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OPED: The Impact of Raheel Sharif as Commander NATO-lite

First Published in Global Affairs / May 2017

Former COAS Raheel Sharif (R.S.) is a rare bird. He did not ask for an extension - make a play for the throne, get embroiled in scandals, financial or otherwise, or walk away with the coveted title of a Field Marshal. It was a dignified exit; and a first in Pakistan. As COAS he was the cat’s pajamas. Then he got a job offer. And everything changed.
Since then, laudatory reports regarding his achievements in counter-terrorism had given way to critical debates concerning his forthcoming appointment. One in particular devises a fear-mongering narrative from the General’s future prospects and needs some clarification.

The post entails commanding a NATO styled, Saudi backed coalition of Muslim nations, Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terror - IMAFT. And should he don the mantle of commander in chief - NATO - lite, it will be another first.

Is there anything keeping the General from assuming charge of a coalition sponsored by the House of Saud besides the obvious?

IMAFT is unchartered territory and the military commander’s foray into the unknown is fraught with risks – it also threatens to tilt the balance of power in the Kingdom’s favor. Pakistan resisted Saudi Arabia’s calls to join the fight in Yemen a few years ago and that decision was hailed given the sectarian colors of the banner under which it would be waged. Now that a Pakistani General (R) may end up as the face of the resistance – so to speak, those concerns have made their way back to the forefront. And some new ones have been added from across the border adding a sinister tone to the takeover.

A former Army Chief / President expressed his reservations over this deal because of the aforementioned sectarian elements in play. Politicians worry it impinges upon national security. Neighbors fret about losing their place in the changing world order.
In many ways R.S. is a logical choice for the task. The freshly retired General is battle hardened – as is his army he had commanded. He remains a prominent figure and is more than qualified to lead a coalition of 40 something nations in the good fight.

But there’s a catch. Because they are predominately Sunni, such an alliance has been viewed with suspicion. Because he is a Pakistani, the pact has spooked the neighbor. And since he is a private citizen – these objections could become secondary.

Indian based media sources speak of the “most warmongering General to lead a global anti terror force.” Speculations are rife about the political fallout of this relationship on the Eastern front. They allege that this promotion somehow threatens the integrity of India. That access to terror syndicates can be harnessed and weaponised and deployed against its arch nemesis. Sharif could influence member nations to work against an outflanked Delhi in some future war between nuclear armed nations. And they suggest bolstering ties with Israel to balance out the scales.

It is understandable why being outflanked could give them sleepless nights. NATO – the original one is meant to promote democratic values, engage on trust building, foster security cooperation, encourage conflict resolution. NATO – the Middle Eastern Chapter for now adds an unofficial layer of support to the Saudi-Pak partnership as it determines Raheel Sharif’s place in the big leagues. Reports had already been circulating of increased defense and security cooperation offered by Pakistan that included training, intelligence sharing, narrative building etc to the Saudi’s. Recently rumor mill had been rife with stories about the deployment of a brigade within Saudi borders. And a contingent of Special Services Group of Saudi Royal Forces took part in Pakistan Day Parade on 23rd March 2017.

A Pakistani will headline an Arab coalition. It could be a game changer. Granted, such partnerships are bound to have implications for the region. But as Pakistan sets out to raise its profile and confront its demons, its decision making process regarding its Gulf brethren would ideally be motivated by its core strategic interests and not familial ties. Also, Raheel’s allegiance is unlikely to suddenly shift towards a petro-dollar vending machine and make him lose his neutrality. And his designation should not influence Pakistan’s position on matters of statecraft adversely. Getting embroiled in conflicts while its own house is burning would be a mistake.

The rest of the tirade however is absurd and farfetched; and a tad insulting to a General who has spent the better part of his tenure eradicating terror and stabilizing the region; who kept the army in the barracks, threw terrorists to the justice mill albeit via controversial military courts and cleaned up Karachi.

Little is known about this coalition except that Iran isn’t part of it, yet. Sharif’s immediate challenge as the architect on call will be navigating a terrain scarred by ancient rivalries, escalating threats and hostile agendas. Taking the poor man’s NATO from concept to a reality will be a test of his skills as a soldier and statesman and may demand the patience of a saint.

Does a Pakistani General’s stint as a strategic consultant create a conflict of interest with the Indian agenda?

It is unprecedented. True. It does not fit in with the stereotypical vision of retired Generals with their days filled with golfing, gardening, playing analyst on TV, cutting deals, in exile or hitting the international lecture circuit.

Some might say his day job is merely an extension of what the General was doing before. And with the experience accumulated over the years it gives him an edge. Sharif brings an objective viewpoint and a professional edge to the table. And since he is respected across the board, being an emissary brings prestige to the brand he represents – namely Pakistan. His star is rising. This is his moment.

Raheel Sharif was reportedly the belle of the DAVOS ball earlier this year where the Pakistani PM - Nawaz Sharif (no relation), who also happens to be R.S.’s last namesake was barred from addressing any forum on account of the corruption investigation underway. Headlines stating that he brought swagger back to the army demonstrate the level of esteem for R.S. in the Gulf region. That perception helps elevate Pakistan on the global stage and debunks the narrative of isolationism propagated by her Eastern rivals.

India, on the other hand, given their taste in elected officials chosen to safeguard their shining status need to take some time off from their (smear) campaign trail and observe the post election landscape. They should question how a bigoted priest turned politician facing criminal charges can ever be representative of their sacred tenants or be compatible with their progressive ideals. And they must divert their outrage at the waves of fanaticism sweeping through their territory and focus on containing the threat of extremism now knocking at their doorstep.

Will the sight of a Pakistani General alienate Iran remains a nagging concern. Though Sharif reportedly demanded Iran’s inclusion, the hostility between Riyadh and Tehran makes a truce unlikely. Relations between Pakistan and Iran, however, seem to be on the mend at the moment given the commencement of joint naval drills in Iranian waters alongside Pak - Iran trade deals in the backdrop. They showcase the security and economic cooperation underway regardless of Iran’s exclusion from the club.

Pakistan appears to have only two places reserved for their heroes – the pedestal or the dock. There is no middle ground. Raheel Sharif becomes a ‘man of the year’ by their standards one day – and a sell out the next. While the jury sits debating about the wisdom of his life choices, he is busy carving out a place for himself in history. Time will tell whether this gamble pays off or backfires on a spectacular scale.

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