The writer is editor The News, Islamabad.
Pakistan blinked, but it may not necessarily be a bad thing. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security bundled together its revised proposals, finally, for the joint parliamentary session to accept or reject. It is now a matter of three or four days for the collective parliamentary will to manifest itself in the form of a foreign policy resolution. No surprises in the content however and still no solution to the biggest spanner of all: the drone programme.
Except reiterating the original mantra not to allow drones, the committee is bereft of any viable solution to the problem. That coupled with the condition that no arms should be allowed through the land supply route is another stickler but at least now the US and Pakistani interlocutors may have a demand-draft to start working with.
The impending process of renewed reengagement between the US and Pakistan had fast deteriorated into a diplomatic who-blinks-first standoff. “Our strategic patience is being tested to the limit and honestly speaking, wearing rather thin”, was how a senior US diplomat put it only a few days back. The quandary for the American interlocutors had been not what the Pakistani parliamentarians may ultimately want but whether they would be able to put their demands on the table before the crucial month of May.
And they did have a legitimate concern because unless that happened, regardless of the contents, Washington simply could not commence negotiating with Islamabad and consequently sell any negotiated outcome to its own Congress back home.
American interlocutors’ sense of urgency is spawned by the looming Camp-David huddle and the all-important Nato moot in Chicago, both scheduled for May. And of course the invites to the Chicago congregation too have to go out sometime this month in Brussels. Owing to domestic political compulsions, the Chicago meeting, from the White House perspective, is the last major foreign policy decision, after which domestic issues will then dictate the administration’s priorities in the presidential election year.
US diplomats make no bones about the inevitability of “having something, anything” on the negotiations table before Chicago so as to enable Washington to invite Pakistan to the strategic conclave as a party to any future solution of the Afghan imbroglio rather than to be ‘officially’ viewed as another peace retarding factor.
Did Pakistan share a similar sense of urgency or take this US-proclaimed timetable seriously? Hardly. Clearly, Pakistani parliamentarians and US diplomats and administration are working on two different timetables with a demonstrable disconnect.
“They can take a hike if they can’t wait but this is a momentous decision for us and we are not going to rush into any new half-baked quick fix solutions to the US-Pakistan strategic equation,” was the rather dismissive reaction of a top PPP leader playing a critical role in the deliberations of the Committee on National Security.
He had a point too because Pakistan is still paying the price of off the cuff quick-decisions taken by more than one Pakistani strongman. Parliamentary dillydallying over the reengagement package however does not mean that the Pakistan government is not keen on getting the derailed engagement process back on the tracks. In fact, the over eagerness of a few top leaders may have caused some confusion in recent days.
According to people in the know, both the president and the prime minister made no bones about impressing upon the visiting Under Secretary, Tom Nides, that their administration was “open” to the concept of conducting parallel negotiations while the parliament remained seized with the matter.
Word has it that Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar however put brakes on this strategy by insisting that everyone must wait for the final recommendations approved by parliament. Whether her stance was the product of her desire to avoid facing the brunt of parliamentary wrath were this strategy to be found out or a deliberate good-cop bad-cop routine worked out by her own political bosses for the visiting senior US diplomat, is a bit early to tell. But the net result was that the Americans did walk away with the belief that things may have to wait till the final parliamentary package on the issue.
Having said that, however, it isn’t as if Islamabad is ignorant of the significance of the Chicago meeting and had candidly conveyed to Nides that Pakistan expected to be invited to the Chicago meeting without any preconditions and thus would like to be treated as a respected part of the solution. The US side however made little secret of the fact that it was linking a Chicago-invitation to the reopening of Nato’s land supply routes.
It would have been unfortunate if Washington had missed out on the critical significance of Pakistan’s express desire to be treated as a deputy prom queen in Chicago, with Afghanistan playing the lead there. Only recently Pakistan had boycotted the important Bonn conference and now that Pakistan is itself wanting to be associated with the Chicago process, attaching pre-conditions would not have served the reengagement process. Reportedly, the invitation to Chicago has landed, coincidentally at right about the same time that the PCNS finalised its recommendations. It seems enough ground has been created for the US administration to send a respectful invite to Pakistan to turn up at Chicago.
But policy conflicts aren’t exclusive to Pakistan alone. While Zardari, Gilani and Khar may have their own little differences over the issue, it isn’t all that hunky dory in Washington either. Contrary to what the Americans would have Islamabad believe, there are unmistakable signs that the State Department and the US military establishment may not be on the same page with the White House when it comes to Pakistan and the Afghan question. On the critical question of drones, the CIA appears content on maintaining the status quo with the drones hitting, the Pakis complaining, and ultimately life going on as usual.
The military establishment and the State department are open to the possibility of evolving some joint-control mechanism with Pakistan whereas the normally placid Obama White House appears to have become the harshest in its approach, understandably obsessed with its occupant’s interest in an election year.
If the two sides can resolve the drone issue then all other aspects of reopening Nato supply routes become tertiary in nature. And for that to happen, the civil and military establishment will have to abandon absolute lies and start sharing half-truths at least. It is obvious that at some very high level of authority, a tacit or direct approval is being accorded by Pakistan to the US drone programme. Had that not been the case then nothing barred the government from taking the US to the international court for such blatant violation of its sovereignty.
We need to have an honest policy on drones, instead of making ridiculous suggestions such as replacing drones with F-16s. And a decent beginning could be made if the civil and military leadership stopped lying about their role and helped bring down the jingoistic emotional rhetoric in the country.
Truth is the best defence of Pakistan’s future and not some defence-of-Pakistan body sired from the loins of deception and intrigue.