The government has formally granted permission to former Army chief Gen (retd) Raheel Sharif to lead a Saudi-led military alliance against terrorism, in a move that is likely to draw strong reaction from opposition parties.
Soon after the former army chief was given a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) by the government, he left for Saudi Arabia in a special plane sent by the kingdom on Friday.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif confirmed that Gen Raheel was given the NOC as per rules and regulations. He said the decision was taken a couple of days back.
His statement came just a month after reports suggested that the government had agreed in principle to allow the former army chief to lead the 41-nation counterterrorism alliance.
The move will certainly invite strong reaction from the opposition – including the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which wanted a debate in parliament before any decision on Gen Raheel’s role in the alliance.
Both the defence minister and Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz had assured that the government would take parliament into confidence when the decision on Gen Raheel would be finalised.
Opposition parties are wary of the government’s decision fearing that joining the Saudi-led Islamic alliance would change Pakistan’s policy of neutrality on Yemen and other issues in the Middle East.
In April 2015, parliament unanimously voted against sending troops to Saudi Arabia, urging the government to stay neutral in the Yemeni conflict.
Opposition parties now insisted that the decision to be part of the alliance was against that parliamentary resolution.
The government has defended its decision, insisting that Pakistan would not become part of any alliance that is against any other Muslim country, including Iran, which has expressed its concerns over Gen Raheel’s appointment as head of the 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance against Terrorism.
Iran’s Ambassador Mehdi Honardost visited the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi twice in six weeks to discuss the controversy with Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Pakistan, Iran work to heal Saudi alliance rift
The latest such meeting was held on last Wednesday in which the army chief was quoted as telling the Iranian envoy that “Pakistan greatly values historic Pak-Iran relationship and the same shall continue based on mutual trust and respect for each other’s interests”.
The army chief informed the Iranian envoy about the government's decision granting permission to Gen Raheel.
Gen Qamar categorically assured Honardost that the decision would not affect Pakistan's ties with Iran in any manner, according to the sources familiar with the closed-door meeting.
Iran is not convinced that the military alliance is meant to fight terrorism. Instead, Tehran feared that Saudi Arabia wanted to further its interests through this initiative.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds with each other over the conflict in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Both accused the other of backing proxies to advance their respective agendas.
In his preliminary meetings with the Saudi authorities, Gen (retd) Raheel proposed that countries such as Iran should be invited to join the alliance in order to dispel the impression about its sectarian outlook.
The structure and mandate of the alliance has not been finalised yet. A meeting of defence ministers from member countries is expected to take place soon in Riyadh where the terms of references of the alliance would be approved.