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April 2, 2017

The Arab coalition


April 2, 2017

At last, the cat is out of the bag. Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said on my Geo News programme ‘Jirga’ that the government of Pakistan has accepted Saudi Arabia’s request regarding the appointment of Raheel Sharif as the head of the Islamic Military Alliance.

The minister also acknowledged the fact that the matter was being dealt with by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and that all related issues would be finalised by them. Although the defence minister claimed that he had recently visited Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah, I believe that the main agenda of his visit was to discuss the role of Raheel Sharif in the coalition force. The prime minister of Pakistan and the Saudi leadership had already agreed long ago on the matter and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa has also been taken onboard. However, the defence minister’s visit aimed to finalise the issue.

When the news of Raheel Sharif being selected to lead the Arab coalition force surfaced in January, the impression was created that the government had no role in the matter and the former COAS was dealing with the matter himself. An anti-Raheel Sharif campaign was also launched to malign him and make the matter all the more controversial. I wrote an article titled ‘Coalition politics’ in these pages on January 19. Some important facts and segments of the article need to be reproduced:

“The government gives the impression that Raheel Sharif’s being part of the coalition will decide Pakistan’s participation in the coalition. But the fact is that Pakistan has already joined the coalition, and this decision was taken by the prime minister. The appointment of Raheel Sharif will not determine or affect Pakistan’s role and position in the coalition.

“It should also be made clear that Pakistan only refused to send troops to Yemen after opposition in both the media and parliament. However, there was no such rejection of participation in the coalition. If I am wrong, then the PM Office should issue a statement that Pakistan has not joined the coalition and will never join it. I will apologise to the whole nation. But I am sure that Pakistan is part of the coalition – and that, to that end, many meetings have already been held.

“Another aspect of the coalition is that, though it is being formed by Saudi Arabia, its patron-in-chief is the US. The role of the US has been mentioned in some correspondence between Saudi Arabia and other partners, including Pakistan. How can Nawaz Sharif turn down a coalition which is being sponsored by the US, led by Saudi Arabia and joined by countries like Turkey and Egypt?

“If acceptance of the offer (by Raheel Sharif) is a sin, then it must be clear that the original sin has already been committed by the government when it joined the coalition.

“Some analysts also say that such an appointment will lead to Iran’s displeasure. For their information, it is important to note that Iran has already been offended. And this is one of the reasons that Iran has worked towards strengthening ties with India.

“This coalition is a strategic partnership against extremism. Its decision-making power will not be vested in its commander, whether Raheel Sharif or someone else, but in a specified decision-making forum. A defence ministers’ council will make all the decisions. And so, from the Pakistani side, it will be Khawaja Asif participating in the decision-making instead of Raheel Sharif.

“According to my information, the objectives and structure of the coalition will be finalised by March after consultation with all the members. Saudi Arabia has offered Raheel Sharif a role that is yet to be decided and to which he has agreed in principle. However, Raheel Sharif cannot accept the new responsibility without the consent of the government of Pakistan and its army. The ball is now in the prime minister’s court and he is trapped in a dilemma.

“On the one hand, he cannot offend Saudi Arabia which wants Raheel Sharif to play a role in the coalition. On the other hand, he does not want to give permission to Raheel Sharif to accept the position. Hence, he has employed his traditional tricks with the aim to kill two birds with a single stone.

“The anti-Raheel Sharif campaign seems part of the strategy to create an environment in which the former army chief himself turns down Saudi Arabia’s request. The prime minister will then easily convince Saudi Arabia that he had no objection to Raheel Sharif’s appointment, but that the general himself did not accept it – or the military did not allow him. This is called gentleman’s politics and Machiavellian tactics.”

In the article, I had mentioned that the special role given to Raheel Sharif in the 39-countries nascent Islamic coalition was not a personal matter for the former COAS. Instead, the matter was being deliberated between the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, Khawaja Asif’s confirmation on my show proved what I had claimed in the article. I had also claimed that all matters would be finalised by March – another prediction that was also proved corrected. In addition, I had asserted that the Council of Defence Ministers would be the real policymaking forum of the coalition force.

Khawaja Asif’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the recent developments also prove this assertion. According to the defence minister, Raheel Sharif can join the coalition force at any point in time. While the decision to head the coalition force may not be good for Raheel Sharif’s personal prestige, it is likely to be particularly fruitful for Pakistan. It will be also helpful for Iran and the entire region.

However, the basic question that needs to be asked is: if the matter was being dealt with by the government, why was the nation kept in dark? More importantly, why was the issue politicised? Why was Raheel Sharif maligned and mired in a controversy at such a crucial stage when he was taking on a new responsibility? Instead of settling personal scores, we should look at things through the prism of national interests.

The writer works for Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

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