By Dr. Simbal Khan
Pakistan has high hopes for the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) and has laid out plans to play a key role in the alliance, despite fears that it may cause problems domestically and with the country’s neighbors.
Pakistan enjoyed its moment in the spotlight during the inaugural meeting of the 41-member alliance in Riyadh last month, when former army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif gave his inaugural address. Gen. Sharif, IMCTC’s Military Commander, tried to address some of the critical questions raised against the coalition, especially in Pakistan. He insisted that the sole objective of the alliance “is to counter terrorism and it is not against any country or any sect”. He highlighted the key objective of IMCTC as a platform to assist member countries in their counter-terrorism operations through intelligence sharing and capacity building. Pakistan’s participation in this first military alliance of Muslim states has been the subject of intense interest both in Pakistan and throughout the region.
Pakistan-Saudi relations have deep security, military, economic and ideological roots, which date back decades and Pakistan’s commitment of 3,000 to 5,000 operational troops to the IMCTC appears to be a continuation of this long-standing security relationship between the two important Muslim countries.
In the last 15 years, both countries have also shared their experiences of fighting terrorism on their own soil. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been frontline states in the global war against terror and have made tremendous efforts in countering Al-Qaeda and Daesh. Pakistan’s prominent role in the IMCTC cements this continuing counter-terror cooperation and broadens its scope from bilateral level to a multilateral platform. Pakistan brings to the table an empirical, real-time experience of actually waging and winning an anti-terror campaign. Other members of the coalition facing varying levels of terror threats can learn valuable lessons from Pakistan’s experience.
Growing security stresses and strains on Pakistan’s own western borders with Afghanistan are, however, adding new challenges to how Pakistan manages its various regional commitments. Pakistan is facing an ever-increasing threat from cross-border terrorism. Successful military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have pushed a number of domestic and international terrorist elements into Afghanistan’s bordering provinces. These terrorists are using sanctuaries in ungoverned border spaces inside war-torn Afghanistan to launch cross-border and other terrorist attacks on Pakistani cities. Pakistan has often accused India and the Afghan intelligence agency of supporting of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, an anti-state terrorist outfit, and facilitating attacks against China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects and the Gwadar Port. Certain quarters in Pakistan worry that Iran may perceive Pakistan’s military participation in IMCTC as a threat to Iranian security and regional interests. Pakistan shares a nearly 1,000-kilometer-long border with Iran, and the strategic Gwadar Port is in close proximity to that frontier.
Pakistan is keen to avoid a scenario in which Iran covertly joins India and Afghanistan in providing sanctuaries and support to anti-Pakistan terrorists. There are also fears of Iran stoking sectarian conflict within Pakistan in case relations deteriorate.
In spite of all such concerns, Pakistan is keen to play a leading role in the IMCTC. In its view, the coalition can serve as a catalyst for a cohesive and multilateral counter-terror response hitherto missing from the Muslim world. The coalition may also provide a framework for closer military and defense ties between Saudi Arabia and other member states, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
An area of immediate cooperation is likely to be intelligence sharing and IMCTC can serve as a meaningful platform. Almost all of the 41 member states are facing some common challenges from terrorist actors such as Daesh. Better coordination between states could also result in restricting the flow of funds to “religious” madrassas linked to the spread of Daesh’s ideology in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
(Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South Central Asia and the geo-politics of border spaces.
She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh)