In a move that was in the making for quite some time now, Pakistan’s civilian government has formally allowed Pakistan’s former Army Chief General Raheel Sharif to lead the Saudi-led anti-terrorism Muslim alliance, officially known as Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). ISPR’s Director General Major General Asif Ghafoor also confirmed his appointment. This decision was reached upon Saudi Arabia’s request to the Pakistani government. The popular opinion within the Pakistani Army itself was also largely in favour of this decision. Saudi Arabia holds a special place for Pakistanis as it is not only a close strategic ally of Pakistan but also the custodian of the two holiest cities of Islam. Last year Pakistani officials issued statements assuring Saudi Arabia that Pakistan will defend the Saudi Kingdom if it is threatened by external factors. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has faced increased external threats such as unprovoked attacks from Houthis when last year Houthis launched a missile attack targeting Mecca, a holy city of Islam.

Good for Pakistan but Annoying for Pakistan’s Enemies

A former Pakistan Army Chief leading a Saudi-led 41 nation anti-terrorism military alliance is among the best things that can happen to Pakistan in a time when Pakistan’s eternal enemy India has been trying to isolate Pakistan, regionally and globally, but has so far also largely failed in doing so. Indeed, when Pakistan politely turned down Saudi request for troop deployment to fight for Saudis in Yemen, there was much anger in Saudi Arabia. Saudis accused Pakistan of back-stabbing their Saudi brothers and turning their back. On Pakistan’s part, both the civilian government and the Pakistani military was opposed to Pakistani troop deployment in Yemen and the fact that Pakistan was busy fighting its own war on terror at that time played a role in the final decision. Pakistan also had reservations regarding the IMAFT after its initial announcement since it did not include Iran and gave a look of a sectarian alliance rather than an anti-terror one. Pakistan also conveyed its reservations to the Saudis, which may have annoyed Saudis.

This was proven when Indian PM Narendra Modi, seizing the opportunity, flew to Riyadh in an effort to strengthen Indo-Saudi relations and possibly to convince Saudis to favour India over Pakistan. It did work to some extent as Saudis, for the first time in history, gave an Indian head of state Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian award. The same man who also happens to be the known mastermind of Gujrat massacre of Muslims back in 2002. At the same time Saudi Arabia reiterated its position on India-occupied Kashmir, sending a message that Indo-Saudi ties cannot be Pakistan-focused. Indeed, Saudis have very different interests with India and Pakistan and they wouldn’t want to harm either. But what is not widely known is the fact that India has also secretly tried, and failed, to lobby Saudi Arabia to avoid appointing a former Pakistani Army Chief, especially General Raheel, to lead IMAFT. In these efforts, India was quietly being encouraged by Iran (a major strategic partner of India), which also did not want a former Pakistani Army chief leading IMAFT. Pakistan has the second largest population of Shi’ites in the world who also hold some political power in Pakistan. Several Shi’ite/pro-Iran interest groups and influential individuals in Pakistan quietly lobbied Pakistani government to bar General Raheel from leading IMAFT as well as tried to make the appointment as publicly controversial as possible. Iranian ambassador, during an interview, openly declared his “concerns” about Pakistan’s leadership of IMAFT, which Pakistan at least publicly ignored. But as we now know, all those efforts have failed. Pakistan Army’s spokesperson confirmed the decision to allow General Raheel Sharif. He also clarified that Pakistan wants good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary also clarified that Saudi-led military alliance isn’t against any country but against terrorism. Pakistan’s current Army Chief is also expected to visit Iran in near future to iron out matters with Tehran.

Leading IMAFT will be good for Pakistan’s soft-power in the Middle East and help cut back Indian influence from the region. It will also increase Pakistan’s own knowledge and experience of counter-terrorism (CT) and counter insurgency (COIN) which will be useful for future. Due to CPEC Pakistan’s international stature is already growing but when a former Pakistani Army Chief, who is not only widely popular in Pakistan but also in almost entire Middle East and especially in Saudi Arabia, will be leading the 41 nation Muslim anti-terror alliance it will be very effective in once again erecting Pakistan’s somewhat lost soft-power in the Middle East region to great heights.

What May And What Won’t Work

Pakistan trying to convince Saudis to hug Iran, let go of their critical interests and play ‘Ummah, Ummah’ won’t work where such deep seated hostilities have been growing for decades. This is for several reasons.

Regardless of what nation states claim, most modern terrorism today is directly linked with geopolitics and foreign policy. In Middle East, an emboldened Iran has been wreaking havoc with its proxy wars in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. With Iran’s full support to Houthi militants in Yemen where Iran is challenging the legitimate Yemeni government, this proxy war has quite literally reached Saudi border with missile attacks way inside the Kingdom. Moreover, Iran is also engaged in a proxy war within Saudi Arabia where it continues to subvert the Shi’ite population in an attempt to turn them into proxies against Saudi Arabia. Pakistan must realize that Iran’s mullahs cannot be reasoned with or convinced to abandon their interests, which includes regional hegemony and Iran’s hold on Islam’s two holiest cities in Saudi Arabia, for the sake of ‘Ummah’. Pakistan may believe in the concept of ‘Ummah’ but Iran believes in the concept of the Ayatollah. Iran, at all times, is trying to challenge Saudi ‘leadership’ role among Muslim-majority countries, which is counter to Saudi’s and Pakistan’s interests. For these reasons as well as for several other reasons (energy policy, religious hierarchy of leadership, etc.) Saudi Arabia or Iran cannot be convinced to hug it out. Terrorism and counter-terrorism, for instance in this case, has become part and parcel of geopolitics and foreign policy. This is why it would be nonsensical for Saudi Arabia to invite Iran to join IMAFT because of clashing geopolitical interests and this is why Pakistan’s attempts to bridge the gap between Saudis and Iranians will likely end in vain.

Pakistan should protect its own interests and devise a strategy for a scenario where IMAFT, which is being called ‘Muslim NATO’ by some observers, goes to war against Iran. The chances of this happening in the near future are very high especially considering the election of Trump and his stand on Iran. In such a scenario, Pakistan would need a fool-proof COIN+CT strategy within its own borders to counter pro-Iran elements/proxies who may try to engage in terrorist activities in Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan would need an effective foreign policy which must have sufficient input from Pakistani military as well as Pakistan’s superior intelligence agency the ISI. Pakistan would also need an effective border management control system as it shares a border with Iran, which Iran has often used against Pakistan in various ways; from allowing Indian spies + its own spies to enter Pakistan via Pak-Iran border to just shelling Pakistani territory across the border. In any war scenario between Saudi-led IMAFT and Iran, Pakistan would likely side with Saudi Arabia regardless of what Pakistani leaders say today. And it makes sense since Pakistan’s interests would be best served by allying with the Saudis (who will likely also have U.S. and Israel as their allies) instead of Iran.

Regardless of what happens tomorrow, the fact is that today Pakistan is not isolated as its enemies intended but in fact Pakistan is proud to lead the 41 nation anti-terror Muslim alliance.

Pakistani researcher, analyst, and expert on radicalization who comments on security, terrorism & geopolitics, especially on the South Asian region. Farhan Jeffery holds M.A. in Military History from Norwich University, M.A. in International Relations from Karachi University and Bachelors in Israel Studies from American University.