ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s former army chief, Raheel Sharif, is set to become the first commander of a new Saudi-led counterterrorism coalition of mostly Sunni Islamic states, a move frustrating neighboring Shi'ite Iran in addition to prevailing domestic opposition and criticism.
Sharif is likely to travel to Saudi Arabia as early as next month to take charge of what commentators increasingly refer to as the “Muslim NATO”, according to Pakistani officials and close aides.
They said that “putting in place the military structure” of the proposed 39-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), which will be headquartered in Riyadh, is among Sharif’s initial tasks.
The general, who retired last November, is credited for undertaking an effective military crackdown against Pakistani Taliban and other militants in Pakistan during his three-year tenure as the chief of the powerful military. The counterterrorism operations led to a significant decline in militant violence in the country.
An “arrangement" between the two governments has resulted in Sharif’s appointment and granting permission for him to become the first commander-in-chief of the alliance, said Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif while defending the decision.
“After having received a written request from them [Saudi Arabia], we conveyed our consent to them in writing,” Asif told local Geo TV.
But leaders of the minority Shi'ite community, political parties and observers in Pakistan have criticized the government, as well as Sharif for accepting the assignment, fearing it would fuel domestic sectarian rivalries and undermine the credibility as well as national goodwill he earned.
Saudi officials announced the IMAFT in late 2015 with a mission to fight terrorism, particularly to counter the threat of Islamic State. But rival Iran has opposed the coalition from the outset and has been lobbying against it, believing it is aimed at increasing Saudi influence in the region.
Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Hunar Dost, said this week his government has repeatedly conveyed its concerns to Pakistani leaders over their decision to participate in the Saudi-led military coalition. He cautioned the move could hurt bilateral relations, which are already shaky over allegations anti-Iran Sunni militants use Pakistani soil for attacks on the Iranian side.
Iran and Pakistan share a nearly 1,000-kilometer border.
“We are concerned about some consequences of this issue,” Dost, told the local WAQT television station late Monday when asked why Tehran is opposed to General Sharif’s appointment. He did not elaborate.
Islamabad, instead, should try to use its influence and play the role of a mediator to help bridge “gaps” between Islamic countries, said the ambassador, referring to Islamabad’s close ties to Tehran and Riyadh.
“We are not so optimistic that this action [Pakistan’s participation in IMAFT] can solve [the problem] and can fill these gaps," Dost asserted.
Pakistani Defense Minister Asif, however, said the government will "take care" of Iranian concerns, without explaining further.
Pakistan has always walked a tightrope while trying to maintain a balance between Iran, a possible source of energy in the immediate neighborhood, and Saudi Arabia, hosting tens of thousands of Pakistani expatriates.
Riyadh has also occasionally provided oil to Islamabad on deferred payments and sent cash grants to help the struggling Pakistani economy.
Critics blame Iran and Saudi Arabia for fueling a sectarian rivalry between Shi'ite and Sunni extremists in Pakistan, which has claimed thousands of lives over the years.
The Pakistan government, under extreme domestic pressure, had refused to join Saudi-led military operations against Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015. The parliament barred Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from joining the operation, saying Pakistan's involvement in a foreign conflict would exacerbate sectarian tensions at home and upset its friends in the Muslim world.