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APC: Behind closed doors

September 30, 2011

Yesterday’s All Parties Conference (APC) called by the government to address national security concerns after the US accused Pakistan of aiding its opponent, terrorist groups in Afghanistan, has sought to redefine the national agenda. The unanimously adopted resolution at the end of the APC has called for giving peace a chance because military action has not delivered (Imran Khan’s key demand) and a covert reference to American strategy in Afghanistan, where a decade of war waged by the US has not produced the desired results. Surely this cannot be due wholly to certain sections of the Pakistan Army supporting anti-America forces in Afghanistan as the Americans have alleged.

The APC trashed all such allegations and gave the Pakistan Army and the ISI a clean chit. Those who could not be part of such a consensus, i.e. Baloch and Sindhi nationalists, chose to stay away from the moot.

The Sindhi nationalists were reportedly not even invited. This, however, is not to say that their absence dilutes the consensus in any big way because Balochistan and Sindh’s mainstream political parties were adequately represented at the APC. Both the nationalist factions have a history of not seeing eye-to-eye with the army, and would have brought their own grievances to the moot and embarrassed the government.

The APC also sought to steer policy prerogatives in a way that restores Pakistan and Pakistanis’ compromised self-respect. The leaders agreed to push for economic self-reliance rather than be held hostage to loans advanced by international lending institutions or foreign aid, both of which come with strings attached. Trade, not aid, was the new mantra expounded. The politicians pledged to stand behind the government and the armed forces should it come to dealing with any military threat posed to the country from any quarter.

In the final analysis, it was a win, win day for the army which under a most tense situation succeeded in rallying political consensus behind its key policy that incorporates its wish list on internal policy, and more significantly, the foreign policy which in its entirety remains the military’s prerogative. The only challenges that were thrown the army’s way came from Nawaz Sharif and Mahmud Achakzai.

Sharif reportedly asked the ISI chief that if Pakistan was not aiding the anti-US forces in Afghanistan, then why was the whole world doubting us. He went on to hammer in the point by saying that there’s got to be something there (daal mein kuch to kaala hai). The army chief reportedly responded that he would remove Sharif’s concerns, but never quite did so. Sharif went on to critique government policy, and questioned drone raids and the Abbottabad US Navy Seals raid. He reportedly asked if these were not a breach of national security.

Achakzai also reportedly confronted the ISI chief by thinking aloud and saying that if the ISI chief wanted there would be peace in Afghanistan within a month’s time. This assertion too was left unattended, but at least the media’s sources inside the in-camera session were able to reveal these dissenting opinions, as well as that expressed by the Jamaat-i-Islamic chief who tried to calm Sharif down as he grilled the spying chief.

While the APC also resolved to set up a parliamentary committee to oversee and monitor developments on a monthly basis so that the APC’s recommendations start reflecting in government policy in the months ahead, the fact remains that parliament has only served as a talking shop so far. In established democracies, it is parliament which debates and formulates all policy, but Pakistan is still far away from granting parliament that due role. That is why it needs to seek arbitrarily convened forums such as the APC to deliberate on a crisis situation like the one faced at present.

Clearly, this mechanism suits the power troika, the president, the prime minister and the army chief. The first two do not wish to annoy the last mentioned by taking foreign policy and national security debate to the open and constitutionally empowered institution that is parliament. But unless we get there, and discuss and debate at length critical issues like redefining national and foreign policies and do so from in a democratically transparent manner, we will not be taken seriously by the world no matter how many APCs we convene and how many consensuses we achieve under duress behind closed doors.

The writer is a member of the staff at Dawn Newspaper.