Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif has confirmed that General Raheel Sharif is to command the 39-member Islamic Military Alliance. The alliance was formed by Saudi Arabia to deal with conflicts in the Middle East, particularly to quell the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
Asif said the decision was taken in consultation with the Pakistani government.
For many in Pakistan, General Sharif, who retired in November last year, was a competent military chief. He not only acted against terrorists but was also resolute against alleged corruption in the country. General Sharif’s supporters were hopeful that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would extend his term as the military head.
The general had taken over the reins from Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in 2013. Kayani was not as popular as General Sharif and the morale of the Pakistani army had been low. After the killing of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, the army came under fire domestically and internationally.
Raheel Sharif managed to restore the army’s standing by means of an aggressive media campaign. However, the restoration of the military’s image came with a price for Pakistan. The army has always been the most powerful institution in the country, but under General Sharif it became omnipresent and omnipotent.
Now that it has been confirmed that General Sharif will be working for Riyadh, many analysts say the move is likely to create more friction in already tense Iranian-Pakistani ties. Also, experts say it would anger Pakistan’s pro-Iran Shiite minority and fuel sectarian tensions in the South Asian country.
Defense analyst Talat Masood told the DPA news agency the decision could mean some fallout for Pakistan. “… the other fact is that a Pakistani general will head this coalition that is controversial and Iran is very much opposed to it,” Masood underlined.
“There are question marks whether it is a wise decision that a Pakistani will head an organization that is controversial and would take actions against certain forces which are backed by certain other Muslim countries,” Masood added.
In March 2015, Riyadh launched a military campaign against the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen
In March 2015, Riyadh launched a military campaign against the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have taken over swathes of territory, raising concerns in Saudi Arabia about a potential Shiite uprising across its southern border. Saudi Arabia also fears that Iran wants to increase its influence in the region.
A month later, Saudi authorities formally asked for Pakistani combat planes, warships and soldiers, but the South Asian country’s lawmakers voted to remain neutral in the conflict. However, security experts say that being an ally of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is already part of a security cooperation agreement under which about 1,000 Pakistani troops are performing an “advisory” role to Riyadh and are stationed in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Experts say that Pakistan’s economic dependence on Saudi Arabia is a reason behind its support for Riyadh in the Yemen conflict. “Figures show that the largest sum of Pakistan’s foreign exchange comes from Saudi Arabia. There is a mammoth work force of Pakistani laborers in the Arab countries. It would be ‘suicidal’ to offend the Saudis,” London-based Pakistani researcher and journalist, Farooq Sulehria, told DW.
However, Islamabad’s over-enthusiasm to please Riyadh could further exacerbate its relations with Tehran. The ties between the two Asian neighbors have been tense for many years and there have been skirmishes. Tehran is also not very pleased with Islamabad’s alleged support to various Sunni militant groups, which have been involved in launching attacks in Iran’s eastern areas, and allegedly killing Shiite citizens inside Pakistan.
Iran is aware of the concerns and limitations of its ties with Pakistan
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Islamabad last year in an attempt to convince Pakistani authorities to remain neutral in the conflict. Iran is aware of the concerns and limitations of its ties with Pakistan but analysts say it still wants to maintain “normal” relations.
“Pakistan remains solidly allied with Saudi Arabia, regardless of how intense the outreach may be from Tehran. There are decades of close military cooperation that are not about to be undone,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.
Pakistan’s sectarian strife
Pakistan’s civil society has voiced its concern over the government’s involvement in the Saudi-Iranian conflict.
“Pakistan should not get involved in the Saudi Arabia-Iran regional rivalry,” Mosharraf Zaidi, a former USAID consultant and Islamabad-based foreign policy expert, told DW. “We must not forget that Riyadh and Tehran have their own interests, therefore the Pakistani government, too, should do what is best for the country. It must keep good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he added.
Pakistan’s Sunni religious parties strongly support Saudi Arabia’s Yemen campaign
The sectarian Shiite-Sunni strife in Pakistan has been ongoing for some time now, with militant Islamist groups unleashing terror on the minority Shiite groups in many parts of the country. Most of the attackers, including the Taliban, take inspiration from the hard-line Saudi-Wahabi Islamic ideology.
“For Pakistan’s Islamic fundamentalists, the country is already a ‘Sunni Wall’ against Shiite Iran,” Siegfried O. Wolf, an expert at the University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute, told DW in an interview.
With Raheel Sharif in charge of the Saudi-led military alliance, experts say that Islamabad has now openly sided with Riyadh in the Saudi-Iranian conflict. The repercussions of this policy could be extremely dangerous for the country, they say.