LAHORE: If the Afghan endgame is a chessboard, Pakistan is believed to be the queen; the game can’t be played without this crucial piece.
Thus the international community has been rocked by Pakistan’s decision to boycott the Bonn conference on Afghanistan’s future, due to be held in the German city next week, in protest against Saturday’s Nato air raids on Pakistani border posts that killed two dozen troops.
The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Lahore. Other pressing topics which would normally have been discussed, such as the energy crisis, were swept aside as the question of how to react to the air strikes dominated the agenda.
At home, the prime minister will summon a joint session of parliament to debate the issue, after recommendations from the parliamentary committee on national security.
Before then, however, the fallout could have caused further diplomatic strain. A prominent member of the cabinet told The Express Tribune that the premier would make a ground-breaking announcement on Pakistan’s relationship with the US in the ‘war on terror’ within the next few days. He said that the news would ‘comfort’ Pakistanis, though he was reluctant to divulge more information.
Another minister, who asked not to be named, told The Express Tribune that the cabinet had a heated debate on why the Pakistan Army had not reacted to the air strikes. The minister said the prime minister informed the cabinet that the military operated on the directives of the government.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar briefed the cabinet about the incident and the diplomatic efforts being made to highlight the violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. The cabinet agreed that unilateral actions, like the Abbottabad raid which killed Osama bin Laden and the cross-border Nato air raid, were unacceptable.
Gilani also informed the cabinet about the decisions of the defence committee of the cabinet (DCC). He reiterated that Pakistan would never compromise its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Cabinet takes forceful stance
After much debate, the cabinet made some formal decisions and statements, which were released to the media. Firstly, that it reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for stability and peace in Afghanistan – and that it hoped the Bonn conference would further this goal, despite Pakistan’s non-attendance due to “developments and prevailing circumstances”.
The cabinet also officially condemned the Nato air strikes and termed them an “assault on the sovereignty of Pakistan”. Furthermore, it endorsed the stance taken by the DCC, which includes closing Nato supply routes, ordering the US to leave the Shamsi Airbase, and reviewing Pakistan’s ties with the US-led coalition in general.
The cabinet also asked the international community to acknowledge that the air raids violated the UN charter and international law, with possibly grave repercussions for regional peace and security.
Pakistan is calculating shift in US relations
Federal Minister for Information Firdous Ashiq Awan said the country’s boycott would send a message to the world: that Pakistan could not participate in a conference aimed at protecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty while its own sovereignty was being breached and tarnished. She added that the decision not to attend the Bonn conference has laid the foundations for a shift in policy on the country’s relations with the US.
She said that the prime minister has asked Finance Minister Hafeez Sheikh to submit a report on the likely repercussions of Pakistan changing its approach to the US.
Rehman Malik denies UAE airbase story
Interior Minister Rehman Malik confirmed that notices have been sent for the US to vacate the Shamsi Airbase, while denying reports that the UAE has requested Pakistan not to shut it down.
Malik told the media at Lahore airport that the government has responded “courageously” to the US over the issue.
Karzai tries to make Pakistan change its mind
Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Prime Minister Gilani and asked him to reconsider the decision to boycott the Bonn conference. Karzai also condoled with Gilani over the death of Pakistani soldiers.
Gilani said Pakistan remained committed to helping restore stability in Afghanistan, but also expressed regrets that Afghan soil was used to attack Pakistan by Nato forces. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she was “very sorry” about Pakistan’s decision. She said Germany would still “see what could be done to change” Islamabad’s mind.
(With additional input from Agencies)
Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2011.