General Raheel Sharif, heads the IMCTC, an initiative by the Saudi Crown Prince. Photo: Reuters / Mian Khursheed

Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan to play a bigger role in the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition. The news comes after the Imran Khan government won a $6-billion bailout deal from Riyadh to help Islamabad manage its dire economic situation.

A delegation from the counter-terror coalition arrived in Islamabad on Sunday on a two-day visit. It was led by General (retired) Raheel Sharif, the former Pakistan Army commander who now heads the IMCTC.

Sharif, who was Army chief from 2013 to 2016, met with the current Army head General Qamar Javed Bajwa on Monday, before meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday. While the official purpose was to lay the groundwork for a visit to Islamabad later this week by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, General Sharif and his delegation explained Pakistan’s increased military role in the counter-terror body, senior military officials said.

More troops needed

“Pakistan has already deployed troops in Saudi Arabia for the territorial protection of the kingdom. But now Pakistan has been asked to increase its military involvement in the IMCTC,” a senior military official told Asia Times.

“[The] Pakistan Army is already training troops from Saudi Arabia and its allies. Now that there is a broader coalition in place, more Pakistani personnel are needed for training purposes.”

Sources said the delegation’s visit comes at a time when the military coalition is finally taking shape, having had little to do in the three-plus years since its inception. Asia Times reported in August that Riyadh has been pressing the new government in Pakistan to vocally back the IMCTC. That is expected to take shape in the aftermath of Crown Prince MBS’ visit. “Either way, the IMCTC delegation visiting Islamabad, while being commanded by former Pakistani Army Chief has already sent the signal that Pakistan is wholeheartedly backing the coalition,” a senior diplomat noted.

In February last year, Pakistan agreed to send more troops to Saudi Arabia when Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa met Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh amid an increase in cross-border attacks orchestrated by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Then in October, Pakistan won a $6 billion bailout from Saudi Arabia after Islamabad provided diplomatic support to Riyadh in the aftermath of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Pakistan’s compliance with Saudi requests in the Middle East stems in large part from the economic crisis at home. Last month, Islamabad passed a finance bill in a bid to avoid a 13th bailout from the International Monetary Fund, because the rupee has plunged in value and the economy is still threatened by a balance of payment crisis.

$10-billion refinery at Gwadar

During his visit, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to sign various lucrative deals for Pakistan, notably a $10-billion oil refinery near Gwadar port.

Some analysts have been concerned about an increased Saudi presence in the volatile Balochistan province, not far from the border with Iran, but others fear the tasks that Pakistani troops may now face in the Middle East for the counter-terror coalition could be more serious.

In an address to a Senate delegation in December, General Raheel Sharif said the IMCTC was not aligned against any country or sect. However, given that Iran is not part of the coalition of 41 Muslim nations, analysts believe the coalition has been designed to militarily boost Saudi interests in the region and other Muslim states.

The coalition was announced in December 2015 at a time when the Islamic State (ISIS) was at its strongest and even launching attacks within Saudi territory. But, more than three years on, ISIS has largely wiped out in Syria and many are asking what the anti-terror alliance will do.

Despite the uncertainty, Pakistan seems more than likely to agree to Riyadh’s latest request, given the financial benefits it is set to offer.

Former Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad, however, felt the current government is in a better position to deal with Saudi demands than its predecessors.

“The Sharifs were too indebted personally to the Saudis, given how Nawaz Sharif was given support by them in exile, to challenge the Saudi rulers even the slightest. [But] Imran Khan is under no such compulsion. However, he must keep in mind that aid and borrowing cannot work in the long run. Pakistan needs to be made economically self-sufficient so that we don’t take any orders,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a former secretary at the Ministry of Defense Production, maintained that civilian leaders have little say in such matters. “Especially ties with Saudi Arabia. Given the heavy involvement of the Army in the relations, and the military demands of Saudi Arabia, it’s the military establishment that has the final say,” he said.

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