When in doubt about internal sources of foreign policy, one need look no further than Pakistan. An analysis of newspaper reports on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, presented during March 20’s joint parliamentary session would suggest that it is an attempt to gain lost ground, coupled with naive expectations and sound bites for television tickers. Whether parliament will gain the lost ground in the making of Pakistan’s foreign and security policies remains an open-ended question. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, has indicated the opposition’s unwillingness to be part of any resolution tabled on the issue. His concern is that such resolutions were passed in the past but never got implemented. He is right in saying so, and in that statement lie the answer to the limits of civilian politicians in crafting Pakistan’s national security policy.
How is parliament trying to gain the ground that it has lost on the issue of security policy? The Committee’s key recommendation offers some insight into the civilian strategy when it says that “any use of Pakistani bases or airspace by foreign forces would require parliament’s approval”. The above assertion is part of a statement of fact and part of a message with two audiences in mind, namely; the Pakistani armed forces and the US. The incontrovertible fact is that the US uses Pakistan’s airspace to launch drone attacks and most of these planes flew from the Shamsi airbase before the Americans were asked to leave. The Pakistani military approved of the arrangement with Washington and it would seem that its civilian politicians were not in the loop. And it would seem that the recommendations are part of an effort to bring parliament back in the equation. Whether this objective will be attained depends on several conditions. America’s relations with Pakistan are at a low point and the military has little to lose by conceding ground to parliament at this point. The US has made clear its intention of continuing to use drone attacks and it will be the politicians who will have to take flak of the public outcry when drone attacks don’t stop. The parliamentary committee recommends “the cessation of drone strikes inside Pakistan”, without clearly specifying recourse in case Washington does not pay heed. The armed forces have little to lose if the parliament is willing to take the beating on confronting the US. The opposition will accuse the government of being high on words and low on action. The only possible gain here is if the Committee succeeds in making it obligatory to have parliamentary approval for future national security policy decisions. It is too early to say whether that would be the case or not.
Having secret agreements with foreign governments is nothing new to statecraft but striking such deals verbally over matters of national security in the 21st century is something few nations can afford. The Committee has also recommended that “no verbal agreement regarding national security shall be entered into by the government or any other ministry or department”. Without naming any department or ministry, the committee clearly implicates Pervez Musharraf’s regime of substituting formal agreements with verbal assurances. Credibility is not something policymakers are known for, either at home or abroad, and recourse to violation of sovereignty comes handy in such a situation. It would be an achievement on an unprecedented scale if the Committee can build consensus in parliament to rule out verbal agreements over national security matters.
Based on what has appeared in the newspapers, naivete is not altogether absent from the Committees recommendations. For example, it says “there should be prior permission and transparency on the number and presence of foreign intelligence operations in Pakistan”. Expecting foreign governments to abide by this suggestion is asking them to abdicate what is in their national interests. I am sure, Pakistani spooks do not wait for permission from host governments before engaging in activities on foreign soils. Transparency and intelligence gathering do not go together for any nation.
A major drawback of the military’s monopoly over national security policymaking is a resulting lack of expertise on the subject in the case of elected civilian politicians. Under such circumstances, someone who has studied hotel management makes it to the rank of foreign minister. It will take dogged determination and abiding interest in matters of national security policy on the part of the civilian politicians as they attempt to enter the world thus far occupied by the military men. All efforts in that direction, including the recommendations of the parliamentary committee are a welcome departure from the past.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 22nd, 2012.