Iraq and Syria, was deliberately excluded from this alliance. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry puts Pakistan in a tight spot, since Islamabad has traditionally very close ties with Riyadh but also cannot afford to antagonize Tehran. At least 20% of the Pakistani population are Shia, so a perception that Pakistan has joined essentially a Sunni alliance could have catastrophic consequences for the country’s stability. It is significant that hard-line Sunni groups, such as the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, have fully supported this move, while Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen, a Shia political group, has opposed it. Anti-Shia terrorist groups like Lashkar-e Jhangvi, Jaish-e Mohammad, and Sipah-e Sahaba could feel emboldened to escalate their attacks against the Shia community, who, in turn, could increasingly turn not to the Pakistani state but to militant groups such as Sipah-e Mohammad for protection. This group was active in 1990s, when it reportedly assassinated a number of Sunni extremist leaders in tit-for-tat sectarian violence.
Although suspicions that Iran provides support for groups like Sipah-e Mohammad were never substantiated, Pakistani authorities are clearly concerned that Iran might use the Shia card against them. That’s why they went out of their way to emphasize that their participation in the Saudi-led alliance should in no way be seen as directed against Iran. The chief of staff of the army general Javed Bajwa has received Iran´s ambassador in Pakistan, Mehdi Hoonardost, twice in six weeks, which is rather remarkable given the prevailing distrust in bilateral relations. An explicit aim of these meetings was to reassure Tehran that Pakistan will not take part in any actions that could harm Iranian interests.
However, the criticisms of what appears to be jumping onto the Saudi bandwagon are not limited to Iran or Pakistani Shias. As Lobelog’s Fatemeh Aman has noted, there is a considerable societal discontent, as reflected in the reactions of some opposition parties, mainstream media, retired army officers, and members of the think-tank community.
One of the main concerns is an almost total lack of transparency and informed debate about the mandate of the coalition, General Sharif´s role in it, and the costs and benefits for Pakistan of membership. In fact, even senior national security officials admit that much is still unknown about these questions, while promising vaguely that Pakistan would stay above the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and promote Muslim unity.
Such assurances, however, stand in stark contradiction with the government’s haste to formally approve General Sharif’s mission without even waiting for the unveiling of the terms of reference of the alliance (goals, mandate, rules of engagement, and so on). This is expected to be done at a summit in Riyadh in May, which both Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif are reportedly planning to attend.
In 2015, the Pakistani parliament rejected the country’s participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which presumably remains one of the alliance’s key tasks. Although the Saudis were clearly irritated by that vote, it provided the Pakistani government an escape route from a deeply unpopular military involvement abroad. The fact that the government choose not to consult the parliament this time fuels suspicions about non-transparent dealings with Riyadh with questionable benefits to Pakistan’s national security. In this context, the $1.5 billion Saudi “gift” to Pakistan back in 2014, the details of which are not known to the public, appears to be part of a behind-the-scenes deal to ensure Pakistan’s support for Saudi geopolitical agenda. The appointment of General Sharif then becomes compensation for the 2015 vote on Yemen.
There is also a broader rethink of Pakistani-Saudi relations taking place in segments of the Pakistani society. Well-informed Islamabad-based experts, for example, point to the role Saudi actions play in undermining the implementation of Pakistan’s National Action Plan on counter-terrorism. This plan was enacted following a horrendous attack on schoolchildren at the Army School in Peshawar that left 141 dead. Two areas where the implementation lags behind are the curbing of hate education in madrasahs and the financing of terror. It is well known in Pakistan that couriers arrive with cash-loaded suitcases from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to fund hard-line Deobandi madrasahs and radical fundamentalist groups.
Not only money but also militants flow from the Middle East to Pakistan. With the so-called Islamic State on the defensive in both Syria and Iraq, Arab jihadists are increasingly heading towards South Asia, contributing to the ideological radicalization of local Sunnis as they form alliances with the local Taliban and other extremists. This flow of money and militants is clearly an area where Pakistani experts see “major gaps” in Islamabad’s dialogue with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha.
There are signs that Pakistani society as a whole is awakening to the threat of violent extremism. After a student accused of blasphemy was lynched in mid-April at a university, the parliament has adopted a unanimous resolution condemning this crime and calling for much stronger safeguards in the blasphemy law (the two Islamist parties—Jamaat-i Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl—later pulled out from the agreement). Although clearly not all terrorism and extremism in Pakistan can be blamed on Saudi Arabia, there is a growing realization that intimate relations with Riyadh contribute to an environment that fosters such crimes.
By acceding to Saudi pressure to join the Riyadh-led Islamic military alliance with no clear mandate, Pakistani authorities are taking a leap towards the unknown. The increasing reliance on Saudi Arabia will likely exacerbate the country’s internal divisions beyond the Sunni-Shia divide and complicate diplomatic relations with important neighbors like Iran.
Photo: Raheel Sharif signs the Pentagon guest book
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.