Let us try to evolve a reasonably sound negotiating strategy, post-Salala incident. When the Nato forces killed over a dozen Pakistani soldiers on November 26 last year, we got a chance to review our terms of engagement with Washington. Freezing logistic routes through our territory seemed the first obvious step. It had been done before.
Only a few weeks earlier, on November 7 in Istanbul, Pakistan along with others from the ‘gang of four’— Iran, China and Russia — had foiled an American design to keep a long-term military presence in the region. It is possible, therefore, that Salala was a warning — don’t repeat the mischief in the Bonn Conference. Boycotting the Conference that was scheduled for December conveyed the right message: no more business as usual.
Next, one had to think of a few tough benchmarks that could be ‘relaxed’ when the right deal was struck (opening positions are always compromised in a negotiated settlement). If President Barack Obama was unlikely to apologise in an election year, or if the US could not be ‘gouged’ for money, an apology and a multiple increase in the transit fees seemed to serve the purpose perfectly.
Talks could now start, indeed away from the public glare. But to help the process proceed without undue constraints and to ensure broad domestic support, one needed to become creative. One advantage of a democratic setup is that even though it is the executive’s domain, difficult decisions can always be fired from the shoulders of parliament. In this case, the parliamentary route would have additional benefits. If the negotiators needed more time, the committee constituted could be asked to go slow. And just in case the other side saw through the game and decided to call the bluff, say by offering an apology (not really the crux of the matter), it could be told to wait till the country’s supreme body completed its deliberations.
If an entity like the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) could rally the masses against reopening of the routes that could also help our position on the table. There was indeed the risk that in case of an unsatisfactory settlement, the streets would continue to remain alive. Someone, therefore, needed to establish the right leverage with the DPC.
Some deft exterior manoeuvre would obviously be useful. Mercifully, relations with regional countries were on the mend. Post Jandullah, Iran had shown understanding. With Russia, the turnaround was remarkable. The Indian front had lately remained quiet but needed constant care. Of course, the US would exercise relentless pressure, twist our economic arm, unleash its powerful media and might even throw an odd spanner in our delicate relations with India and Iran. But then pressure management is the hallmark of this game. Two countries could help prevent the prickly relationship with the US going over the edge: Saudi Arabia and the UK.
The most crucial part of the process was the assessment of the best possible or the best available deal, and when it could be clinched. Some of us had started getting nervous pretty early in the game; others favoured hanging tough till the other side grovelled on its knees. The golden rule is that neither side leaves the room red-faced; nor declare victory once outside.
I have no idea if during the protracted stand-off Pakistan followed a chartered course or kept innovating. But most of what happened, by design or by default, made eminent sense (the Chicago yatra did not, but then no one is perfect). All that was agreed upon behind the scenes was not likely to become public knowledge. Since the saga has not yet ended, that too, is the sensible thing to do.
What augurs well for the future rounds is that despite serious internal weaknesses, Pakistan held out longer than was expected.
And then there is always the DPC.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2012.
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