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Unraveling the mystery over ‘Muslim NATO’ chief Raheel Sharif

Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Updated:

For most analysts and watchers of Pakistan, the appointment of General Raheel Sharif as head of the Saudi-led military coalition continues to be shrouded in mystery. They either see little progress since the announcement or cannot comprehend what it really entails.

Despite the skepticism, General Sharif heading the 39-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) is being seen as a step in the right direction. Observers believe this has been in the works for some time and that Pakistan, despite occasional turbulence in its relations with the Arab world, continues to be in the scheme of things, definitely at a military level.
Arshi Saleem, a leading security analyst in Pakistan, says the announcement generated a lot of discussion and debate in the country. “It is still not confirmed because the way system works here, his appointment needs to be endorsed by the government,”, she says.

According to her, the government’s still sees it as a proposal and will decide keeping in view the best interest of the country. Anyways, there has been no official statement on his appointment from the military sources.

Army protocol

“Once a military official retires there is a certain period during which he cannot accept any position because of the sensitivity attached to his work. Especially being army chief, he is privy to a lot of state information related to security,” says Saleem.

According to her, it is still not clear whether this would be more of an advisory and planning position or actually commanding forces on the ground. “It seems if at all he accepts the position, it may be more of an adviser than commander leading the forces,” she says.

Kamran Bokhari, Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy and Fellow with the Program on Extremism with George Washington University, admits there is very little in the way of available details. “It is very difficult to say with any degree of certainty beyond some basic geopolitical realities that are shaping this,” he says.

According to him, either way there are limits to how far Islamabad is willing to be part of this venture. “At best the Pakistanis are willing to offer retired personnel. Gen Sharif is also the most popular general that the Pak army has produced in decades, which means his decision to lead this military alliance will not be as controversial on the home front,” says Bokhari.

Work in progress

Defense analyst Awad Mustafa chooses to look beneath the headlines. He says the alliance against terrorism has been built on the 2015 plan to create an Arab League quick intervention force also dubbed as the "Arab NATO".

“The Arab NATO plan was set to be an air, naval and land operation force large enough to intervene in major operations but also specialized enough to conduct special operations tasks against terrorist organizations”, says Mustafa.

According to him, Sharif’s appointment is the first key step to establishing the force and establishing the communication format between all the members. “Currently the only members experienced in coalition combat would be the GCC states. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE have all been working together in Yemen and regularly exercise as well,” he says.

This is also not the first effort at coalition-building in this part of the world. The Northern Thunder exercise, for instance, brought forces from Turkey, Sudan, Jordan and other members establishing a link between their forces.

By the look of things, Gen Sharif would have to build on this platform but also build a political structure to facilitate future operations.

“Gen Sharif’s experience in the provision of unconventional warfare training to the Pakistani forces - shown by the counter-insurgency operations he led against Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban) militants - is a clear example of his leadership prowess and why he is the right choice to set up the IMAFT structure,” says Mustafa.

A strategic relationship

Riad Kahwaji, Founder/CEO, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), says Sharif’s pick will possibly get Pakistan more involved in this coalition. This is where geo-strategic realities begin to surface and probably also explains the slow progres.

“Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have a long-term strategic relationship on many levels and this coalition will be another pillar solidifying their partnership,” he says.

According to him, Pakistan being the only Muslim nuclear power, makes a logical choice to provide the founding leadership of this coalition, which so far remains a virtual alliance. “We have seen so far declaration of intent to form this entity and heard others interested in joining. Now it is time to see it come together,” he says.

Kahwaji believes that, at this stage, General Sharif will have to lay out the military strategies and the process of establishing the coalition’s command and structure.

“More important is to see the financial backing and the seriousness of the member states to contribute manpower and resources necessary to create the co-called Muslim NATO,”‎ says Kahwaji.

The quartet?

The move is also being positively viewed in Turkey, which is being forced into conflicts in the Middle East. This also adds another layer to the posibilities such alliances may throw up.

Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, President of Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM), says the appointment is not only the result of a cooperation in the context of Saudi Arabia-Pakistan but can also be considered a common step of the “Islamic Alliance Against Terrorism” consisting of 34 countries including Turkey.

“With this step, significant progress has been made in terms of the “Islamic Army Coalition” declared on December 16, 2015.

More concretely, this development points to ongoing decisiveness in the context of the institutionalization of the Islamic Army decided to be formed as a result of a common will and its transformation into a more deterrent force,” he says.

Dr. Mehmet maintains that global and regional developments give rise to a security-based regional Muslim NATO in the Islamic world. “The Islamic world has to cooperate with each other because of multidimensional common threats.”

In making this case, Dr. Mehmet adds another dimension to the entire debate. “The coalition under the quartet leadership of Turkey-Saudi Arabia-Pakistan (along with active engagement of Egypt) should be viewed as a global opportunity in terms of regional and global stability, peace and security”.

Whether there are takers for such a formula remains to be seen.