Pakistan’s reluctant participation in the Riyadh-based Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism (IMAFT) and appointment of former Army chief General Raheel Sharif as head of the alliance have been creating much unease and controversy in this country due to the alliance’s sectarian colour. The terming of Iran at the recent Arab-Muslim-American Summit hosted by Riyadh as the “spearhead of global terrorism” has renewed concerns about Pakistan’s role in it and potential repercussions for this country’s longstanding policy of maintaining neutrality in intra-Muslim feuds as well as its domestic sectarian harmony. In Thursday’s Senate session, Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz had a hard time responding to a call attention notice by PPP’s Farhatullah Babar who along with Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani expressed serious apprehensions about the aims and objectives of IMAFT, demanding to know the ToRs of the alliance as well as the conditions of General Sharif’s appointment, and that if they provided for his recall in case “it becomes necessary.” Aziz conceded that the Riyadh summit had widened the sectarian divide, saying that Pakistan would have to tread carefully in pursuing efforts for unity.
Pakistan, of course, needs to tread carefully to avoid getting caught in the regional power struggle. But considering the high stakes involved, it was rather unrealistic for him to talk of pursuing efforts for unity between the two rival camps. The best Islamabad can and must do is avoid taking sides. To that end, Sartaj Aziz offered the assurance that the Parliament’s resolution of April 10, 2015, would continue to serve as a guideline for Pakistan to maintain a balanced position in region conflicts. He also said that the Saudi Foreign Minister had clarified that the coalition members would be free to decide the activities they would participate in, such as political consultations, intelligence-sharing, capacity building, construction of counter-narratives, and military co-operation. The real issue though is not the activities by themselves; there should be no problem if any of this is to be directed against terrorists: the IS, al Qaeda and their associated groups killing innocent people everywhere. But as far as Pakistan is concerned, targeting Iran directly is out of the question. Yet the IMAFT with its Pakistani commander could intervene in sectarian conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and the restive Kingdom of Bahrain, thereby dragging this country into an indirect clash with Iran.
Pakistan faces a situation where it needs to perform a skilful balancing act to maintain its special ties with Saudi Arabia as well as good neighbourly relations with Iran. As Aziz pointed out referring to the Saudi Foreign Minister’s statement, it is for Islamabad to decide what contribution it wanted to make to the anti-terrorism alliance. That decision must be based on and confined to Pakistan’s enduring commitment to defend the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and protect the sanctity of the Harmain Sharifain.