ANOTHER ROUND OF CONFRONTATION?
March 30, 2012
The uneasy calm that has been prevailing over Pakistan-US ties now seems to be a lull before a storm. Things came to such a pass owing to event after event, sending the bilateral relations into a freeze. So much so that Pakistan embarked on a course to review the whole gamut of ties with the US. What came to occupy the attention of the parliamentarians that the agreed framework under Musharraf era now warrants critical scrutiny, thus undoing the past which determines the uneasy present and ominous future.
The parliament constituted a review committee comprising the MPs from across the board, naming it Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS), setting the tone and pace of its mandate. The committee has finalized its recommendations after due deliberations and sent them to the plenary session of the parliament which would adopt these recommendation to lend them a popular legitimacy. These recommendations inter alia have touched upon some crucial building blocks of current relationship between both countries. The debate in the parliament would further streamline the proposals thrown up by the committee, but this would also complicate the issue which is already a hard nut to crack. The members who were not there at the committee deliberations would now get a chance to test their wits and rhetoric on an emotive issue like Pakistan-US relations. Elections are a matter of time, so the opposition parties are all prepared to make a lot of noise on the issue. On other hand, the government feels elated and assertive in the wake of recent Senate gains and dented image of its main rival PML-N in Mehran bank scandal. So a tough battle seems brewing up before the parliament gets down to discussing the PCNS proposals.
What the committee has recommended is likely to provoke two-front confrontation: first, among the political parties within and outside the parliament, and second, and more importantly, between the US and Pakistan. The ammunition for the collision at home lies in the re-opening of NATO supply route. The PCNS has recommended that NATO supply route has to reopen, but contingent over a transit payment. The Jamaat-i-Islami has made it clear to oppose the move at any cost and by all means at disposal. The PML-N has once again decided to bungle its credentials as its members in the committee did not raise any objection over the NATO supply routes re-opening, but now the opposition leader in the National Assembly Chadhry Nisar and the younger Sharif are speaking loud to oppose the decision of facilitating NATO supplies tooth and nail.
All time, wily and wise Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman has also joined ranks with those who are out to steal the sheen of the occasion by raising a critical voice against the supply route, although at the committee stage, his party did not have any objection. On another front, the US has made it clear that drone attacks are the corner stone of its counter-terrorism strategy in Af-Pak border areas. The committee called for stopping the drone attacks altogether and the US has shown no flexibility on this issue. Yet another point of contention, although more symbolic and less substantive, is the demand from the US to tender an unconditional apology over the deaths of Pakistan soldiers in the NATO attacks in border check-posts on Pak Afghan border in November last year. The US has made it clear that in the first place, Pakistani soldiers opened fire, and, secondly, if the US soldiers under NATO command fired on the soldiers from other side and killed some in the process, it was due to the battlefield confusion. The US inquiry into the matter did not charge any serviceman, thus accepting no blame, let alone apologizing.
As the US has decided to keep its position intact over the drone attacks and the violent bravado of its occasionally deranged soldiers, the politicians are making the job even more difficult for Pakistan. Another important factor further complicating the issue for Pakistan is the threat by the TTP that it would attack the law-makers if they give go-ahead to re-open the NATO supply route. Given the track record of the TTP to make good on its threats, one can reject this out of hand at a heavy cost. ANP leader Ghulam Ahmad Bilor tumbled, calling for the realisation of national interest in re-opening the NATO supply route, but turned back on his words the next day, throwing the ball in the parliament’s court.
The parliament is now burdened with the task of pressing the reset button with the US, but due to the bickering of politicians in public, it is going to be an immense undertaking to put across a word with a united voice. The failure of action on the recommendations by the PCNS would place the government in a tight spot, notwithstanding the fact that the opposition parties pledged support at the time of closed-door deliberations. What makes it more challenging for both countries to think out of box is that elections are driving the policy on emotive issue of national interest. One has to wait for the final verdict of the parliament after the conclusion of charged debate, but the top level discussion between the government officials and leadership is going to settle on something mutually acceptable. Given the tense environment between the US and Pakistan, this seems difficult, so in the end, there may be a continuation of tension unless some other venture is undertaken to produce a thaw to break the current stalemate.