Monday, April 3, 2017

Business Recorder Column April 3, 2017

Disquiet over IMAFT Rashed Rahman The government, after humming and hawing for months, has finally admitted that it is part of the Saudi-led coalition dubbed the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), with former COAS General Raheel Sharif poised to take up the command of the alliance. This development has aroused considerable disquiet amongst informed observers about the implications of Pakistan setting foot in the ongoing Middle Eastern quagmire. It may be recalled that two years ago, Saudi Arabia and its ally the UAE requested Pakistan to commit troops in their bloody struggle against the Houthi militia in Yemen. The Houthis are supported by Iran, an alignment that mirrors the Saudi-Iranian conflict going on in other parts of the region, especially Syria. The Saudis in time-tested fashion are in the forefront of the west’s adventures in the region. They are on the frontlines in Yemen and backing pro-west fundamentalist militias in Syria, while claiming that they are fighting Islamic State (IS). The government has been guilty of dissembling on the issue of Pakistan being part of IMAFT and General Raheel Sharif heading it. Whatever information has been shared by the government has emerged in dribs and drabs, raising serious questions about the course Islamabad has embarked upon. Two years ago, the government took the Saudi-UAE request for troops to parliament, which rejected it on the grounds that Pakistan had no wish to get embroiled in the Yemen or any other Middle Eastern conflict in which it has no stakes and runs the risk of finding itself embroiled in the sectarian wars raging in the region. How has the situation changed since then, permitting the government to override parliament’s will? Neither has the ground situation in Yemen or elsewhere in the conflict zones of the Middle East altered since April 2015 when parliament adopted the resolution against committing troops to Yemen, nor is it clear that the army, General Raheel Sharif’s mother institution, has been taken on board regarding Pakistan’s commitment to IMAFT and giving General Sharif an NOC to assume command of the coalition. Although the government has now (half) admitted its commitment, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif informed us the other day that the IMAFT’s terms of reference and actual deployment of the troops of the 41 Muslim countries named as part of IMAFT have still to be finalised. At the same time the Foreign Office spokesman seeks to mollify our concerns by asserting that despite joining IMAFT, Pakistan is still neutral in the Middle East! This is jaw-dropping logic indeed. If the spirit of parliament’s April 2015 resolution rejecting troops to Yemen was informed by reluctance to get embroiled in a sectarian war with seemingly no end in sight, what was the compulsion to override it and commit to IMAFT now? Clearly the open umbrage shown by the UAE at Pakistan’s refusal and the quieter disappointment in Riyadh sat heavy on the minds of the government. The former went so far as to threaten retaliation against Pakistan. Given the number of expat Pakistanis who work in the Gulf, Islamabad was clearly looking for ways and means to mollify our Saudi and UAE ‘brothers’. Hence the halting ‘confession’ now of having committed to the IMAFT course, with General Raheel Sharif thrown in as the ultimate sweetener, given his successes against terrorism in Pakistan during his tenure. The IMAFT only exists on paper or in the imagination of the Saudis so far. Its ostensible purpose is to fight terrorism, but stripped of the verbiage, it is obvious that the exclusion of about two dozen Muslim countries, including Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan (all ‘neutral’ vis-à-vis the conflicts in the Middle East), Iran, Iraq, Syria (Shia or Shia-dominated Arab countries) and Algeria (a progressive Arab nationalist country aligned with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad) betrays the real aims, targets and purposes of IMAFT. These appear to include crushing the Houthis in Yemen (viewed by the Saudis as Iranian surrogates), supporting the pro-west fundamentalist militias fighting Assad’s regime (the so-called ‘moderate’ opposition) while paying lip service to fighting IS. A concomitant and complicating factor in the Syrian conflict is the Kurd factor. The US, the doyen of support to the anti-Assad (non-IS) militias, has shown a soft corner for the Kurdish YPG militia that has proved one of the more effective groups against IS. This tactical and transactional policy towards the Syrian Kurds is not replicated in the case of the Turkish Kurds (PKK), who are being pummelled by Erdogan’s government without let, hindrance or a squeak from Washington. Pakistan’s stepping into the Middle Eastern quagmire threatens not only to drag us into interminable wars at a time when we have our hands full at home with the struggle against terrorism, it also portends a possible escalation of the sectarian conflict already tearing our society apart. There are sectarian terrorist groups operating in Pakistan that openly declare they wish to ‘cleanse’ Pakistan of all Shias. These groups are also responsible for massacring the lawyers’ community in Quetta last year. For both external and internal reasons therefore, any involvement in the Middle East cauldron would be dangerous, risky, liable to trap us in a sectarian quagmire and exacerbate sectarian conflict at home. And to what advantage or benefit? At best simply keeping the Saudis and the UAE happy and their largesse flowing. Not much of a cost-benefit equation there. Iran is portrayed by the Saudis and their allies as the author of attempts to change the political landscape of the Middle East in its (i.e. Shia) favour. Propaganda aside, it is the Saudis and their Arab allies that laid the foundations of fundamentalist terrorism in the region by backing and funding armed warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan initially, and then further abroad. If we have learnt any lessons from our involvement in military alliances with the west in the past, i.e. that they failed to serve any conceivable Pakistani interest, should we not now be wary of being dragged into sectarian wars at home and in the region by hitching our horses to the Saudi bandwagon and shooting ourselves in the foot in the process?

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