While our parliament was getting ready to debate the text of the foreign policy draft in a joint session, US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani were at a conference in South Korea trying to sort out a troubled anti-terror alliance which almost ruptured over 10 months of mistrust and recriminations.
President Obama admitted that, “There have been times — I think we should be candid — over the last several months where those relations have had periods of strains”. Then he delivered the crucial conditionality of any future discussion between them two: “But I welcome the fact that the parliament of Pakistan is reviewing, after some extensive study, the nature of this relationship. I think it’s important to get it right. I think it’s important for us to have candid dialogue, to work through these issues”.
Prime Minister Gilani was careful, replacing ‘terrorism’ with a word that the Pakistan Army prefers as explanation of what is happening in Pakistan: “We are committed to fighting against extremism. We want stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. An Islamabad-based think tank has recently issued a study of extremism in Pakistan as if to buttress the position increasingly adopted here in respect of what the international community insists on calling terrorism.
It is clear that by committing foreign policy to the custodianship of parliament, the PPP-led government has postponed any discussion of bilateral issues with the US. The draft text of the ‘guidelines’ that parliament would have the government follow are a mixture of abstraction and realpolitik — ‘principle’ and ‘flexibility’ — that will make any negotiation difficult. But unfortunately, problems have arisen among the parties represented in parliament on these guidelines.
The opposition led by JUI’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the second largest party in parliament, the PML-N, now want the draft guidelines changed. They say they want to debate the sincerity of the government in following what parliament will endorse and they have reservations about the clear indication in the draft of reopening of the Nato supply route to Afghanistan under certain conditions. It is clear that debate over foreign policy will unfold slowly as background music to efforts being made on the roads of Punjab to topple the erring government.
There is an element of fear in what is being proposed by the political parties before they engage in the debate. The Taliban have warned that any talk of reopening the Nato supply route will attract their retaliatory attacks on the politicians. Al Qaeda’s Aiman al Zawahiri has also added his voice to this warning, saying the rulers in Islamabad are slaves of America and should be toppled. Jamaat-i-Islami chief Syed Munawar Hasan, who is a leading light of the rejectionist alliance of religious parties and organisations included in Defence of Pakistan Council says he will not hesitate to spill blood if the route is reopened.
The effect of this environment of fear has triggered a proposal from a section of parliament that the debate be held also with parties not in parliament. This, of course, means those who stayed out of the 2008 elections as well as those who are organisationally present as nonstate actors of Pakistan. Needless to say, this ‘expanded’ debate will eliminate the centrepiece of any negotiation with the US of such sensitive issues as drones and a possible nuclear deal in the energy sector.
We all know what happens to unrealistic foreign policy pronouncements by parliament. They were made in the past but the government was unable to act on them. In fact, what we had in consequence was a rift over foreign policy now being adjudicated in the Supreme Court in the shape of ‘memogate’ scandal.
What clearly has come to the fore is that foreign policy of Pakistan is not only run by the army, but also indirectly by other elements outside parliament who partially control events inside Pakistan, and that ignoring the views of these elements can endanger the lives of our politicians. The world can wait as we sort out this dilemma.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2012.