The US-Pakistan relations, to quite an extent, kept on hold till Parliament makes up its mind on the report submitted by its Committee on National Security, have suddenly hit centre stage. Highest level meetings between the US and Pakistan military commanders have taken place. General James Matts, Chief of Staff US Central Command, and General John R. Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, met General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Islamabad for the first time since the US war planes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November at the Salalah military post. US President Barack Obama met Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in South Korea and exchanged notes about mutual concerns. Also, the US Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Marc Grossman, called on President Asif Zardari at Dushane in Tajikistan during a regional heads of state conference. A statement has also come from the US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, who said: “We want to rebuild the trust and confidence between our two militaries.”
President Obama wants a “balanced” review of relations between the two countries based on an approach that respects Pakistan’s sovereignty and takes care of American security interests. Washington is keen to see the Nato supply line restored in Pakistan and is also bent on continuing with the unmanned drone strikes. The latest from our Foreign Office, too, emphasises the crucial importance of good relations between USA and Pakistan. Stated the Foreign Office spokesperson, Abdul Basit, the other day: “We attach immense importance to meeting in Dushanbe (Zardari-Grossman) and at the highest level in Seoul (Gilani-Obama). These meetings reflect very clearly that Pakistan and USA care about their bilateral relations. So, we are looking for the resumption of normal relations following the completion of the parliamentary process, which is currently underway. On the issues of drone attacks and reopening of the Nato supply routes, I think we should better wait as to what policy directions Parliament finally gives us.”
Soon after his return from South Korea, the Prime Minister has held an important meeting with the top civil and military leadership, including General Kayani and DG ISI Zaheerul Islam. Also present in the meeting were Maulana Fazalur Rehman and the PML-N leaders in the Senate and National Assembly, Ishaq Dar and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. The meeting is reported to have sought to incorporate some of the opposition’s reservations and suggestions voiced by them on the floor of Parliament and outside in press conferences.
On March 29, a White House official told reporters that the Obama-Gilani meeting was “positive” in both tone and substance. He said: “The tone was one of mutual respect and a sincere intent in gaining a better understanding of each other’s respective positions.”
While Washington has been patiently waiting for the Pakistani Parliament’s debate and recommendations, a joint session of the two houses has been treating the matter rather casually. According to newspapers reports, the security committee had finalised its task by mid-January. Of course, there was a need for taking a serious notice of the restarting of target killings in Karachi and violent protests, and also against prolonged loadshedding, the delay in reviewing and finalising the recommendations of the Raza Rabbani Committee betrays a deliberate design to drag feet and mark time. It may well have something to do with the unrelenting and widespread anti-American public sentiment.
The PML-N’s apprehensions as voiced by Chaudhry Nisar relate to the government’s doubtful credentials with regard to previous parliamentary resolutions. The government appears to be inclined to reopen the Nato supply lines and also let the drone attacks continue, subject to certain conditions. The crucial question, however, is: Will Parliament be able to come to an agreed basis on these two counts? The Prime Minister’s meeting with the civil and military high-ups appears to be an attempt to prepare the ground for arriving at some sort of consensus.
Another point that needs to be resolved is the reference in the parliamentary report about the operations of private American contractors in Pakistan. The very fact that this matter has been included in the report implying acceptance of such activities by foreign agents indicates an unacceptable and compromising mindset. How can a sovereign country agree to such objectionable covert activities by outsiders? Whatever is finally decided, it is of the imperative that the resetting of the terms of engagement must be in the form of written agreements. The process of cart blanche given by Musharraf and its continuation by a weak-kneed NRO-tainted and vulnerable government, must give place to a firm and clearly worded set of commitments on both sides that should be open to review periodically. The opposition’s fears as indicated by Chaudhry Nisar are well taken. It would be desirable also to have a joint government and opposition standing committee charged with the task of monitoring the way the new terms of engagement are implemented.
The basis of the rebuilding of ties between the two countries should not be the monetary gain for the weaker party (Pakistan), but a clear recognition of mutual interests. As Imran Khan puts it: “We can no longer afford to have a master-client (slave) relationship. We, of course, can have friendly ties and respect for each other’s concerns.” Indeed, the complex end game in Afghanistan cannot be successfully played out without taking care of Pakistan’s interests. The US has, to a considerable extent, been treating Pakistan shabbily. The very idea of hyphenating Pakistan with Afghanistan was based on downgrading the status of Pakistan coining the odd title for it as AfPak. The fact of the matter is that Pakistan has been used roughly and even callously. It has suffered heavily in terms of human and financial cost. Its economy has been ruined and society weakened and destabilised. There is much sense in what Imran Khan has been saying for a long time. Yes, the anti-state faction of the Taliban and the foreign elements must be dealt with firmly, but we cannot afford to continue fighting with our own erstwhile patriotic Pakistanis living in the tribal areas. The whole question of fighting terrorism needs to be reviewed in depth in a statesmanlike manner with the aim of safeguarding our own national interests. It is time we make the international community recognise our concerns and constraints.
At the same time, we cannot afford to isolate ourselves in an increasingly interdependent world. What is needed is a clear-eyed and balanced approach to our numerous external and internal challenges. The political opposition has its job cut out to intelligently act as a watchful monitor to keep a weak, wayward and unpredictable government on course.
The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and political and international relations analyst.