Pakistan’s recently retired army chief General Raheel Sharif will become the first head of a Saudi Arabia-led military alliance of Islamic countries, put together to fight Islamic State and other terror outfits gaining stronghold in the region.
According to reports, the Riyadh-headquartered military grouping which has been dubbed as the “Muslim NATO” in sections of the media is comprised of 39 countries in Asia and MENA (Middle-East North Africa) regions with predominantly Muslim populations.
The announcement of General Raheel Shareef heading the organisation was made by Pakistan’s defense minister Khwaja Asif during an interview with a local TV channel last week.
Here are 10 things about the Muslim military alliance that you need to know:
- The idea of Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) was first mooted by Saudi Arabia in 2015 to counter the growing reach of ISIS in the region. Among several times, Pakistan was reportedly invited to this group during the Riyadh led air-strike campaign in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who had overran large swathes of the country with little resistance faced from Yemen’s government forces. Originally, the military group had 34 members.
- Pakistan had reportedly refused to participate in the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen, with many Pakistan-watchers believing that Islamabad’s close energy cooperation with Iran held it back from joining a military venture with Saudi Arabia.
- On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is one Islamabad’s largest benefactors and has provided aid to the tune of $1.5 billion in recent years, which put Islamabad in a quandary as to which side to go on. Saudi Arabia and Iran are strategic and religious rivals, with both the powers claiming leadership of the Islamic world.
- Pakistan, which has one of the strongest armed forces among Islamic countries, has in the past also been wary of sending its troops to overseas military campaigns. According to a Pakistani defense expert quoted by The Guardian, the “guiding principle” of Pakistani troops, who have been serving in Saudi Arabia since 1960s, has always been that they would serve only within the territorial boundaries of Saudi Arabia.
- According to some news reports, Islamabad’s decision to join IMAFT has been met with criticism from the Shia Muslim community of Pakistan, which makes up around 20 percent of the population of the South Asian country. The move risks further worsen the Shia-Sunni divide in the Pakistani landscape. According to a news report, banned Sunni group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat has expressed support for Shareef’s appointment as head of the group.
- Whether the group will operate on the lines of UN Peacekeeping Force or follow a NATO like command is not known yet. Doubts have also been raised over the objectives behind the military group, which is basically led by Sunni Arab monarchies hostile to Iran, Syria and Yemen.
- The IMAFT, should it decide to do the bidding of a few Gulf monarchies, could led to political tensions and possibly military confrontation in the Middle East as the idea may not be welcomed by Shiite powers in the region led by Iran.
- Some Twitter users were of the view that Pakistan’s entry into the grouping would result in support for the country against arch-rival India on the Kashmir dispute.
India knows the implications of this move by Pakistan as it will result in solid diplomatic support on #Kashmir from IMAFT states. 2/2
— Shahid Raza (@schaheid) January 9, 2017
- According to an AFP report from back in March 2016, the lion’s share of funding for the new military group will come from oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
- Beside Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, other major powers in the IMAFT include Turkey, the UAE, Oman, Bangladesh and Nigeria.