The invitation extended to Gen (retd) Raheel Sharif to take charge of the 39-nation military coalition led by Saudi Arabia is an interesting development. There is perhaps no other man more qualified to take this position, in view of the successes General (retd) Sharif has experienced following the launch of the Zarb-i-Azb operation. Pakistan is amongst the countries worst hit by terrorism and Gen Sharif made it his mission as Chief of Army Staff to rid the country of this scourge. Though there are still instances of deadly terrorist attacks, there is no doubt that without campaigns led by the general, the situation could have been far worse. However, despite his ample qualifications, Gen (retd) Sharif’s appointment to this post is significant for a number of political reasons. During his term in office, Pakistan had initially refused to extend support to Saudi Arabia in its battle against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a move which led to a strained relationship between both countries. Consequently, in order to pacify Saudi Arabia, Gen Raheel travelled to the Kingdom a few times and eventually Pakistan agreed to join the Saudi-led military coalition.
The government, however, had clarified that the Saudi coalition was not meant to interfere in Syria or Yemen. As per Pakistan’s understanding of the matter, this military coalition is meant to fight Daish and its various iterations rather than becoming partisan in ongoing conflicts between various Middle Eastern nations. In view of the delicate situation in the Middle East, Gen Sharif’s decision to head this military coalition does raise some concerns with regards to Pakistan’s future role in the Middle East. Pakistan does not need to become embroiled in sectarian conflict which can have deadly repercussions at home. It will be interesting to see how Gen Sharif balances Pakistan’s policy on these issues and the immediate demands of the Saudi-led coalition force. Gen Sharif must now ensure that his new role does not conflict with Pakistan’s interests or tarnish the legacy he has established through a blemish-free record at home.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2017.