Saudi Arabia is forming a massive military coalition with 38 fellow Sunni nations. It’s called the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), but the press has dubbed it “Muslim NATO.”
The group’s initial announcement cited “a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organizations whatever their sect and name which wreak death and corruption on Earth and aim to terrorize the innocent.”
Saudi Arabia’s Deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman said the alliance would “coordinate” efforts to fight terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Afghanistan. “There will be international coordination with major powers and international organizations…in terms of operations in Syria and Iraq,” he said. “We can’t undertake these operations without coordinating with legitimacy in this place and the international community.”
IMAFT has selected esteemed Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif to lead the coalition. Sharif, who commanded Pakistan’s army for three years, is famous for his successful campaign against Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents.
His counterterrorism efforts led to a significant drop in military violence in Pakistan and earned him his new position as IMAFT commander-in-chief, where he will be tasked with establishing a military structure for the Saudi-led alliance.
“Gen Sharif’s experience in the provision of unconventional warfare training to the Pakistani forces…is a clear example of his leadership prowess and why he is the right choice to set up the IMAFT structure,” says defense analyst Awad Mustafa.
IMAFT is facing criticism from Shi’ite Iran, which argues that the Sunni coalition will exacerbate domestic sectarian rivalries.
“There is a question of how far this force would be a non-partisan force,” said Pakistani defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. “At the moment it appears to be dominated by conservative Arab kingdoms so Iran, Iraq, and Syria will not welcome it.”
During his initial negotiations with the Saudis, Sharif argued that Iran should be included in the alliance.
Iran has criticized Sharif and Pakistan for participating in IMAFT and has accused Saudi Arabia of using the alliance as a way to increase its influence in the region.
“We are concerned about some consequences of this issue,” said Mehdi Hunar Dost, Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan. He believes Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition could hurt bilateral relations, which are already fragile after accusations that anti-Iran Sunni militants use Pakistani land for attacks on the Iranian side.
The two nations share a border that is over 400 miles long.
Dost says Pakistan should use its influence to help bridge the “gaps” between Islamic countries. “We are not so optimistic that this action [Pakistan’s participation in IMAFT] can solve [the problem] and can fill these gaps,” he said.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran have long fought for power in the Arab world, and some suspect that IMAFT’s true purpose is to counter growing Iranian influence in the region.
Pakistan, which has long struggled to play nice with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, may find this task even more difficult with its recent army commander leading a military coalition based in Riyadh.
Editor’s note: Does anyone besides me smell “caliphate” in the air? Cooperation of this type could easily develop into a massive and troubling organization supporting Islam worldwide. I suppose they have good reason to cooperate against terrorist, but this sure makes me uncomfortable.