Pakistan’s delicate position in Saudi-led military coalition

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) stands with chiefs of staff and defense ministers of a Saudi-led Islamic military counter terrorism coalition during their meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia November 26, 2017. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout

On November 26, the defense ministers of the countries participating in the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) finalized the alliance’s terms of reference (TORs).

The most critical clause among the TORs underscored that each state’s participation “will be defined in accordance with each country’s capabilities and resources, as well as in accordance with each country’s desire to participate in a given military operation.”

The IMCTC, in the making for a while, is believed to be the brain child of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS. According to several Western intelligence sources, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Pakistan have traditionally been allies and even describe it as the “most important diplomatic relationship”.

Naturally, MBS chose General Raheel Sharif, who retired as Pakistan’s Army Chief, to lead the IMCTC. Diplomatic sources who track Pakistan closely told Asia Times that General Raheel is “pro-Saudi by conviction” and therefore this was a natural fit.

A Grand Alliance

On November 27, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi along with Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar, flew to Saudi Arabia to attend the first meet of the IMCTC. The meet comes in the wake of the major Saudi purge carried out by Crown Prince MBS, that led to the incarceration of several Saudi royals as well as businessmen.

Their visit came just hours after signing a peace agreement with the radical Islamist Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) protestors who had been camped inside the capital for three weeks. The capitulation by the Pakistani state immediately evoked strong protests and a stinging editorial in The Dawn.

Sources confirm that the Pakistani leadership vowed “active participation” in “ensuring peace in the region.” It was reaffirmed that as per bilateral agreements Pakistan is bound to guard Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity, and now with the IMCTC, Islamabad would further help train the troops in the alliance.

Officially, Pakistan maintains just over a 1000 military personnel in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly for training purposes. At least two Western intelligence officials Asia Times spoke to reiterated that pilots from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) are also known to fly Saudi combat jets.

“Although the official announcement is yet to be made, Pakistan has agreed to send in troops to join the IMCTC,” a well informed source confirmed. “However, Islamabad’s involvement would be with regards to technical support for the coalition, and has maintained that there would be no physical presence of Pakistani troops outside Saudi Arabia. They will help fight terrorism and bring stability in the region by better equipping the troops.”

Saudi Arabia’s new Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, published on November 1, maintains that “criticism of the crown prince is an act of terrorism”. It also incorporates vague phrasing that dubs “disturbing public order, shaking stability” and “exposing national unity to danger” as terrorism.

Balancing Act with Tehran

Officials maintain that Pakistan is bound to the Saudi definition of terrorism and concede that protecting the regime from internal and external threats is a part of safeguarding the kingdom’s integrity.

However, this also puts the Pakistanis in a bind. They are conscious of their bilateral with Iran, which has been increasingly unhappy with the Saudis. The current Pakistani Army Chief, General Qamar Bajwa was in Tehran in the first week of November, assuring the Iranian leadership about Pakistan’s role in Saudi Arabia.

India, has just sent the first shipments via the refurbished Chabahar Port to Afghanistan. This causes significant to the Pakistanis and can reduce their influence in Afghanistan. According to several diplomatic sources, General Bajwa assured the Iranians to stay neutral, while also offering help on missile technology and a visit by Iranian scientists to SUPARCO, Pakistan’s official space agency.

Analysts also feel that Pakistan’s leadership in the IMCTC enhances its position in the Ummah, which can be achieved by capacity building among the members. As the world’s lone Islamic nuclear state and a battle-hardened military, Pakistan is keen to exploit its unique position among the member-states.

While Pakistan has maintained ‘neutrality’ in the Yemen War following a unanimous Parliamentary resolution in April 2015, the civilian leadership’s agreement to send in human resources for the IMCTC, coupled with its bilateral commitment to protect Saudi Arabia against ‘terrorism’, means that Islamabad is complicit in a third party war – despite repeatedly distancing itself from it.

General Raheel Sharif, will head the IMCTC, a Saudi military initiative by Crown Prince MBS. Photo: Reuters / Mian Khursheed (File)

General Raheel Sharif, will head the IMCTC, a Saudi military initiative by Crown Prince MBS. Photo: Reuters / Mian Khursheed (File)

“Former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, commanding the IMCTC’s military, and both the civil and military leadership flying in to Riyadh to reassure the Saudi king at a time when Islamabad was still under siege, underscores Pakistan’s involvement in this so called Islamic military alliance,” a senior Pakistani government official told Asia Times.

“Also, with the civilian government having no choice but to acquiesce, especially after the surrender to TLY thugs brokered by the Army, things will move quickly as Pakistan continues to provide all the support needed in Riyadh.” With MBS all set to consolidate power after the purge, the IMCTC is likely to be his next area of focus, with a willing ally in Islamabad.

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