When Saudi Arabia announced that it had cobbled together a global Islamic alliance to fight terror, and that the organisation would be headed by Raheel Sharif, the recently retired army chief of Pakistan, there was derisive laughter across the civilised world. After all, Saudi Arabia backs several vicious Islamic terror groups in Syria, while Pakistan is the world’s largest incubator and exporter of terror.
While unity among Islamic nations is about as lasting as a snowflake in hell, from India’s point of view the new alliance is nothing to be laughed at. As many as 39 Muslim countries have signed up as members of this so-called anti-terror group. These include Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, Malaysia, several African nations, and of course Pakistan.
But first let’s examine why the Saudi Kingdom wants to create this so-called anti-terror force headed by a Pakistan general. One, the Saudi sheikhs don’t trust their own people. The Al Saud family was foisted on the local Arabs by Britain in the early part of the 20th century as a quid pro quo for serving British interests in the region. The royal family, therefore, lacks popular support and in fact there are many groups, such as the Shias, in whose eyes it lacks legitimacy.
Secondly, the Saudis want outside help in their internal and border wars. A multinational – and by default mercenary – force can be relied upon to not turn against its Saudi paymasters. This is where Islamabad’s utility comes in. Pakistani troops have been in Saudi Arabia since the mid-1960s and have performed their duties without getting involved in local politics. In fact, back in the 1980s, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pilots formed a substantial component of the Saudi Arabian Air Force. This was not only because the Saudis lacked trained pilots, but they were also mortally afraid of being bombed from the air by one of their own pilots.
Gradually, Saudi pilots started joining the air force but they were drawn exclusively from members of the royal family. This presented a rather peculiar problem – raised in absolute luxury, the Saudi flying men were ill-prepared for the rigours of combat, and this was evident when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Knowing they stood no chance against the highly professional Iraqi Air Force – which incidentally was trained by India – the Saudi princes instead of taking to the sky, went on a mass sick leave.
So, it was back to the Pakistanis. The professionalism of the PAF was evident when it turned down Riyadh’s request to stand down its Shia pilots from Saudi duties. This angered the Saudis – in whose eyes all Shias are agents of Shiite Iran – and led to the gradual termination of Pakistani pilots from the Saudi Arabian Air Force.
In this backdrop, Sharif’s appointment makes sense. Pakistani military officers can be relied upon to remain neutral in a conflict. The general himself is the first Pakistan Army chief to – at least publically – not demand a term extension. Sharif is also popular in Pakistan for the army crackdown on the Pakistani Taliban that led to sharp falls in violence. He, therefore, has experience and success in dealing with terrorists.
Sharif is a known India hater. His uncle and brother died in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. As head of the Islamic Alliance, he can influence member countries to work against New Delhi.
Although times have changed and Pakistan is now a universally disliked nation, it is nevertheless true that in times of crises, the Islamic crescent backs Pakistan against India. This is despite New Delhi consistently backing the Arab side in its disputes with Israel.
During the 1971 War with Pakistan, three Muslim countries – Syria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia – supported the Pakistani position that what it did in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was an internal Pakistani matter. In fact, they “labelled India as the aggressor”, writes R E Ward in India’s Pro-Arab Policy: A Study in Continuity.
The UN Resolution 2793, which was aimed at saving Pakistan from the Indian Army’s hammer blows, was supported by 104 countries, including all Middle Eastern states, except Oman and Afghanistan, which abstained. Ward offers some stunning statistics. “If the five resolutions that were brought to a vote in the Security Council are added to the 19 resolutions voted upon during the period from 1948 to 1965, the combined totals show that the (Middle Eastern) nations supported Pakistan in 71 per cent of all cases and backed India’s interests in only 8.3 per cent of these resolutions.”
There was no outcry in the Arab world over the genocide of over 3,000,000 Bengalis by the Pakistan Army. Instead, the Arabs criticised India. Kuwait, for instance, condemned India and called for a “holy war” in support of Pakistan. Ward narrates: “Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi called the Indian attack on Pakistan an attack on Islam… Monetary support for Pakistan, reportedly some $200 million, was given by Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.”
Problems for India
As head of the anti-terror alliance, Sharif would be expected to back the “good terrorists” while punishing the “bad terrorists” or those allegedly working for Iran. Until now, it is the Saudis and Qataris who have been funnelling weapons to the Islamic State and other terror groups fighting the Syrian government forces. In his new role, Sharif could gain access to these groups and direct them against India.
Pakistanis are generally disliked on the Arab street and increasingly face entry restrictions in many Middle Eastern countries. Kuwait has issued a total ban on all Pakistanis, which it first imposed in 2011. But clearly, the choice of Sharif to head the alliance indicates that despite Pakistan’s international pariah status, Islamabad is still kosher in the Middle East. India’s efforts to isolate it haven’t been entirely successful.
This could be ominous for India during wartime. For that let’s go back to the 1971 War. “Three months after the end of hostilities, the Pakistan military reported that it had received arms transfers from Jordan and Libya; both countries provided American-built combat aircraft. Jordan, Libya and Saudi Arabia gave sanctuary to Pakistan’s air force as protection against the eventuality of an Indian assault on West Pakistan.”
Basically, the Muslim countries were constrained by their special relationship with Pakistan. Nearly 45 years later, the religion factor hasn’t changed despite Pakistan’s descent into chaos in contrast to India’s rise as a major regional power.
Ward explains: “Regardless of the behaviour that Muslim states display among themselves, they seem to develop a common bond or identity of purpose when a non-Muslim state becomes involved in a dispute with a Muslim country. Thus, when India invaded Pakistan in December 1971, there was little doubt whom the Muslim states would support.”
Sharif’s appointment should therefore stand as a warning to India that in the next war, the Islamic crescent, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been wooing, may yet again support its enemy. A better strategy for India would be to openly declare strong military ties with Israel – this would send a message to the Middle Eastern nations that they might face an Israel-India pincer. They may even try and appease India so that it stays neutral in a Middle East conflict. That is the only way to neutralise the Pakistani advantage of Islamic ties.
The problem with the Islamic Alliance is that it is essentially a coalition of contradictions. The Saudis have made no mention of fighting the Islamic State, which has reached Saudi Arabia’s borders. This can only mean one thing – that the Saudis are counting on these terrorists to advance Riyadh’s agenda of bringing down Syria, the last remaining secular Muslim country in the world.
Predictably, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, is not included in the alliance, nor is the Shia-dominated government of Iraq or Syria. Terrorists will be happy with these gaps on the map.
Pakistan itself has been harbouring hardened terrorists such as Hafiz Saeed, who carries a $10 million bounty on his head. A country that attempts to eradicate one set of terrorists while hiding others in safe houses in Karachi cannot be expected to eliminate terror.
The Islamic Alliance might upset Pakistan’s balancing act between Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Iran. The decades-long struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran has helped fuel sectarian conflict in Pakistan as well. If Saudi Arabia orders Sharif to go after the Shia extremists, it could leave Islamabad in an extremely unenviable position.
Since its inception Pakistan has been wanting to create an Islamic alliance with countries of the Middle East, but without success. This is primarily due to the race factor – the Arab elites do not consider Pakistani Muslims competent enough to take on leadership positions in the Islamic crescent. In this backdrop, the chances of the Islamic Alliance transforming into a strategic partnership are next to zero.
New Delhi only needs to watch out for Sharif dispatching Islamic State members into India. It also needs to factor in the strategic depth that Pakistan’s Muslim neighbours might provide it.