IMAFT’s built bastion against terrorism?

By Syed Qamar Rizvi.

Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, is an intergovernmental– cum-intercontinental counter-terrorist alliance , the largest global military alliance of 41 Muslim countries( even lager than the Western military alliance of 28 Nato states), united having a bastion   against ISIL and other terrorist networks passed through Saudi Legislation.  Its creation was first announced by Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense, on 15 December 2015. The alliance was to have a joint operations center in RiyadhSaudi Arabia.  Under much criticism and controversies, after all the emerging Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) albeit with a notable missing that some of the states like Indonesia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Tajikistan are not included in this alliance. But exclusion of these states must not be taken as a sign of resentment. It is all possible that subsequently some of these countries may join this club. IMAFT must be taken as Muslim Nato to guard against strategic and tactical terrorism.

The alliance with its military Command Headquarters based in Riyadh was announced as an Inter- Governmental Alliance first by Saudi Defence Minister Muhammad bin Salman on 15 December 2015.Its mandate was to counter terrorism from organisations such as ISIL and their other variants. Pakistan’s Defence Minister in a press statement revealed that Pakistan’s ex-COAS General Raheel Sharif has been appointed as the Commander in Chief of that alliance.  

Despite the fact that some of the critics view that IMAFT’s plan for destroying Daesh has a relatively limited stated objective, its creation would act as a caution to terrorist missions. To protect the Muslim countries from all terrorist groups and organizations (irrespective of their sect or name), and to fight terrorists in “Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan”. Essentially, due to the dominance of the states having Sunni-majority populations (with the notable absences of Iran and Iraq), IMAFT in view of few analysts, is a coalition with a sectarian agenda. But in reality, this impression is grossly based on wrong perception leveled by those who lack neutral perceptivity.

There is the argument that Daesh deceitfully presents itself as a representative of authentic Islam, commonly known as Salafism, as practiced by the early generations of Muslims. It includes the special brand of Wahhabism adopted by Saudi Arabia, whereby many Islamic principles of the dominant Sunni and Shi’ite sects are considered polytheistic—such as philosophy, spirituality, the spirit of sharia, and use of metaphors. But this argument is painted by those who are brushed by ethnic orientation. There is need to look into this alliance by having an objective appraisal and assessment. Until there is greater recognition of the interplay between the ideas and politics, many observers will likely continue to misperceive Daesh’s ideology. Ultimately, while most non-Arab Muslim-majority member countries such as Pakistan are unanimously in favor of preserving the sanctity of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, they are not necessarily in favor of “re-Sunnifying” both Iraq and Syria and flipping the existing power structures-this outlook strategically demands to be anchored.

When the coalition was announced there were 34 members. Additional countries joined and the number of members reached 41 when Oman joined in December 2016. On 6 January 2017, Pakistan‘s former Chief of Army Staff, General (Retd.) Raheel Sharif was named the IMA’s first Commander-in-Chief. Later his appointment was confirmed on 9th March 2017 by Pakistan’s Finance Minister Ishaq Dar in a press release. According to Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif NOC for Raheel Sharif is issued on 25 March 2017 and he will sign contract on first week of April.

The answer to above may lie in the IMAFT aping a Western model with a dominant country accompanied by two or three serious and several token allies wreaking havoc on countries with or without UN sanction. The view shared by some polarized thinkers holds that IMAFT would mainly be brandishing the military muscle of countries like Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia with several countries on the fence caviling at the need and appropriateness of such military interventions. And then there is the knottier question of the military alliance’s strategy and tactics against an amorphous enemy wielding asymmetric tactics. Before joining the IMAFT, Pakistan fully took into account the future ventures and challenges that could be posed to this alliance.

Though apparently appointment also contradicts Pakistan’s national commitment towards neutrality with regard to the Yemen crisis after a parliamentary resolution was passed in April 2015,yet pragmatically,this unfolds the underpinning exigencies that strongly advocate for participating in this.The strategist argue that  the Yemen intervention, also known as Operation Decisive Storm, was a Saudi Arabia-led crackdown against Houthi rebels and was more about a power struggle centering on reinstating Yemen’s dictatorship of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi rather than cracking down on terrorism.

However, it is an overgeneralized impression that the IMA will assume a sectarian character. Last month, the kingdom scored another victory by bringing in a new member: Oman. For the sultanate, which has traditionally distanced itself from Riyadh’s efforts to isolate Tehran, joining IMAFT raises important questions about Muscat’s foreign policy agenda as Arab Gulf-Iranian tensions escalate. Saudi voices were quick to hail Oman’s decision to become the Saudi-led alliance’s 41st member as a sign of strong Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) strength and “a new chapter in regional and Muslim unity.”

As neighbors and fellow GCC states, Oman and Saudi Arabia have long maintained a close alliance, yet Muscat’s close ties with Iran have created friction in Omani-Saudi relations. By hosting secret talks between American and Iranian officials in Muscat, which led to the historic 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, Omani officials unnerved their Saudi counterparts. More recently, members of the Saudi government have accused Oman, which has thus far maintained neutrality in the Yemen civil war, of permitting weapons smuggling across the Oman-Yemen border into the hands of Houthi fighters — a claim denied by officials in Muscat.

The procedural aspects of the former Pakistani chief of army staff’s appointment aside, the fact that the alliance seeks to carry out counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, particularly with Syria witnessing the consolidation of power of an Alawite government under President Bashar Al Assad recently, hints at how geopolitics in the region will play a significant role in shaping the IMAFT’s role. The catastrophic effects of regimes being toppled throughout the Middle East had led to great instability in the form of rebel movements and insurgencies that ultimately have assumed a sectarian character. As for the Iranian reservations for the alliance, one fact is clear as rightly clarified by Islamabad that the alliance is by no means a coalition against Iran. It is an Islamic coalition against global terrorism. And naturally the Muslim community at large expects that Iran should join this coalition without chartering unwarranted reservations.

For Pakistan, tackling terrorism at home is a top priority for civilian leadership and the military establishment. That said, if the preconditions of joining the alliance are not met, Sharif will most likely withdraw from command of the IMA. His appointment, however, will continue to be questionable on grounds of neutrality. By endorsing the appointment of Gen Raheel to head IMAFT, Islamabad shows its unflinching resolve against global terrorism. While evaluating the scope of the IMAFT and its future role, we may pragmatically conclude that despite many controversies and misfits, the seemingly establishment of IMAFT to fight regional and trans-regional terrorism should be viewed as an encouraging development.

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