PCNS Recommendations: Revisiting Foreign Policy

The Success of this Report would depend largely upon the quality of parliamentary leadership in overseeing its implementation. This has also huge stakes as far as civil-military relations are concerned.

Mian Raza Rabbani, the head of Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS), presented the recommendations of the committee in a joint sitting of parliament on March 20. While addressing the joint session, he said that it was parliament’s prerogative whether to accept the recommendations in entirety, or make amendments in them or reject them altogether, meaning thereby that parliament has the final say over the fate of the recommendations, which after approval, will govern not only the Pakistan-US relations but also characterize the entire gambit of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The 40 recommendations contained in the PCNS report, if summarized, make the following reading: cessation of drone attacks; lighter footprint of the US in Pakistan; no hot pursuit or boots on Pakistani territory; foreign private security contractors’ activities in Pakistan must be transparent and subject to Pakistani laws; unconditional apology from the US for the Salala attack; no bases or airspace use by the US without parliamentary approval; reopening NATO supply routes for Afghanistan contingent on agreed terms and conditions, subject to taxes and other transit charges; no more verbal agreements regarding national security; prior permission and transparency on presence of foreign intelligence operatives; active pursuit of the Iran gas pipeline, and last but not least, seeking a civilian nuclear treaty with the US along the lines of the one with India.

While it will take some time before the parliament comes up with its verdict on the recommendations as they are in the thick of both parliamentary and media debates (by the time this article appears in print, the parliament would have said its final word on them), it is important to review their merits and demerits in broader framework of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the challenges the country faces in increasingly difficult regional and global contexts.

The merits first: Since Pakistan’s joining of SEATO and SENTO pacts in 1950s, the formulation of Pakistan’s strategic policy has been the exclusive domain of the establishment. There has been manifest amount of distrust within the Establishment on the ability and competence of the country’s politicians to deal with as much critical and delicate issues as the foreign policy.

Hence, the military-led establishment has historically arrogated to itself the right to have final say on the making of the strategic policy without the exclusion of input from the political leadership and diplomatic corp. The political ownership of and leadership role played by the country’s elected leadership in revisiting foreign policy represent a welcome development, something which has been too rare to be seen in this country marked by imbalance in the civil-military relations.

Putting the onus on the parliament on the fate of PCNS report is an effort at empowering it to take charge of the matters of national importance and hold the executive accountable on latter’s performance. This would also bring policy-making closer to representing public aspirations. It would also enable the government to have more maneuvering space while negotiating the terms of engagement with foreign powers such as the US. The immediate example in this respect that comes to mind is that of the Turkish parliament, which refused to give a tow to the US at the time of US attack of Iraq. Drawing on the parliament’s opinion, the then Turkish government refused to allow the US to use its airspace. The vesting of the responsibility with the parliament on this all important matter would lead to greater parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of other executive actions and policies. Doing so also fits in what our parliamentary format of the government. Hence a much-needed step in the right direction.

Linking any agreement with any foreign country with parliamentary approval would make the process transparent thereby eradicating any possibility of the clandestine deal with the foreign powers, something that has been hallmark of the successive governments’ commitments in the past where deals were clinched to win support for perpetuating the rulers of the day in power.

The PCNS recommendation to the government that it must pursue the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline irrespective of any pressure and that it must take steps to solidify its relations with the regional countries such as Iran, Russia, China, India is most welcome. Instead of putting one’s eggs in one basket, Pakistan must adopt a multilateral approach in dealing with challenges on foreign policy, which requires deepening of political and economic relations with the countries of the region. Pakistan should shun the practice of going the whole hog at Washington’s behest. This government has already undertaken various regional initiatives at correcting the imbalance. The Trilateral Summit, held last month, was a major step in that direction.

A look at the 40 recommendations makes for mixed reading, some recommendations fall in the category of the doables, while others are reminiscent of the idealistic demands with little chance of being met such as demand of civil-nuclear deal a la the Indo-US deal. The problem with this approach is that in case of failure, there is a possibility that the sanctity of parliament will stand eroded. Therefore, while dealing with such very complex and thorny issues, it is always better to stick to the minimum doable agenda.

Now the demerits: The report represents a delayed effort on the part of both PCNS as well as the government. While descent in Pakistan-US relations started taking place since January 2011 when Raymond Davis affair hit the scene and the entire process culminated with Salala incident in November punctuated with the OBL raid in-between in May, the government took time in constituting the committee to review the terms of engagement with the US. Though much of what has been made public in the form of recommendations has long been under discussion in both parliamentary debates and media, the inordinate delay by the committee is not understandable.

The region has been witness to a number of changes over the last few months with Bonn II, being a huge global effort aimed at crafting consensus on the Afghan exit roadmap. Pakistan left out of the Bonn Conference in protest of the NATO strike on its army check post in Mohmand Agency and hence could not use the evolving situation to its benefit.

Of equal importance is the delay in convening the joint session of Parliament to debate and approve the recommendations once the report was said to be ready about two months ago.

The report also does not make mention of nature of earlier pacts and commitments with the US, which have governed the bilateral relations since 2001. PCNS would have done the nation a great favour had it identified the players responsible for running Pakistan’s foreign policy and on what terms. The veil of secrecy which blanketed the entire process of deliberations during the formulation phase of the recommendations is troublesome. The nation needs to know who said what and why.

The PCNS Report is wholly centred on Pakistan-US relations in the present context. It fails to address the imperatives of this relation in the post-withdrawal phase. The Report appears to be premised on the fact as if the US is likely to have extended presence in the region and neglects the challenges of the relations after the US pullout from Afghanistan. This is the major flaw with the report.

While Parliament is likely to approve the broad contours of the foreign policy, the determination of specifics on how the policy would be worked out in the implementation phase rests with the government. There is a need to put in place a mechanism to judge the performance of the government. The implementation phase should be flexible enough as to incorporate mid-course corrections so needed by the evolving regional situations. The success of this Report would depend largely upon the quality of Parliamentary leadership in overseeing its implementation. This has also huge stakes as far as civil-military relations are concerned.

Once Parliament approves the recommendations, they must be implemented in letter and spirit. Opposition from such extremist entities as Defence Council of Pakistan on spearheading the foreign policy should be rejected. Parliament’s will must remain supreme as repository of collective aspirations of people.

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