This is the season to count the blessings of ‘positive engagement’ with the US, the hallmark of which is the opening of Ground Lines of Communication (G-LOCS, an American coinage). The Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), the highest decision-making body in crisis situations, fell just short of declaring a national holiday to emphatically send the message to Washington about how relieved it was to be proposing a new beginning in bilateral relations. The DCC’s authorisation to different heads of departments to prepare the finer details of the agreement to unblock the stalled supplies to Afghanistan is being made to look like a well-considered and a painfully-arrived-at decision from a responsible state that wants to avoid the disastrous course of confrontation with a large group of very important states.
The facts of this particular matter are, however, wholly different. The entire rigmarole of holding marathon meetings and burning the midnight oil to smooth over complex policy creases had nothing to do with the 40-plus ‘important countries of the world’; nor was it a master stroke of fine diplomacy born of genius. While scripted differently, at heart it was an unconditional apology by all Pakistani decision-makers tendered to Washington for their act of closing the Nato supplies six months ago. And this apology had to be made under duress created primarily by a string of miscalculations by the country’s army high command and the political elite.
The more prominent of these miscalculations was the assumption that the hurried act of closing the gates of supplies to Nato and the US forces through Pakistan’s land would, in turn, make the world sit up and take note of the mood at the General Headquarters following Salala.
It was meant to be more than just a profound protest. In fact, Pakistan’s second miscalculation was that it perceived this as an opportunity to re-design its relations with the US in a manner that would secure Islamabad’s core interests in a deal publicly accepted to be between equals and sealed with guarantees of declared respect for Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. This was an important point to make at the time as Salala came on the heels of the OBL raid. Since the army high command could not retaliate in kind, nor could it sit back and take these repeated hits, it chose the middle way of fighting it out on the table of hard bargains with Washington.
The political elite played along this strategy, but for different reasons. A weak-kneed government had to resort to the crutches of parliament to sustain the policy of cold confrontation with Washington in the hope that the collective will of the people’s representatives would add strength to this posture and help it cut a popular deal with the US. The parliament, never a brooding forum of high-rolling intellectuals, took the mandate with open arms, stretched it according to the aspirations of the people and returned the government a document that would be hard to implement even by the strongest of countries. What was meant to be a source of strength for the government thus became its biggest weakness: the parliament’s wish list could not be turned into a command for the world to obey. Certainly, not by a government that was consumed by its power play with the judiciary.
Thus, hemmed in by gross miscalculations, the Pakistani decision-making machinery went into hasty retreat trampling on itself. The army high command started to blame the politicians for creating a mess in parliament over a fine and delicate manoeuvre to get the best deal with Washington. The civilians in power quietly began to shift responsibility towards the generals for playing populist cards and landing the government in an impossible situation, leading to the blocking of Nato supplies. An empty kitty forced further gloom and doom upon a directionless policy-making apparatus.
The saga that started after the Salala attack is a sad and worrying testimony of how matters of extreme national importance are decided. Knee-jerk reactions have replaced long-term planning in every sphere and no collective wisdom seems to inform — much less set the direction of — the debate about Pakistan’s abiding interests. In the most precarious of times, the country is in the most fickle of hands.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2012.