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Parliamentary oversight

March 26, 2012

AFTER a curious and almost indefensible delay, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) on the guidelines for revised terms of engagement with USA/Nato/Isaf finally tabled its recommendations to a joint session of the two Houses of Pakistan’s parliament on March 20.

It was a workmanlike document written by members representing various parties; at least Prof Khurshid Ahmad had known reservations about the report’s contents on drone attacks and transit facilities to foreign forces in Afghanistan.

The text, competent though it was, showed the strain of various factors that weighed on PCNS’ deliberations. First, it could not be assumed that the executive had referred sensitive foreign policy issues to parliament because of a fundamental change in its outlook; it may simply have been an expedient to conceal failures of its muddled US policy under the cloak of parliamentary consent.

Secondly, PCNS addressed the task of reflecting the will of the people without any assurance that the executive had the resolve or the capacity to implement recommendations that Washington would push back against even as it repeats sanctimonious clichés about respecting Pakistan’s parliament.

Third, the committee did not, apparently, feel that it could sketch a comprehensive framework of Pakistan’s external relations with any greater detail than customary phrases about national sovereignty and bare-bone recommendations about China, Russia and Iran.

Considering that PCNS had such luminaries as Senators Raza Rabbani, Wasim Sajjad and Ishaq Dar as its members, an opportunity to write a document that would have compelling and abiding power over an executive, the motives of which are suspect in the eyes of the people, for years to come has almost been lost. PCNS should have aspired to a longer shelf life for its report particularly when it is evident that in its uncertain final year, the current parliament may not be able to strike deep roots for parliamentary oversight of external relations and worse still, may not even be interested in doing so.

Establishing this oversight is a challenge even in states with long traditions of democracy. The demanding business of crafting adequate responses on a daily basis strengthens the grip of the executive, particularly it’s foreign and security policy establishment, on the conduct of external relations. The ‘establishment’ can draw upon supportive inputs from think tanks and an already enlisted media.

On their part, legislators have, in the more recent past, sought to leverage their influence by strengthening the role of consultative bodies such as foreign affairs committees, by scrutinising money bills more critically, and above all, by promoting direct parliament-to-parliament contacts. Pakistani parliaments have seldom manifested such proactive interest in the formulation and conduct of the country’s external relations. Did they, for instance, act strongly enough to prevent the government from contracting secret obligations after 9/11 and did they demand that such agreements be brought to them for approval? Substantial sections of the present government are a carry-over of the Musharraf regime and were complicit in decisions that parliament now is expected to review.

Be it as it may, the Raza Rabbani committee’s challenge to parliament to assume ownership of foreign policy is a dynamic that can have a life of its own, particularly if the media keeps it alive. It will, in future, be difficult to hide behind the belief that the armed forces do not allow the elected institutions to play a significant role in the realm of foreign and security policy.

Parliamentarians will be expected to invest time and energy to make an intensive study of issues confronting the nation.

Rhetorical demands for ending drone attacks are liable to wither away for two major reasons: one, the offensive use of unmanned vehicles — an increasingly lethal weapon of choice — is a growth industry; two, Washington is likely to return to leaks that drone attacks are often carried out with clandestine approval from Pakistan. Pakistan’s parliament will probably make little impression on this CIA operation; its ability to rule out Pakistan’s own secret assent, at least in some drone attacks, is also not assured.

The issue of Nato supplies is emotive and will attract sharp partisan politics if the government does not handle it with tact.

Depreciation of Pakistan’s infrastructure by its large-scale use for Nato supplies amounts to billions of rupees. Failure of international users to compensate Pakistan adequately with much higher taxes and tolls would fuel resistance that may not only be conceptual.

The committee was strangely weak on ‘foreign intelligence operatives’. The international system tolerates their limited presence as duly accredited ‘diplomats’ in foreign missions but what has happened in Pakistan with undeniable complicity of government functionaries is simply outrageous. Parliament’s task is to reduce this pervasive foreign ‘footprint’ to acceptable levels available only in embassies.

PCNS’ recommendations about deepening relations with China, about pursuing Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline and about strengthening the initiative to build a qualitatively different relationship with Russia would have better traction if parliament can pursue them robustly and with expertise comparable with, if not superior to the specialised institutions. Foreign affairs committees would need to meet more frequently and draw upon experts within and outside the government. Similarly, parliament must create a tradition of informed and professional engagement abroad and eliminate the deeply rooted culture of inane tourism in the name of foreign policy, worst seen in ‘projecting’ the Kashmir issue.

Foreign policy of a state cannot be static even as some of its underlying concerns and norms have an enduring value. In a world of flux, its conduct demands flexibility and adjustment within its abiding parameters. Pakistan’s parliament would have to remain continuously, and not episodically, engaged with foreign and security policy issues if it wants to break the near monopolistic control of the executive on them.

Unless it re-tools itself for an effective role in formulating and supervising foreign policy, it would run the risk of instrumental use by the core practitioners in the Foreign Office and elsewhere. Effective parliamentary oversight in future would be a bold departure from our past.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.