By Brig (R) Samson Simon Sharaf
The writer is a political economist and a television anchorperson. He can be contacted at email@example.com
The Islamic Military Alliance (IMT) or its namesake, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) is not a new idea. Possessed with an overwhelming economic clout, a durable strategic partnership with USA and Europe, a long list of Muslim dependencies and as custodians of Mecca and Medina, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has in the past unsuccessfully tried to forge or influence similar alliances. The Middle East in particular has been part of five failed initiatives at broader strategic and military cooperation. Arab League’s Joint Defence Pact, the Middle East Command, the Middle East Defence Organisation, the Baghdad Pact (Middle East Treaty Organisation/Central Treaty Organisation), or Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) never left an enduring legacy. The OIC is ineffective.
Saudi Arabia was an active member of at least two of these alliances. The motivations of forging such alliances were built around threat perceptions from Communism, Zionist and much later Iran. Now it is Daesh. Invariably, these organisations had US and by implication European support. With President Trump willing to undo the thaw with Iran, this alliance sees hope.
But what ensures the recurrence is the vacuum created by international rivalries and conflicting Arab interests that consistently make Middle East vulnerable to intrigues. In many ways, this instability is also caused by the historic Sunni/Shia and Arab/non-Arab divides. The divide permeates the makeup of Arab states, Palestine issue and Lebanon. But the matrix is not simple to unravel. It is the past that impacts the future. One will have to dare and probe deeper into centuries of rivalries to understand the basic strategic template. If it is old bottle with new wine, the alliance will peter away. If it is a change of heart and mind, it could carry the Muslim world to the next level.
While US policy makers and intelligence agencies continued to build an interventionist road map in Middle East and Afghanistan, smaller countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran opened proxy fronts within the larger game plan. These proxies manifest centuries of suspicion and hostility. The arming of Syrian rebels and the active role played by Saudi Arabia, Jordon, Israel and Turkey is a case of assets gone hostile spreading to Iraq, Libya Yemen and Afghanistan. When President Morsi of Egypt showed a tilt toward Libya, Syria and Iran, he was removed through a Saudi backed military coup. A far worse fate befell Libya. Saudi intervention in Yemen (Egypt’s sphere) resulted in a civil war. These are the hornet nests created by Saudi policies.
Ever since the Iraq War, threat perceptions have diversified and new fronts have opened. Though KSA has a very disproportionate military budget, its forces are not trained to fight terrorism internally. KSA’s large Shai population and ISIS are internal threats. Syria and Iran are enemies. Till such time these threat assessments do not change, nothing will.
To appease diverse schools of Islamic thought, the flexibility shown by KSA is unprecedented but only so. For the sake of its security, it is even prepared to rewrite a more inclusive religious narrative like the one described by the Imam of Kaaba at a JUI rally in Pakistan. If KSA is sincere in this endeavour, the world could soon see a rapprochement between KSA and Iran. The biggest challenge to this cooperation will be President Trump’s reversal of Obama’s Iran policy.
The Idea of IMAFT is an old idea with a revised narrative. In 2013 fearing a domino effect of Arab Springs, KSA pushed for a NATO like organisation for the Gulf Cooperation Council military forces with 100,000 combatants. This was followed in 2014 with a common naval and police structure (GCC-Pol). In 2015, this was advanced with Egyptian assistance to a common counter terror force (40,000 combatants) under the league of Arab States. Egypt’s President Sisi was keen to lead this force but KSA, Kuwait and Bahrain became suspicious of Egyptian designs. Then stepped in a non Arab Pakistan, a country with history of strategic compromises and economic fragility. To please the Western coalitions and Pakistan, extension of fight against ISIS in Afghanistan gives a more inclusive than an Arab look. The fact that many African countries with non Muslim majorities have also joined keeps doors open for India. Exploiting Pakistan’s two front insecurity, in terms of the game of cards, is a ‘strategic finesse’; a Hobson’s choice. The presence of a UAE military contingent in an Indian parade and a Saudi in Pakistan are a measure of this perception building. India would be too willing to place its military forces in Afghanistan on the pretext of ISIS, a scenario that complicates Pakistan’s security.
There are many factors that contributed to Saudi Arabia’s newest initiative. To impose caution, USA confronted Saudi Arabia with a highly classified dossier of terrorist activities. Somehow the most incriminating and irrefutable contents got leaked showing Saudi terrorist foot prints in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan and Russia. Putin’s intervention indicated that the Middle Eastern deconstruct policy was temporarily checked. Disillusioned by lack of US support, the kingdom began contemplating its own shadow war. In contrition for fermenting terrorism, a royal decree condemned Islamic Jihadist with known linkages to Al Qaeda (similar to US objectives of eliminating Al Qaeda). In addition, Saudi Arabia disowned thousands of Saudi soldiers it pumped into Syria and Iraq. As per one estimate there are over 7,000 Saudi irregulars in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Now all these fighters threaten to return to threaten the house of Saud. Saudi cooperation with Israel means that Palestinians can wait and Hezbollah is evil. This does not bode well for a thaw with Iran.
IMAFT is still in its drawing room stage. Back in 2015, USA had clearly told KSA that NATO like structures take decades to build. There are no military organisations, force structures and NATO like headquarters in sight. Only 23 members of OIC have joined under opaque conditions. Absence of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran gives it a sectarian look. Libya, Yemen and Palestine joining the alliance seem farcical. Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Algeria have reservations. Countries that matter militarily have yet to sign treaties under the United Nations charter and integral constitutions. Debates within democratic countries have yet to begin.
Though there is much urgency on part of Arab Kingdoms, their limitations in military prowess and making of structures is causing delays. Much of the fanfare was based on assumptions that proved wrong. Maybe, IMAFT will need retired military professionals and strategists to frame the doctrines and organisation, an impossible task for those who are ignorant of Middle Eastern politics.
Meanwhile the urgency of countering narratives of ISIS is manifest. For the time being the alliance is restricted to intelligence sharing, something it was already bound to do under the Arab League and GCC. According to Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, the alliance will first and foremost, act as an institutional platform for further interaction i.e. a first step towards greater cooperation. This means that the entire effort is geared towards a short military solution with nothing long term in terms of conflict resolutions and Islamic military block. But once the first step is consolidated, more purposeful progression could follow. The crucial test would be the credibility of the alliance to represent all schools of Islamic thought. Will Saudi Arabia be able to erase the bitter memories of non-Arab and sectarian conflicts in the Middle East will be the litmus test, if not the long but at least the midterm?
So what is Pakistan supposed to do? Should it stay away or confine itself to existing military agreements with Saudi Arabia? These are questions that need exhaustive debates.
To quote Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”