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The ball’s back from the long grass

March 25, 2012

IN England, journalists often use the term “kicking the ball into the long grass” to describe inaction and procrastination by bureaucrats and politicians. I was puzzled about the origin of this expression when I first came across it. Soon, I discovered that a football or rugby game has to be halted when the ball is accidentally kicked into the grass surrounding the ground in a village green. Players look for the ball, using this unscheduled interruption to rest.

Thus, following the uproar after the American attack at the Afghan border in November that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the government kicked the ball into the long grass. The intervening four months have allowed tempers to cool while a parliamentary committee took its time to come up with a long list of recommendations.

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with parliament deliberating over US-Pakistan relations. In many countries, governments set domestic and foreign policies in accordance with their political agendas as well as the prevailing circumstances. While agreements with foreign powers and institutions require parliamentary ratification, day-to-day relations are not normally subject to the approval of elected representatives.

In its eagerness to avoid confrontations with the military, the media and the courts, this government has allowed its authority and prerogatives to seep away. Desperate to complete its term, it has rolled over whenever anybody has said “Boo!” The only exception is the Prime Minister’s refusal to send a letter to the Swiss authorities regarding corruption allegations against the president. This tough stand is again linked to the PPP’s desire to stay in power at any cost.

And the cost can be very high. In this particular case, by allowing a vital element of our foreign policy to be subject to the uncertainty of a parliamentary vote, this government has surrendered its right to shape the future of its relationship with the United States.

For instance, how many politicians will have the courage to vote for a continuation of the American drone programme? Saying ‘no’ would clearly be the easy and popular move. And yet, the US ambassador to Pakistan has already said his government will continue these selective attacks. Will we then shoot the drones down, incurring the very real possibility of American retaliation?One reality our media pundits refuse to face is that drones are the only effective tool to target militants that are killings coalition and Afghan forces and civilians across the border. Given our army’s unwillingness or inability to attack these sanctuaries on Pakistani soil, and our refusal to allow foreign troops to operate in the tribal areas, what options are left?

Those who clamour loudest about national honour should remember that to claim sovereignty over a territory, we must first exercise control over it. And clearly, the Pakistani state has never enjoyed full control over large swathes of the border areas with Afghanistan. Currently, Pakistani and foreign militants are the ones who call the shots there, making life hell for the locals.

So while parliamentarians might wish to score points over this deeply controversial policy, their vote will effectively pit the government and the military against the world’s sole superpower. And those gung-ho armchair warriors urging exactly this confrontation would do well to reflect on the fate of the Iraqi armed forces in both the Gulf wars.

Our talking heads on TV chat shows and our generals are both convinced that the Pakistani overland routes for coalition supplies gives us enormous leverage in Washington. This is a dangerous error. As we have seen, Nato forces have got along fine despite our blocking hundreds of trucks headed for Afghanistan following the Salala incident last November.

Currently, around 30 per cent of coalition supplies cross Pakistan by land. Pentagon has been diversifying routes ever since we began applying pressure by denying access to protest various incidents. And while it would cost a lot more to completely re-route supplies, this extra expense is minor compared to the overall cost of the war.

Again, by seeking parliamentary approval for re-opening these routes, the government risks allowing this agreement to become hostage to popular street sentiment. And if we increase transit cost, it will seem that this entire exercise was conducted to extort more money from the Americans.

Another problem with getting parliamentary approval for normal, day-to-day relations is that once it is given, policies become set in stone. Any changes will again require a debate before a joint session of Parliament. In effect, the government’s hands will be tied if it has to react quickly to changed circumstances.

In an increasingly anti-American environment, it is clear this government is seeking to guard its flanks from attacks from GHQ, the media and the mullahs. Already, the Difai-e-Pakistan has announced that it will not permit the re-opening of supply routes; Imran Khan fulminates daily against drone attacks. This government hopes to neutralise both by getting a parliamentary seal of approval.

All too often, states enter into secret understandings for mutual benefit. For example, many governments share intelligence with friends and allies, and only a handful of people are privy to these agreements. In an ideal world, these would be open and transparent, but in reality, this classified information is on a ‘need to know’ basis.

Raza Rabbani’s parliamentary committee has, among other things, proposed that the US be asked to sign a civilian nuclear deal similar to the one it has signed with India. The good senator must be joking. Washington has already rejected a Pakistani request along these lines because of our terrible record on proliferation.

Apart from Pakistan’s relations with the US, the committee has also made proposals about our links with other countries, many of them innocuous. But as we have noted, if the joint session of parliament approves this wish list, it will be difficult to step out of this self-created cage.

As citizens, we would all like to see transparency and parliamentary oversight in policy-making. But in the real world, governments need flexibility and room to manoeuvre. By outsourcing the process to parliament, this administration has further enfeebled itself.