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April 2, 2017

Military alliance


April 2, 2017

The announcement by the Foreign Office that Pakistan will be part of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, coming just days after Defence Minister Khawaja Asif confirmed that former army chief Raheel Sharif would be permitted to lead the alliance, clearly represents a conscious decision to more closely ally ourselves with Saudi Arabia in the various wars engulfing the Middle East. There are still a lot of questions to be answered. For instance, will we be sending any of our troops to Saudi Arabia or any other Middle Eastern countries? There were recent reports that Pakistani troops would protect Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen; the government response to these reports has been ambiguous. How will this affect our ties with Iran, which views the alliance with suspicion as a sectarian force? These are questions which should have been debated before our inclusion in the alliance was announced and presented as a fait accompli. Parliament is the proper forum for such discussions and the only time it was involved, back in 2015, it decided not to take part in Yemen’s civil war. The decision to stay out of the conflict had been praised by many observers who feared that this would mean that the wars in the Middle East could spiral into Pakistan. Being part of the alliance is not the same as sending troops to Yemen but it does raise the possibility of Pakistan’s growing involvement in a country where we could get bogged down and which poses no national security threat to us.

Including Pakistan, the IMAFT now has 41 members, most of which are Sunni-majority countries or have Sunni ruling families. But as yet the alliance exists mostly on paper and is not officially intervening in any Middle Eastern war. The Yemeni civil war is being fought with Saudi troops and US bombs. Although the coalition has stated that it will fight terrorists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan it has not done so till now. Pakistan has its own interests in Afghanistan, and a hostile government at the helm there, so it needs to be careful about being part of the IMAFT there. In the Middle Eastern countries there is always the danger of being stuck in a quagmire at a time when our troops are busy fighting militancy at home and on our borders. Any solution to the wars in the Middle East cannot be military alone. It needs to be broad-based and involve all the actors in the region. There seem to be too many unknowns in this matter. The decision to join IMAFT cannot be taken lightly. Nor can it be left to the FO to explain such a decision to the public. This decision has to take everyone on board, what role, if any, Pakistan intends to play there needs to be clarified before it commits to any action.

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