Prime Minister Imran Khan’s emphatic speech in the National Assembly on Wednesday spoke more than what was actually said.
The nature of this gap between speaking and saying will become relatively clear after the meeting of parliament’s national security committee scheduled for today afternoon when the military high command briefs political leaders on the situation in Afghanistan and other strategic matters. At this critical juncture in Pakistani politics — with domestic strains competing with external challenges — nothing is being left to chance.
On the face of it, the PM’s speech carried quiet a punch. By staying away from criticising the opposition, a feat in of itself, and focusing on substantive policy issues with a strategic flair, the prime minister exuded a sense of imperious normality. The sweep of themes — vision, economy, foreign policy — the variety of topics ranging from micro-loans to macro challenges, and from technical trainings for the youth to partnering with the United States in peace not in conflict, framed as it were, in nationalistic tones — all this was meant to portray strength, confidence and control.
This is an interesting policy aura to exude at a time of impending regional turmoil. It is this turmoil, or the threat of it, that is bringing the military leadership to the parliament today in order to take the political leadership on board about what is happening, and could happen, in Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc. and how it may impact us. Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa will attend the meeting and DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed is expected to give the main briefing. All the key opposition leaders, including Shehbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, are scheduled to attend the meeting.
Wednesday saw a minor controversy over this meeting. According to Red Zone insiders, the list of invitees for the meeting topped more than a hundred, including some people from the media and also a few non-parliamentarians. The main political parties objected to this and demanded that the meeting should only be for parliamentarians. After some negotiations, it was finally agreed that only the parliamentarians would participate and the proceedings would be closed to the media. Many invites turned to dis-invites.
Opposition sources say they had asked for such a briefing because they were getting none from the government. They complained that they were being kept in the dark on strategic matters whereas they were important stakeholders in every sense. Prime Minister Imran Khan will not be present in the meeting.
What is interesting is that opposition sources, including those who are attending the meeting, say they do not plan to raise any issues with the military leadership linked to their political grievances against them. This is especially significant for the PML-N whose leader has directly named the military leadership for interfering in the 2018 elections. The rules of decorum for the meeting, it appears, have been agreed upon. The discussion will remain focused on strategic matters.
A similar briefing on the situation in Afghanistan was held quietly at the Foreign Office a few weeks back. Prominent politicians from the opposition were invited to attend. Most did. The briefing was conducted by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and he detailed the situation unfolding across the western border and how instability could spill across into Pakistan. He also explained the steps that Pakistan had taken to persuade the Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani administration to find a negotiated settlement in order to avoid another civil war. The Q&A session was tough, as is to be expected when you invite your political opponents for such a meeting. Since it was an off-the-record briefing for all including some of us journalists who were present in the meeting, one cannot report who said exactly what, but what can be said is that the opposition members had strong reservations about how Pakistan was engaging the Taliban and the Kabul government.
Today’s briefing could reflect some of this unease. However, the prime minister’s speech pre-empted much of what may be said in this important meeting — or perhaps amplified it — by taking a strong and clear position on the policy with the United States. Here’s where there is some chatter in the Red Zone. As the American troops hasten their withdrawal from Afghanistan within the stipulated September 11 deadline, many of their officials have said Washington remains concerned about an unstable Afghanistan re-emerging as a threat for the US homeland via transnational actors. Retaining a ‘counter-terrorism’ role in Afghanistan one way or another is a US compulsion, these officials argue. While the specifics of what such a role could entail remain within the realm of informed conjecture, Red Zone insiders say Pakistan will somehow figure in these plans.
In a well-documented but un-attributable briefing during Ramazan, a senior official had stated clearly that Pakistan wanted strong relationships with both the United States and China. This would require some diplomatic tightrope walking, but it was necessary for Islamabad to find the optimal balance.
The US military and diplomatic leadership has been engaging Islamabad fairly deeply in recent months but there are some undercurrents that reflect a degree of unease, say insiders who are watching this diplomatic jugglery closely.
One such unease is generated by the fact that President Joseph Biden of the United States has still not reached out to Prime Minister Khan ever since taking office in January this year. The CIA chief, however, did fly into Pakistan in recent months and met the military high command. The New York Times broke the story of this visit but diplomatic sources inside the Red Zone — those in the know — say that the story got many things wrong. They did not specify.
The PM’s categorical stance on what could, or could not, entail cooperation with the US, and his repeated reminders of the unfair way that Washington treated Islamabad during the war on terror, took many observers by surprise. At a delicate stage when both sides are trying to grapple with each other as well as with the fluid situation, did this strong prime ministerial rhetoric reflect an evolving position within the state? And if so, why?
The answer may become clear in the meeting taking place in the parliament today. This answer too may say more than what has been spoken.
Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2021