Islamic alliance controversy
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| 6/25/2017 12:00:00 AM
THE message may be muddled, but the consequences could be serious. Earlier in the week, foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz appeared to have told a parliamentary committee that former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif could not be recalled from Saudi Arabia, where the general is now based as head of the Islamic Military Alliance. The Foreign Office soon rejected media reports of Mr Aziz`s remarks to the Senate foreign affairs committee, claiming that the adviser had been misquoted in the in-camera briefing.

The Foreign Office claimed that the Saudi-led alliance`s terms of reference had yet to be finalised, and that once Pakistan received them, the government would in consultation with parliament decide which aspects of the alliance to participate in. Tellingly, the Foreign Office clarification did not address whether Gen Sharif is in Saudi Arabia in his personal capacity or whether the government has the right to withdraw the retired army chief from IMA command.

Perhaps the government is unable to truthfully or accurately inform parliament about Gen Sharif`s post-retirement agenda because it has not been involved in the discussions that led to his accepting the position of military commander of the IMA. But that hardly absolves it of responsibility for the bizarre and damaging episode that Gen Sharif`s stint in Saudi Arabia has already become.

Whatever the law and whatever the Foreign Office claims about his command of the IMA, there is an undeniable public perception that the ex-army chief`s position is seen internationally as Pakistan`s commitment to the alliance. More worryingly, Saudi Arabia itself appears to believe that his command is a sign of Pakistan`s support for the Saudi-led IMA, regardless of whether the state here publicly insists that it is committed to neutrality. The recent spike in tensions with Iran and the denial by the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan that the latter is acting as a mediator in the Qatar stand-off underline the complexity of the foreign policy crisis the government may soon be confronted with.

It is obvious that Pakistan has no easy options. Yet, the official government stance that no decision will be taken without consulting parliament is the correct one. Pakistan, it appears, has little leverage and not enough influence to act as mediator in the GCC crisis. Saudi Arabia is a country that Pakistan has a strategic and long-term relationship with. Disagreements or differences in the short term ought not to obscure the foundational reasons for a close Pak-Saudi relationship. At the same time, Pakistan cannot afford to follow an ally no matter how close to Pakistan blindly. It is not clear why Gen Sharif himself believes his continued command of the IMA can help Pakistan. The general ought to surrender his command and allow Pakistan to follow its true national interest.