Pakistan’s decision to join the 41-nation Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) enjoys a broad national consensus, but a handful of skeptics want Islamabad to stay away from the Saudi-led alliance as they fear that it would bring more harm to the country than good.
The anti-IMCTC arguments stem from three core apprehensions.
Firstly, the 41-member alliance is seen by some as an anti-Iran bloc, carrying sectarian overtones. They believe that it would strain Pakistan’s relations with Tehran and is likely to antagonize at least a section of the country’s Shi’ite Muslims, who comprise roughly 15-20 percent of the population.
Secondly, there are fears that Pakistan – being the alliance member – might inadvertently be sucked into some Middle Eastern conflict, resulting into disastrous domestic and regional implications.
Thirdly, some see this entire exercise as a non-starter because of rivalries among the IMCTC member states and their different requirements, challenges and priorities in the war against terrorism.
Indeed, given simmering tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan’s civil and military leaders will have to perform a delicate high-wire act to ensure that on one hand Islamabad’s time-tested strategic and economic relations with old, dependable brotherly Muslim country Saudi Arabia continues to grow and expand, and on the other they address concerns of the immediate neighbour Iran regarding this newly formed coalition.
Although staying away from the IMCTC as advocated by some fringe element and handful of politicians is no option at all, Pakistan has opted for the right strategy of playing an active role in the coalition as a major military power of the Muslim world and simultaneously soothing anxieties of Tehran.
The process of reaching out to Iran has already started. Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in early November made a three-day visit to Tehran – the first ever by Chief of the Army Staff in more than two decades – where he announced Islamabad’s determination to expand ties with Iran in all spheres. According to Iranian media reports, General Bajwa in his meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other top leaders called for expanding military and defence ties and collaboration between the two countries for regional peace and security.
General Bajwa’s Iran visit came ahead of the IMCTC’s first meeting of Ministers of Defence in Riyadh under the slogan ‘allied against terrorism’ held on November 26. The impressive moot, inaugurated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pledged to boost its military capabilities to dismantle terrorist organizations.
General (retired) Raheel Sharif, commander-in-chief of the IMCTC, in his address at the conference again categorically stated that the objective of the coalition is “to fight against terrorism and it is not against any country, sect or religion.” Sharif gave a similar message in his October 16 address in Bahrain where he shared Pakistan’s experience of turning the tide of terrorism.
The repeated assertions by the top IMCTC military commander as well as Pakistan’s civil and military leaders’ commitment about taking on terrorists should put at rest all speculations about coalition being an anti-Iran bloc. The presence of Pakistan and countries like Turkey in the IMCTC would ensure that the alliance sticks to its declaration unveiled in Riyadh conference in which terrorism has been identified as a “constant and growing challenge to peace” and the member states have vowed to counter it “through education and knowledge.”
The four-point master-plan focuses on countering terrorist ideology, developing factual media content to counter terrorist narrative, halting terror financing and building anti-terrorism capabilities of military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies of the member countries. The declaration and statements by the IMCTC commander-in-chief focuses on the faceless violent non-state actors who challenge and threaten member states in one way or the other.
A day after the Riyadh conference, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa arrived in Saudi Arabia with a message that Pakistan fully “endorses and supports” policies of its ally in the region. The Prime Minister Office said that Abbasi “lauded efforts of the Saudi leadership in bringing peace and stability to the region and assured the King (Salman bin Abdulaziz) of Pakistan’s full support….”
This active diplomacy by Pakistan’s military and civil leaders with Saudi Arabia and Iran underlines Islamabad’s commitment of fighting terrorism along with the other Muslim states as well as its resolve of maintaining friendly ties with neighbouring countries.
Pakistan has also more than once demonstrated determination of not getting involved in any Middle Eastern conflict, but in line with the desire of overwhelming number of Pakistanis, Islamabad has also expressed commitment of defending the holy lands in Saudi Arabia.
The third apprehension that traditional rivalries and contradictions among some IMCTC member states would prevent it from taking off does not take into account the fact that these countries have more reasons to cooperate with one another to combat terrorism than basis for non-cooperation. The dangerous phenomenon of terrorism remains the biggest challenge to peace and stability in the 21st century world, especially for Muslim countries where terrorists misuse the sacred name of Islam in an attempt to legitimize their activities.
General Raheel while highlighting the gravity of the threat posed by terrorists said at the conference that “in the last six years, approximately 70,000 terrorist attacks occurred worldwide, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths.” He added that, “over 70 percent of terrorism related deaths occurred in the Islamic World, most affected were Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.”
Pakistan remains the only country in the world, which turned the tide of terrorism single-handedly despite active support to terrorist networks by hostile neighbours like India and an anti-Pakistan lobby within the Afghan government. Yet, Pakistan has managed to put the terrorists on the back foot.
The IMCTC member states can certainly learn from one another’s anti-terrorism experience and supplement efforts in this non-conventional war which is being described as “extremely complex and resource intense.”
The initiative taken by His Majesty, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is historic and path-breaking in a sense that it managed to bring most of the Muslim countries on one platform to counter the common threat of terrorism.
The coalition aims “to utilize the expertise and resources of member and friendly countries” and provide them support to build capabilities of military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Joint exercises and anti-terrorism training remain important pillars of the strategy in which the battle-hardened Pakistan Armed Forces – especially the army and the air force – will take the lead in providing training to the forces of IMCTC allies.
The IMCTC also plans to establish “a state-of-the-art intelligence and information sharing platform to counter terrorist networks, their facilitators, abettors, sympathizers and financiers.”
As the IMCTC is a unique and first of its kind initiative in the highly polarized and divided Muslim world, skepticism and doubts about its role and future are understandable.
But should obstacles or fears of failure stop the Muslim leadership from trying bold and imaginative new initiatives? The grand idea behind the IMCTC is to unite Muslims against the scourge of terrorism, expose the misinterpretation and abuse of Islam by terrorists and build a counter narrative while taking decisive steps to weed out terrorists.
The Muslim world has suffered the most at the hands of terrorists and it has no option but to win this war against terrorism and extremist ideologies. The good thing is that many leaders of the Muslim world realize that wars cannot be won in the battlefields alone, but they also need to be won in the hearts and minds of the people. The IMCTC envisions to fight this war on both the fronts – which is a good beginning.
The writer is an eminent journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media.
E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @AmirZia1
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