The sudden unanimous passing of the recommendations by the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) by a joint sitting of parliament despite the opposition to it had a number of factors to it – some actual and others perceived.
For starters, the two main opponents of the resolution, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Jamiat UIema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F), were offered complete government ownership of a move to reopen Nato supply routes.
The two parties feared the public backlash for supporting any such move directly.
The bailout offered by none other than the president himself meant that the resolution itself would not speak of reopening routes – which would be left to an independent order by the executive.
After final talks between the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government and PML-N’s Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Senator Ishaque Dar and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, it was decided that the prime minister, after meeting with the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, will announce the decision. Such a move would help create enough distance between the move and the PML-N and JUI-F.
But the move to accept such a bailout by the PML-N had other, deeper, factors to it.
The PML-N’s dilemma
Nawaz’s move to accept the government’s favour was pushed by his party’s own fears of isolation.
Well-placed sources in the PML-N told The Express Tribune that the party’s leadership first started paying attention following what they perceived to be a veiled threat by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
According to them, Khar’s statement – that, in case the opposition was not ready to support the government on PCNS recommendations, the treasury benches would still ensure it passed with a simple majority, – was meant to convey a strong message to PML-N.
According sources in the PML-N, the party construed the message as follows: A failure to support PPP on this matter – related directly to Pakistan-US ties – would isolate the PML-N.
Why did this threaten the PML-N? The party felt that Khar’s statement was issued after both the army and the US, both impatient stakeholders in the resolution, asked Khar to pressurise the PML-N leadership. Given the two quarters involved in this “pressure”, the PML-N felt that resisting would have consequences. Not only did they feel it would it have the potential to affect their chances to form the next government, but, more directly, would mean isolation by two important quarters should they manage to come to power.
Hence the dilemma was between facing a backlash from the public and political rivals for supporting the resolution and facing isolation from two important quarters for not supporting it.
It was in light of Khar’s statement that the party’s leadership gave a go ahead to the Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and Leader of Opposition in the Senate Ishaq Dar to agree on a draft that was still consistent with the PML-N’s stance and would not minimise the hit to its reputation in the upcoming elections.
According to the party sources, PPP, PML-N and Maulana Fazl had earlier agreed to put the draft on hold and try the resumption of Nato supplies through other available options, particularly under the Afghan Transit Trade. The army and the US, however, wanted the draft passed unanimously, the sources claimed.
Following the dilemma, direct negotiations were carried out between Chaudhry Nisar and the army, while Dar negotiated with US stakeholders in Dubai over the past few days.
The party sources claimed that PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif during his short and sudden visit to Dubai from April 2 to 4 met with US think tanks dealing with South Asia and officials of the Obama administration – ostensibly to do some damage control.
Sources further said that, during his meeting with US ambassador Cameron Munter in Islamabad, Sharif explained painstakingly that, while the PML-N wanted the resumption of Nato supplies, the party wanted to be shielded from any backlash that would harm its chances in the upcoming elections.
The PML-N chief is said to have been making concerted effort to ensure that he is viewed as a “suitable” premier for regional and other international stakeholders.
Given the sensitivity of the matter, versions were difficult to come by. PML-N’s media coordinator refused to comment on the matter, saying simply that the entire Parliament passed the resolution.
PML-N’s Deputy General Secretary Ahsan Iqbal could not be contacted for a version.
Long meeting with US envoy
As far as meetings go, a two-hour sitting between the PML-N’s top leadership and US’ Special Advisor on Pakistan and Afghanistan Ambassador Robin Raphel on Saturday was certainly not ordinary.
Nawaz Sharif was accompanied by his young brother Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif while Raphel was accompanied by US Lahore Counsel General Nina Fite.
An official statement stated that only mutual interests and bilateral relations between Pakistan and US were discussed.
However, sources say that the meeting was a part of the backroom dialogue already going on for the past few days – and Raphel discussed the lead-up to the US-led forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and its aftermath.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2012.