ISLAMABAD: Parliament will break new ground when it meets on Tuesday to frame guidelines about the future of Pakistan’s strategic ties with the United States.
A joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate, summoned by President Asif Ali Zardari to begin at 11am, comes after a long wait for review of a relationship that has come under immense strains for months over incidents like the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad last May and a deadly American helicopter strike on a Pakistani military post near the Afghan border in November.
The outcome of the session, which is likely to continue for three days, has been awaited anxiously both in Pakistan and the United States because of its potential impact on the US-led war on terror at a time when Washington is preparing to draw down troops fighting Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, the so-called military-led establishment has often been accused of dictating foreign policy for decades, particularly vis-à-vis relations with big powers with defence implications and with arch-rival India, with parliamentarians complaining of little say, particularly under military dictators, and civilians at times had to pay dearly for asserting their positions.
Foreign policy debates in parliament in the past may have influenced government decisions, but the one beginning on Tuesday will be the first institutionalised effort of its kind for a parliamentary guidance in foreign relations.
However, parliamentary sources said recommendations of the joint sitting would not be the final word and would serve only as a guideline for the government in negotiating arrangements with the United States so long as the Afghan conflict continues.
Ties between Islamabad and Washington, marked by periods of love and hate, have generally been a picture of American dictation and Pakistani submission, the latest instance of which was former military president General Pervez Musharraf allegedly acquiescing to only a threatening telephone call from Washington, and without consulting his civilian cabinet, to join US conditions of strategic partnership after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
The previous military ruler, Gen Zia-ul-Haq, showed the door to his own hand-picked prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo in 1988 after Mr Junejo consulted opposition parties at a conference and agreed to a UN-mediated peace accord for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Even when Ms Benazir Bhutto took over as the first post-Zia PPP prime minister, she had to accept a military-picked foreign minister, Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, and it was a foreign policy difference with the army over improving relations with India that led to the 1999 Kargil conflict in Kashmir and the toppling of then PML-N prime minister Nawaz Sharif by Gen Musharraf.
The present government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, which took office in March 2008, by and large followed the arrangement left by Gen Musharraf but pressures for a review, mainly from the opposition parties, mounted because of tensions over deadly US drone strikes against Taliban hideouts in Pakistani tribal areas and the May 2 US commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Abbottabad.
But the Nov 2 US helicopter raid on Salala border post in the Mohmand tribal agency, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, was taken as the last straw that forced the government to suspend Nato supplies to Afghanistan via Pakistani land route, order vacation of Shamsi airbase in Balochistan by US personnel, and ask an all-party Parliamentary Committee on National Security to formulate recommendations for a review of the strategic relationship with the United State and Nato.
The 17-member committee, headed by PPP’s ranking Senator Mian Raza Rabbani, finalised its report in the third week of January after more than a month of deliberations, whose sources of input included presentations personally by Prime Minister Gilani, Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, then Inter-Services Intelligence director-general Lt.-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha – who retired only on Sunday – and recommendations of a conference held in Islamabad in December of Pakistani ambassadors to major world capitals.
Though the report of the parliamentary committee has been kept secret, the government continued consultations with leaders of allied parties and the military until this weekend on possible implications of the recommendations, such as conditions for allowing the transport of Nato supplies to Afghanistan for possible transit charges and possible reaction to drone attacks, over which Pakistan has so far been only protesting though several American officials have, in the past, spoken of Islamabad’s tacit consent.
The presentation of the report by Mr Rabbani will be followed by a debate, likely to be opened by opposition leader in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, and concluded with the passage of resolution to reflect the views of both the 342-seat National Assembly and the 104-seat Senate.
This will be the 12th joint sitting of parliament called since the present government took office in March 2008, including five ceremonial ones for presidential address to open a new parliamentary year just like the last held on Saturday and the third concerning war on terror, the other two of which (from Oct 8-22 on security situation that endorsed an anti-Taliban military operation in Malakand division and one on May 14 over the US raid in Abbottabad) were held in camera.
The sitting beginning on Tuesday will be open, a parliament official said.