By Salman Masood and Ben Hubbard
April 2, 2017
The appointment of a popular Pakistani
general to head a Saudi-led alliance of Muslim countries has set off a furore
in Pakistan, amid fears that the move could exacerbate sectarian tensions at
Pakistan’s government last week approved
the appointment of a former army chief, Raheel Sharif, to lead the Islamic
Military Alliance, a posting announced by Saudi Arabia in January. The alliance
includes several dozen mainly Muslim countries with the professed aim of
countering terrorism, although it has taken no significant military actions,
least of all fighting the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq.
Saudi officials have argued that the
alliance’s Muslim identity will make it more effective in combating Islamic
extremists, while sending a powerful message that Muslim countries reject their
But critics note that the alliance does not
include predominately Shiite states like Iran and Iraq, making it more of a
Sunni military alliance than an “Islamic” one. Still, the appointment of Mr.
Sharif would give the Saudi-led alliance a more international sheen. Saudi
Arabia has also been seeking support from Pakistan for its campaign against
Houthi rebels in Yemen and may be hoping Mr. Sharif’s appointment could bolster
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, led by
Imran Khan, has been at the forefront of opposing the decision, saying it could
widen the Sunni-Shiite divide in Pakistan and upset Iran, its majority-Shiite
neighbour to the west. The party says it will raise the issue in the next
session of Parliament later in April.
“We strongly advocate the policy of
impartiality as far as conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim world are
concerned,” Mr. Khan said. “We under no circumstances should fall into any
conflict and hence be watchful of the impacts of every decision or choice we
And on the country’s rambunctious political
talk shows, guests have been vigorously debating the appointment of Mr. Sharif,
who was hugely popular for his successes against Taliban militants before
retiring last year, with many expressing criticism and apprehension.
Pakistan is a predominantly Sunni country,
like Saudi Arabia, but Shiites make up about 20 percent of the population and
have often been targeted by extremist Sunni militants.
Saudi Arabia is a major donor to Pakistan
and maintains close ties with its civil and military elite. It has appealed to
Pakistan for military help with its campaign in Yemen against the Houthi
rebels, who are aligned with Iran and belong to the Zaydi Shiite sect.
But Pakistan has so far stayed out of the
operation, which is being conducted by Saudi Arabia and a smaller coalition of
Arab countries. Egypt, too, has turned down requests for help in Yemen despite
receiving considerable financial aid from Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan’s Parliament passed a resolution
in 2015 urging the government to stay neutral in Yemen, where more than 10,000
people have been killed, mainly in airstrikes, since Saudi Arabia began its campaign.
So far, the government has complied, but
its inability to rally support behind the Saudi military effort has been
embarrassing for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who lived in exile in the Saudi
city of Jidda in the early 2000s. (Mr. Sharif, the prime minister, is not
related to the former army chief.)
Now, the former army chief’s presence at
the head of the Islamic Military Alliance could signal a change in policy,
Mr. Sharif’s appointment “is a bit of a
departure from Pakistan’s more-or-less neutral position on the Iran-Saudi
regional war,” said Arif Rafiq, a political analyst. “As a result, it’s been
opposed by even the mainstream, non-sectarian political voices in Pakistan.”
Mr. Rafiq said the impact on sectarian
relations in Pakistan was still uncertain.
If the alliance “confronts Iran or
Iranian-supported groups in places like Yemen, then it could trigger protests
inside Pakistan,” he said. “On the other hand, if it is merely a symbolic
coalition that limits itself to Saudi territory or focuses on combating ISIS,
then the negative impact would be minimal,” he added, referring to the Islamic
State, which is also known as ISIL.
Mr. Rafiq said the retired general might
see himself more broadly as the leader of a military force defending the Muslim
holy sites of Mecca and Medina against the Islamic State, which might be more
acceptable for most Pakistanis.
“For Pakistanis, to have one of their own
leading, it would be a great honour,” he said.
The establishment of the Islamic Military
Alliance was announced in December 2015 by Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince
and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman. It had 34 state members at the start
and has since acquired several others. The coalition fighting in Yemen is a
smaller group of Arab countries.
Pakistan’s approval of Mr. Sharif’s
appointment two months after its announcement suggested some hesitation by the
For Mr. Sharif, the controversy has taken
some lustre off the popular image he enjoyed after a successful campaign
against Taliban militants that began in 2014, clearing militant strongholds in
The general’s popularity overshadowed that
of the civilian government, which has been troubled by corruption allegations.
He was widely perceived as influencing foreign policy decisions and relations
with neighbours, and indirectly pressuring government over political matters.
Last year, there were widespread calls for
the general to take over the government instead of retiring when his term
expired in November.
Since the news broke of his future job, he
has maintained his characteristic silence, frustrating critics who wonder what
his appointment means and the objectives of the military alliance.
“As a retired military chief seeking a
high-profile job that will likely involve a great deal of shuttle diplomacy,
why is General Raheel not seeking the government’s approval to address the
media and respond to the misgivings in person?” an editorial in Dawn, the
country’s leading English daily, asked on Tuesday. “Surely addressing the
nation’s concerns ought to be the priority.”
The newspaper said the “clandestine manner”
in which the government handled the general’s appointment had created the
impression of a “secret deal.”
Nasser Janjua, the Pakistani national
security adviser, said last week that Mr. Sharif would play a visible,
proactive role in the military alliance. Mr. Sharif will “use his experiences
and knowledge to remove internal misunderstandings among Muslim countries,” Mr.
Janjua was quoted as saying by local news media. He did not elaborate.
Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief who
ruled Pakistan as president from 2001 to 2008, was hugely popular as a general
but faced a backlash once he shed his uniform and dabbled in politics. Mr.
Sharif’s predecessor, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was also highly regarded, but
became a figure of controversy after he extended his military term as
corruption allegations swirled around his family.
Mr. Sharif, on the other hand, remains
untainted by charges of corruption or nepotism.
“I think Raheel Sharif will be forever
remembered in Pakistan as the man who boldly took on the Pakistani Taliban,”
Mr. Rafiq, the analyst, said. “Many Pakistanis feel that he literally saved the
country and restored its morale. This new position is unlikely to change those
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut,