IS retired Gen Raheel Sharif commanding a ghost army? Government representatives have insisted that so long as the terms of reference of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism are not finalised, Pakistan’s participation cannot be determined. But with the prime minister’s foreign adviser, Sartaj Aziz, once again struggling to answer questions in the Senate on Tuesday, it is obvious that the Pakistani government is not clear when these terms will be finalised. So why was an NoC issued to Gen Sharif, allowing him to proceed to Saudi Arabia to take command of an army that does not exist and to implement the orders of an alliance whose terms have not yet been finalised? Despite another round of questions by senators on Tuesday, Mr Aziz was unable to offer anything resembling an acceptable answer.
It is possible to attribute the decision to issue Gen Sharif an NoC to a civil-military relationship that is forever shrouded in secrecy and in which the civilians are arm-twisted into making poor choices. But so long as the veil of secrecy remains, it is also possible to interpret the decision to send Gen Sharif to Saudi Arabia in other ways. Could the civilian government have struck a deal with the then army chief to provide him a job post retirement if he gave up on his rumoured ambition to secure a second term as army chief? The problem with secrecy is that it breeds rumours and suspicion, especially when it concerns individuals at the very top of the de facto power structure in the country. The phrase ‘in the national interest’ is bandied about easily; surely, when it comes to Pakistan joining a foreign military alliance, with the possibility of troop deployments abroad, the national interest demands clarity and transparency.
There is also a problem that the government refuses to acknowledge: parliament has debated and rejected the possibility of sending troops to a sectarian cauldron in the Middle East and the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is rightly a close ally of Pakistan and the ties between the two countries are deep and long-standing, but Saudi Arabia’s interests are not automatically Pakistan’s. As the war in Yemen and now the blockade of Qatar have indicated, the Saudi leadership, undergoing a generational change, is making questionable decisions. Pakistan’s core national interest is to defeat militancy of all stripes. But in their quest for ascendancy over rival states, several Middle Eastern and Gulf countries have embraced groups that can have disastrous consequences for this country. There is already speculation that recent sectarian attacks in the country are the militant Islamic State group’s purported retaliation against Pakistanis fighting in Syria. The warning signs are too big to ignore. Gen Sharif ought to unilaterally reconsider his position. If he does not, the government must consider ways to cancel the NoC he has been granted.