Saudi Arabia has asked for Pakistani cooperation to establish a military alliance of Muslim countries on the footprints of NATO.
Pakistan has accepted the request and has shown its willingness to cooperate with the Kingdom but no details of this cooperation have come fore so far.
According to media reports, the request was made to PM Nawaz Sharif and COAS Gen Raheel Sharif on their return to home after attending the concluding ceremony of “North Thunder” military exercises where military contingents from 20 Muslim countries participated.
Earlier on Friday, Nawaz Sharif, along with military chief, held a meeting with King Salman bin Abdulaziz in the Saudi city of Hafr al-Batin and thanked him for Saudi Arabia’s strong and consistent support to Pakistan.
Leadership from both the countries admired the successful completion of such a big military exercise and enhanced mutual cooperation in defense and security.
Security and Threat Matrix has been analyzing this issue since the very early Saudi overtures to form a joint military alliance of Islamic nations. In December 2015, the issue was analyzed, based on the information available. Main issue with Saudi proposal was the sectarian orientation of this proposed military alliance. What Saudis were demanding was to bound to create a Sunni-Only military alliance as Iran and her allies in the region were excluded from this alliance.
In January 2016, government of Pakistan ensured Saudi Arabia military cooperation against terrorism and extremism.
On 14th Feburary, North Thunder military exercise commenced and concluded on 10th March near King Khaled Military City in northeastern Saudi Arabia. It was during these military exercises when the news about Saudi Arabia asking Pakistani COAS Gen Raheel Sharif to lead the 34 Muslim military forces emerged in media. In the last analysis ,we discussed some of the major questions regarding this offer by Saudi Arabia. Most important question was on the political ownership of any such alliance and chain of command.
It looks like despite all these questions and concerns, Pakistani government along with military leadership is still pursuing this endeavor along with Saudi leadership. Below are some recommendations on how Pakistan can work with Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations to create a really potent joint-security mechanism while avoiding all the sectarian debate on the formation of this alliance.
Way Forward for Pakistan:
- Define Terrorism: If terrorism is a core concern behind formation of this alliance, the definition of ‘what is terrorism’ becomes obvious. The world does not have any unanimous definition of terrorism and that is now itself has become sort of a crisis. Terrorism is being used as medium of modern wars (4th generation onward) by the nation states. Current Middle East scenario is vivid example in this regard where Saudis are supporting Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) to overthrow the regime, while extremist and Takfeeri groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda are fighting brutal turf wars destroying the Muslim population of Syria and Iraq in the process. What Turkey has been facing since the last three years is the backlash of Ankara’s policies towards situation in Syria. In this backdrop, for any counter-terrorism alliance to work, it is critical to define the word ‘terrorism’.
For a Muslim military alliance it is even more critical to define ‘terrorism’ to avoid any misleading strategic communication within the proposed alliance. This definition is going to be the first and ultimate test of leadership, both in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
- Define Scope of the Alliance: Clearly defining the scope of this proposed military alliance is as critical as defining the terrorism itself. Pakistan will have to make it clear to the masses in the entire swathe of the Muslim world that this alliance is not against any other state like Iran.
The debate on the role of Pakistan began during the Saudi Arabian military invasion in Yemen. Pakistani parliament refused to be part of this Saudi military campaign due to possible sectarian backlash at home.
Now, when Pakistani government has agreed in principle to be part of this alliance, it is critical to define the scope of this alliance. Pakistan will have to make it clear that this alliance is for fighting terrorism and not against any Muslim country.
To fight terrorism, every noticeable country has local police and paramilitary forces. The best ways to fight against transnational terrorism will be the formation of a joint-intelligence sharing mechanism among the member states, enhancing counter-terrorism capabilities of member state through mutually sharing the counter-terrorism experiences and through introducing new training regimes for the local forces of weaker Muslim states.
Karachi operation in Pakistan, has proved that major success in large urban centers can be achieved through Intelligence Based Operations (IOBs) by professionally trained paramilitary forces (like Sindh Rangers) and police. Pakistan has made major gained in war in Karachi despite the fact that police department in Pakistan has been politicized to a dangerous level. There is no reason why joint efforts in this regard by OIC member states cannot succeed. Only problem is reaching a consensus on the definition of terrorism.
Defining political scope of the alliance is also as important as its operational scope is. There is a feeling that this Saudi proposal is a desperate attempt by Al-Saud to keep the Saudi monarchy and all its allies in the region in the power and this alliance would actually be a police force suppressing any uprising like Arab Spring. This impression must be dispelled in defining its political scope.
- Anti-Terrorism or Muslim Peacekeeping Forces:Saudi Arabia wants to form the new military alliance on the blueprint of NATO. The heart of NATO is article 5 which ensures collective defense paradigm. In NATO, it is a self-invoked article in case any member state comes under foreign aggression. Keeping in mind the issues within the Muslim societies, Pakistan must ask Saudis if the intent of this alliance is really that, then can the Kingdom let go of its sectarian bias towards Iran? And will Iran reciprocate the same way if it becomes a member later on? If either of them cannot do that then this idea is bound to be doomed from the very onset.
It will be more pragmatic for Pakistani leadership to make this alliance under the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) so that Pakistan can create a greater understanding among the member states. There has to be absolute unanimity of views regarding the collective defense operations among the member states and those who are not part of this alliance at the beginning.
Collective defense idea is a level deeper than anti-terrorism coalition.
Like discussed above, terrorism can be fought just by having an intelligence-sharing mechanism. A military alliance is not necessary for that. NATO like military alliance leads to ideas like joint operations against foreign invasions or joint peacekeeping missions. If the idea is to create a Muslim Peacekeeping Force (MPF) then its rationale, scope and formation will demand entirely different merits with far greater political consensus between Iran and Saudi Arabia which is harder to achieve than making them both agreeing on an intelligence sharing mechanism.
- Define political over-sight for the alliance’s operations: The question of political ownership of the operations still requires an answer. Which body will sanction any operation of this alliance and how an oversight will be ensured? Pakistan must ensure that a policy of inclusion is being followed while drafting any official proposal for the formation of this alliance. It is obvious any operation backed by maximum states will have a greater probability of success.
- Define clear chain of command: According to media news, General Raheel has been asked to take the command of this proposed military alliance after his retirement from Pakistan Army. This is yet another intriguing development. It is not clear how General Raheel will be able to command a multi-national alliance after retirement. UN Forces, NATO Forces or any other multilateral forces are being led by active service generals around the world. So, there must be a more professional approach in appointments of top brass of this proposed military alliance.
Due to his success in war on terror, Pakistan Army chief becomes a natural selection for the alliance. But it would be more pragmatic if Pakistan Army proposed a chain of command where inclusion from all major Muslim countries can be ensured.
Muslim Military Alliance (MMA) is an interesting idea and for the first time this idea has been floated by the Saudis. Pakistan has been asked to play a leading role in its formation. This is not an easy task for Pakistan and it will have to deal with lots of issues due to ages old sectarian divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Biggest challenge for Pakistan is to convince all Muslim societies and states that this alliance is not part of any hegemonic desire of Saudi Arabia or its own. Then issues like political ownership, oversight and chain of command are also there to be dealt with.
The formation of this alliance as a true anti-terrorism mechanism or a collective security mechanism remains a distinct possibility right now. To make it a reality, Pakistan will have to deploy a relentless diplomacy to resolve these issues in drafting a framework for such alliance.