The Pulse

Understanding Pakistan’s Role in the Saudi-Led Anti-Terror Coalition

Islamabad is reportedly part of the new alliance. What might that mean?

Understanding Pakistan’s Role in the Saudi-Led Anti-Terror Coalition
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to recent reports, Pakistan is now part of a Saudi Arabia-led Islamic military alliance of 34 countries fighting terrorism in the Muslim world. Foreign Office spokesman Qazi Khalilullah confirmed this on Thursday, December 17, telling reporters, “Yes, we’re part of it.” Saudi Arabia announced the anti-terror alliance on Tuesday.

This news comes after initial confusion regarding the purpose and extent of this alliance, including in Pakistan itself. On Wednesday, just one day before Pakistan declared it was part of the Saudi alliance, its officials said otherwise, declaring that they had not been consulted by anyone in Saudi Arabia. Aizaz Chaudhry, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, told reporters on December 16 that he had asked his ambassador in Riyadh to discover how the “error” was made. By the next day however, these two diverging narratives were reconciled, with Khalilullah denying that Pakistan was “surprised” about its inclusion in the alliance, and insisting that Chaudhry had earlier “only said that Pakistan was ‘ascertaining details’ about the announcement.”

One possible explanation is that Pakistan genuinely did not know it was part of the Saudi-led alliance but changed its position to save face and shore up its ties with Saudi Arabia. The two countries are close, and it would seriously undermine the alliance in its infancy if Pakistan did not sign up. Additionally, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia both confirmed that they had been exchanging ideas on how to deal with terrorism prior to the announcement. It is also possible that the delay in Pakistan’s confirmation of membership was a function of internal debates in that country about joining the alliance, with the military establishment being more in favor than the civilian government, despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s close ties with Saudi Arabia. It is in fact quite possible that the confusion was due to the fact that the military took the decision to cooperate with Saudi Arabia without consulting with Pakistan’s civilian government. Pakistan’s military has never really ceded control over the country’s foreign and defense policies to the civilian government.

The Pakistani military has traditionally had close ties with the Saudi establishment. It maintains some troops in Saudi Arabia, and there are persistent rumors that Saudi Arabia falls under Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella. Saudi Arabia has been generous in extended financial and diplomatic support to Pakistan over its nuclear program, especially after sanctions were slapped down on Pakistan in 1998. Yet, even the Pakistani military knows that there are limits to its cooperation with Saudi Arabia, and wisely avoided getting stuck in the Yemeni quagmire, despite Saudi calls for support there. It is obvious that Saudi Arabia does not yet have the ability to translate its diplomatic strength and cultural clout into geopolitical power.

Certainly, if many officials, both military and civilian, in Pakistan initially had doubts about the alliance, those are justified. Saudi Arabia has increasingly taken up the self-declared mantle of leadership in the Islamic world, primarily on the basis of its control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and its vast oil wealth. This role, however, is not commensurate with its demographic and military power–which has floundered in Yemen–in the Muslim world. Its strand of Islam, Wahhabism, is also not the dominant form throughout the Muslim world, and has in fact been seen as destabilizing. Finally, the new alliance excludes Iran, Iraq, and Syria, making it seem suspiciously like an anti-Iranian, anti-Shia alliance rather than just an alliance against terror. Sunni behemoths like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt would be justified in questioning the leadership and nature of the alliance and its ability to be effective militarily. Nonetheless, it was only by Saudi Arabia’s initiative, enabled by its diplomatic and religious clout, that such an alliance could have been formed in the first place. But this does not mean that it should call all the shots.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It seems that any doubts have been shelved for now, and that Pakistan will be a vital member of the coalition. Despite the risks, this gives it the ability and clout to shape the alliance from within, something made all the more possible by the close ties between its military and the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia, on its own, cannot conduct major military operations outside of the Arabian peninsula without the support of at least another major Sunni power, like Pakistan or Turkey. Pakistan could theoretically be the most important member of this alliance, due to its military clout and experience and the fact that it is the only Muslim-majority nation with nuclear weapons. And if the alliance founders, Pakistan has little to lose, while still being able to claim that it provided whatever support, moral and military, that it could, thus demonstrating solidarity with the Muslim world.