The reports about Pakistan’s former army chief general Raheel Sharif joining the 39-member Saudi coalition were finally confirmed by Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, on January 6 in the Geo show, Naya Pakistan. The minister had few details to offer on the appointment.
Not surprisingly, the reports about the former chief’s appointment surfaced after he and his staff took off for Saudi Arabia reportedly on a special plane sent by the Saudi royal family. (The story about the former army chief taking up the Saudi job had first come out around mid-2016 while he was still the army chief.)
Two days later, in my programme, the PM’s spokesperson said he had no information of such an appointment. He was asked why the PM House hadn’t enquired into the facts on this important story. After all, the story involved a man who was army chief barely 40 days ago; it also involved Pakistan’s important friend, the Saudi government, and it had implications for Pakistan’s foreign policy – including relations with Iran and Russia. The story would have implications within Pakistan as well.
But the PM’s spokesperson said that he was not aware that any clarification from anyone or any institution had been sought on this story. The other participant, a retired general, also confirmed that while he also knew of the former chief’s presence in Saudi Arabia, he had no information about General Sharif’s employment with the Saudi government.
Interestingly, the only confirmation about Gen Sharif and the Saudi coalition came from the defence minister. The ISPR was mum on the story, and unable to keep to its promise to “get back” with a comment.
In the meanwhile, this report triggered anger, anguish and some hope in public space. The hopefuls argued that Sharif’s appointment as commander of the Saudi-led military coalition would enhance Pakistan’s stature and give Pakistan leverage to play a role in the Muslim world, including the ability to influence the Saudi government to engage with Iran and other countries confronting terrorism. This hope, against the backdrop of the Saudi-Iran confrontation through 2016 especially, seemed misplaced. Also with no precedent of Pakistan, despite its decades-long security engagement with Saudi Arabia, influencing the kingdom’s policy in the region, any hope of now influencing Saudi policy seems naïve. Additionally, Sharif joining a coalition with an ostensibly sectarian colour would seem to undermine Pakistan’s impressive record of having distanced itself from the sectarian-framed power struggle.
Many of us questioned the wisdom of the former army chief’s move to take up the Saudi employment. His decision to engage with the Saudis, without clearance from either the government or the GHQ and his employment only 40 days after his retirement from a position which allows him full access to Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear security setup, was highly questionable. As expected, the news of the former chief’s appointment and our criticism was also promptly carried by the foreign press, including that of India.
However, by the evening of January 9, hours after the former army chief arrived in Lahore, the story took a different turn. Five points were particularly noteworthy. One, based on the former army chief’s discussions in Riyadh, the proposed coalition will initially focus on enhancement of CT capacity including controlling terror funding, Muslim image-building etc. At present, there is no plan to raise an army and the coalition will not be involved in physically fighting terrorism. The proposed Defence Council will determine its mandate.
Two, initially the governing structure of the coalition will comprise the defence ministers of all 39 countries. Three the coalition will collaborate with international institutions like the UN, Nato etc. Four, Gen Sharif conveyed to the Saudis that his condition for involvement would be the inclusion of countries like Iran and Iraq in the Defence Council. Five, that Sharif will only take up an assignment with the Saudis after he gets clearance from the government and the GHQ.
The Saudi proposal on the coalition setup and on the former army chief’s involvement is expected to be sent to Pakistan by March. This would be followed by the vetting process, including security clearance, within the GHQ and by the government of the proposal. With the joint command in the hands of the Joint Defence Council, Sharif will likely be asked to be chief adviser. For now it is unclear to what extent the Saudis will agree to Sharif’s proposals regarding the coalition.
However, given the latest discussions that Pakistan’s former chief is being said to have had in Riyadh, it is unclear to what extent Pakistan will get involved in the 39-member Saudi coalition. Equally Gen Raheel Sharif’s future with the coalition too is uncertain.
Meanwhile, the stories that have circulated on this issue demonstrate the failure on all sides to appreciate the seriousness and sobriety that must be attached to all matters related to the business of the state. It remains unclear if before departing for Riyadh the former chief informed anyone in the government about his planned discussion with the Saudi government.
Senior military generals seem unable to understand the significance of keeping the elected leadership informed of important and highly consequential moves made by the institution or by individuals. The list is endless. From the army chief calling Prince Kareem Aga Khan to condole with him about the tragic killing of Ismailis in the Safoora Goth terrorist attack to deciding to make public his conversation with the Iranian president to announcing the return of the contested border check post with Afghanistan – the list is endless.
But the flip side of this, and indeed what emboldens the military high command to take such steps, is the prime minister leading an institutionalised approach to administer and govern the country. A critical aspect of this is holding heads of all institutions accountable in the exercise of authority. Such an approach requires that its starting point must be that the prime minister himself conducts the affairs of the state in a professional manner and holds himself accountable. Leading the efficient and accountable process of administration and governance by example is the only way that the Pakistani state will function as it must.
In the absence of the indispensables of good governance including competence, meritocracy, efficiency, accountability and indeed transparency, Pakistan’s chronic problems will never be substantively addressed. Grandstanding, rhetoric, conspiracies and now with millions of debating platforms free-wheeling emotive attacks and counter-attacks in public spaces will demoralise people and deplete their energy. The ongoing debate on the former army chief and the Saudi-led coalition illustrates this point.
The onus to alter this way of conducting state business is, above all, on the elected leadership that is responsible for managing the affairs of state and society.
The writer is a senior journalist.