Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s former chief of army staff, will head a 39-nation coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia.
Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif confirmed Sharif’s appointment to lead the coalition last week, according to a report by Dawn.
According to Asif, the arrangement was finalized recently, but it’s unclear if Riyadh was able to offer Sharif the position with the Pakistani civilian government’s consent. When asked about the possibility of the decision having being made in Riyadh, Asif said: “No, definitely our government’s consent must have been part of this.”
Saudi Arabia has yet to publicly comment on the appointment. Sharif stepped down in late November 2016 without seeking an extension for his term as chief of army staff; he was succeeded by General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Saudi Arabia originally announced the creation of an Islamic military coalition in December 2015. At the time, a statement released by Saudi state media said that the initial group of 34 states had “decided on the formation of a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism, with a joint operations center based in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations.” The coalition’s primary objective was to combat the Islamic State.
The Saudis had announced Pakistan’s participation in the coalition, seemingly without the full knowledge or consent of Pakistan’s civilian leaders.
In December 2015, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry expressed some surprise at being named as a member of the alliance.
Islamabad ultimately came around to the idea and agreed to participate. Earlier in 2015, following the start of Saudi military operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen, Pakistan had decided to stay out of the conflict — potentially given concerns that participation could have alienated China, whose president, Xi Jinping, was scheduled to visit Islamabad around the time the issue was being deliberated in Pakistan.
Sharif’s appointment to lead the coalition, if confirmed, could complicate Pakistan’s delicate balancing act of managing relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Saudi-led coalition notably excluded Iran and was announced days before the prominent Saudi Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was executed, leading to a series of events that resulted in a deep diplomatic freeze between Riyadh and Tehran.
Early in 2016, Raheel Sharif, flanked by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation), traveled jointly to Saudi Arabia and Iran, seemingly in a bid to dispel tensions following the start of the freeze.
Pakistan, a Sunni-majority country that borders Iran, has a significant and often persecuted Shia minority. (The country hosts the second-largest Shia population of any Muslim-majority country.)
As I’d mentioned early last year, however, even given the very good reasons for Pakistan to want cordial ties with Iran, “If push came to shove, there is little reason to doubt that Pakistan’s military would stand by Saudi Arabia instead of Iran.”
Meanwhile, though Islamabad’s relations with Tehran are broadly stable, the two countries have had their share of difficulties — from instability at their shared border in Balochistan to Pakistani perceptions of Iran abetting Indian efforts for regional influence.
It remains to be seen how Iran will evaluate Raheel Sharif’s command of Saudi Arabia’s transnational military coalition.