“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people” are the words President Obama expounded in a move to reflect upon his 2009 decision of committing additional troops to Afghanistan while delivering his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Notwithstanding the criticism from civil society and media, the decision of sending additional troops was widely endorsed by realists as they saw it a security imperative that must be carried out to meet and address larger objective of securing national security interests. ‘Facing the world as it is’ is what that characterizes the conduct of great states and nations and, in turn, underlines their success in ensuring survival and security.
Amidst rapidly changing global security and strategic environment, and especially after formal announcement of Saudi Arabia-led anti-IS alliance — The Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) — Pakistan has found itself in turbulent waters. However, with its remarkable experience of successfully carrying out military operations against terrorists and dismantling their networks, its capacity to persuade and influence Saudi Arabia and Iran at the same time and its foreign policy predisposition to establish cordial relations with the Muslim world, Pakistan by no means can stand idle by restraining from joining the coalition.
In the wake of Saudi announcement of forging a 34-nation military alliance to combat ISIS, with Pakistan an important part of the coalition, many were surprised especially across the civilian side of the power corridor in the country for not being even consulted by the Saudi Arabia. Later, however, the foreign ministry came up with a statement welcoming the forging of alliance and that Pakistan will decide the extent of its participation after receiving further details.
The Kingdom’s announcement of forming an alliance, which essentially entails the inclusion of only Sunni-majority Muslim countries and exclusion of Iran, Iraq and Syria — major political centres of Shiites — drew criticism from some quarters that questions the utility and objectivity of such an alliance arranged and coalesced around sectarian lines and ran counter, as critics may point out, to the Iranian-led, anti-ISIS bloc. Though, seemingly, based on some sound apprehensions, the speculations loose much of their ground when it comes to the region’s complex geopolitical and security realities.
The primary objective of the alliance is to counter common security threats i.e. ISIS and its network. At a time when ISIS fighters are devastating Syria and Iraq, the outfit is largely expanding its recruitment bases by successfully attracting allegiances from outside the region. Their aim to establish global caliphate threatens at the same time the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all Muslim states. Though pitted predominantly against Shiites, the group has shown its utter disregard to Sunni clerics too — nearly 13 Sunni clerics are known to be executed just because they refused to comply with the narrow and bigoted version endorsed by the group.
Apart from the impacts of this violent tendency of ISIS that is unleashing heavy toll on Sunnis and Shiites equally, its political and religious tendencies are a threat more to the states that are chiefly inhabited by the Sunni population as the militants’ hordes are mainly of Sunni origin and envision to sway Sunni Muslims under the influence of their cult. Therefore, there is nothing unexpected of such countries coming closer to manage collective security measures.
Especially related to Pakistan, some scholars opine that because of the country’s geographical proximity with Iran, it will be an imprudent strategy for the country to commit its military capabilities for the alliance. They emphasise that the country’s participation will exacerbate concerns in Iran’s strategic and security planners and will cause the country to align herself with India — the chief external threat and hostile neighbour of Pakistan.
But the assumption is flawed on many grounds primarily because the alliance of 34 Muslim states does not carry the prospects and considerations of ‘balance of power’ against any state or coalition but is purely a part of security arrangements to manage insecurities emerging from the threats posed by radical Islamists. Moreover, Pakistan’s decision to join the alliance is not motivated by passion to satiate any material appetite (to borrow from St. Augustine’s saying) for power or even operating on the basis of any expediency rather it is governed by principled approach toward securing peace and security both within its territorial boundaries and the region. Therefore, joining the alliance against the looming threat of ISIS should not perpetuate the sense of vulnerability and insecurity in Iran.
Chances of confrontation or tension with Iran can also be minimized by the country’s preference to effectively execute peaceful and progressive approach toward Iran. Pakistan has always regarded Iran as one of its most important neighbours as both countries have a long history of shared culture, values and traditions. Pakistan envisages better prospects of mutual cooperation with Iran for regional peace, security and welfare; the chances of which will not be spoiled by Pakistan’s joining of the alliance.
However, some threats still remain especially those related to the future of political authority and legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad. The policy points of Riyadh and its Gulf allies against incumbent Syrian regime are already known. Saudi Arabia blames al-Assad for an unprecedented ascent of ISIS and, outwardly, rejects any attempt of conciliation and settlement that does not establish Assad’s ouster. The kingdom is already providing financial and military support and training to rebels to fight against Assad regime. With such a scenario on ground, there are fair chances that by authorizing boots on ground by coalition states will accelerate blitz against Assad forces that are actively backed and supported by Russia and Iran. Amidst such a backdrop and in the wake of any harm to Assad regime, there emerges a potential threat that Iran may lock herself into confrontation with Pakistan and relations between the two neighbours may consequently continue to deteriorate.
However persuasive the foregoing assumption may be, there is no denying of the fact that Pakistan’s joining the alliance will only be to secure and serve its national interests and its loyalty and reliability should only be assumed until the alliance honour its interests; otherwise Pakistan should repudiate from its commitments.
Exercising balance characterises foreign and defence policy and decision-making of Pakistan. With a tradition of maintaining balance in its relations with other sovereign states and because of its geographical proximity, Pakistan is proportionally better placed to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran closer. In the aftermath of lifting of sanctions from Iran, Pakistan can also extend the scope and extent of its military engagements and cooperation with Iran. While executing its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan should be careful of not viewing them both through the narrow sectarian lines, though, fundamentally, current divergences of interests and choices between the Saudi Kingdom and theocratic Iran are driven by the sectarian factor.
Joining military alliance bears, along with many other incentives, the prospect of accelerating interdependence and integration among the Muslim countries. Establishing strong military, intelligence and diplomatic relations to increase ability to confront common enemy i.e. ISIS, can prove to be a strong foundation toward wider political, social and economic engagements.
Moreover, the active involvement of economically- and militarily-strong Muslim states, like Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan, will more likely cause evasion of ethno-linguistic and sectarian fault lines in the Middle East and help evolve and establish pluralistic, democratic states in the region.