Former Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif to lead ‘Muslim Nato’
Flood of criticism greets generals appointment as commander of Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism
Pakistans retired army chief has agreed to become the first commander of the Muslim Nato, a fledgling military alliance of mostly Sunni Islamic states led by Saudi Arabia.
The announcement led to a flood of criticism of Raheel Sharif, a general who until recently had been lauded for his three years leading Pakistans half a million-strong army.
The Pakistani defence minister, Khawaja Asif, revealed on television that Sharif would become the first commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), a proposed coalition of 39 countries that will have its headquarters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The IMAFT was announced in late 2015 as a foil against Islamic State and terrorism in general but it has not been supported by Iran, Saudi Arabias regional nemesis.
Islamabad has long struggled to find a balance between Saudi Arabia, a rich patron that is home to thousands of Pakistani expatriate workers, and neighbouring Iran that hopes to sell gas to energy-starved Pakistan.
Analysts say the decades-long standoff between Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shia Iran has helped fuel sectarian conflict in Pakistan.
Both countries have been accused of supporting their own favoured militant groups in Pakistan, where the Shia minority has been the target of relentless attacks.
In 2015, Pakistan declined to join military operations against Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen despite relentless pressure from Saudi Arabia, which has led the intervention in its impoverished neighbour.
The decision not to come to the aid of a close ally that a year earlier had bolstered Pakistans finances with a $1.5bn gift was widely praised by analysts who feared involvement in Yemen would exacerbate sectarian tensions at home.
But the plan to allow one of the most esteemed army chiefs in Pakistans history to take up command of IMAFT has been met with widespread criticism on social media.
The Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen, a Shia political group, expressed concern over the appointment, which it urged Sharif to turn down.
Some hardline Sunni groups, including the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, said they fully supported the development.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani defence analyst, cautioned that the IMAFT was not yet operational and it was unclear whether it would follow the model of Nato or something more like the United Nations peacekeeping operations.
But there is a question of how far this force would be a non-partisan force, he said. At the moment it appears to be dominated by conservative Arab kingdoms so Iran, Iraq and Syria will not welcome it.
He cautioned against Pakistan being dragged into conflicts at the behest of others.
Pakistani troops have been in Saudi Arabia since the mid-1960s but the guiding principle has always been that they would serve only within the territorial boundaries of Saudi Arabia. If you create a kind of force of so many countries then one day the Saudis might want it to go to Yemen or Syria.
Sharif became highly popular after an army crackdown on the Pakistani Taliban led to sharp falls in violence and an army-led public relations campaign that contrasted him with the countrys civilian leaders, who are widely viewed as ineffectual and corrupt.
He retired in November despite fevered speculation that he would be given an extension or elevated to the position of field marshal.