Rabu, 28 Maret 2012

Pakistan still blocks supply route for NATO - impasse continues with no end in sight

Pakistan opposition blocks NATO route
By Amir Mir

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan opposition parties are moving to block the reopening of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply routes into neighboring Afghanistan ahead of crucial deliberations to set new terms of engagement with the United States.

The country's major right-wing opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and key religio-political parties, have taken a unified stand at a joint sitting of the senate and the national assembly, which was due to resume on Wednesday evening. The joint session will conclude by voting on proposals about potential ties with the US and the future of the NATO supply route that passes through Pakistani territory.

The prime aim of the unprecedented debate is to set a new tone for a relationship with the US that seemed on the verge of collapse for much of 2011, especially in the wake of the November26 NATO air strike on a Pakistani border post, Salala, which killed 24 soldiers. 

Pakistan subsequently suspended NATO supplies via its land route to Afghanistan, besides ordering the US's Central Intelligence Agency to vacate the Shamsi air base in Balochistan province that was being used to carry out US drone attacks on Pakistani soil.

Fearing a backlash from its predominantly right-wing vote bank, the key opposition party in parliament - the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) led by twice-elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has already rejected recommendations from the multiparty parliamentary committee charged with defining a path to a reset in soured relations with Washington.

The PML-N leadership took the view that placing the issues of Pakistan-US ties and the NATO supply route before parliament was a face-saving move on the part of the government, so that it would be able claim support of the country before quietly reopening the route.

"If the federal government wants parliament to provide guidance on certain issues and situations, then we are ready to do so, but the federal government has to convince us. Otherwise, we are going to block NATO supplies by force if a unilateral decision is taken," Nisar Ali Khan, the PML-N's opposition leader in the national assembly, said in a fiery speech in the joint sitting on March 27.

According to party insiders, despite the fact that the PML-N was a part of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS), its leadership decided to introduce proposals of its own that are aimed at countering the committee's recommendations.

Some of the contentious counter-proposals to be aired during the ongoing parliamentary debate will be that the US should categorically tell the Pakistan government of its date of withdrawal from Afghanistan and give a public commitment that it won't attack Iran, especially after withdrawing from Afghanistan. At the heart of the debate is a list of 40 proposals to serve as guidelines for the new rules of engagement with the US, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that operates in Afghanistan. These were presented to parliament by the PCNS in the joint sitting of March 20.

Besides recommending Pakistan to seek an unconditional apology from Washington for the unprovoked attack on the Salala check post, the PCNS sought a halt to drone attacks and a civilian nuclear deal with the US along the lines of the US-India deal.

The PCNS proposed reopening of the NATO supply line with revised terms and conditions, including regulation and control of the movement of goods and personnel that would be subject to strict monitoring within Pakistan, and that too by levying taxes on all goods coming in or going out of Pakistan.

The PCNS further suggested that 50% of the US/ISAF/NATO containers be handled through Pakistan Railways, and rest through the roads network.

The Pakistan government had decided on January 20 to hand the responsibility of making recommendations on a reset with Washington to the 16-member PCNS, on which all the political parties elected to the two houses of the parliament were represented. It was the first time since Pakistan came into being in 1947 that the military establishment, which had treated foreign policy decisions as its exclusive domain, was usurped on such matters by elected civilian representatives.

Opposition parties sought until March 26 to study the proposals before beginning a formal debate. However, before the session could resume, most of the right-wing and religious opposition parties urged the government to finalize fresh guidelines for Pakistan's ties with the US through consensus, adding that they would not allow the rulers in Islamabad to hijack parliament and use it to endorse its premeditated actions, especially pertaining to the resumption of the suspended NATO supply route. The PML-N's Khan acknowledged that recommendations such as one calling for a cessation of US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan were good, but he objected to others, including those about the presence of foreign private security contractors and foreign intelligence operatives being accountable to conditions of transparency, and the use of Pakistani air bases by any foreign force only with parliament's approval.

The next politician to issue a more serious warning was the amirof the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who is the sole representative of his party on the PCNS. He made NATO supplies the main target of his attack on the PCNS recommendations and warned the government that it would not be able to restore the supplies. "You will not be able to implement it in the field. We are not wearing bangles."

Earlier, addressing a rally of party workers on March 23 in Peshawar (which was titled Islam Zindabad), Rehman stated, "All major issues with the United States have already been decided and the establishment is now passing the buck to parliament in a bid to rubber-stamp the decisions which have already been taken to appease the United States. I will remind the rulers that they have been elected by the people of Pakistan and not by the people of the US and, therefore, they should look after the interests of Pakistan come what may."

Similar protest rallies were organized on March 23 by the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JI) and the Jamaatul Daawa (JuD) against the potential reopening of NATO supply routes.

The most recent protest rally was staged on March 27 in front of Parliament House in Islamabad by the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defense of Pakistan Council or DPC), a conglomerate of mostly banned jihadi, sectarian and religious groups and which was allegedly created by the former director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, in a bid to pressurize the government. DPC chairman Maulana Samiul Haq accused the US of planning to send its troops into Pakistan under the cover of security personnel for NATO containers. "The resumption of NATO supplies will be a dangerous act to pave the way for America to spread its forces in Pakistan," he said.

The amir of the JI, Syed Munawwar Hasan, warned parliament and the federal government to refrain from taking decisions against national interests while finalizing the future terms of engagement with the US.

The firebrand JuD amir Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, whose party is also a component of the DPC, advised the army chief, the president, the prime minister and parliamentarians to quit if they could not protect national interests.

"All of you have taken an oath to safeguard the country and protect its interests and if you cannot fulfill your duty, you should quit," he said, as workers of religious parties chanted slogans "Down with America" and "Friends of America are traitors".

Adding to the pressure, the Pakistan Taliban on March 25 threatened to attack Pakistani lawmakers and their families if they allowed NATO to resume shipping supplies through the country.

A spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban - TTP), Ahsanullah Ahsan, accused Pakistani officials of acting like slaves for the US. "These parliamentarians must know that in such a case, none of them will be safe in their homes," he told the Associated Press. "We will start attacking all parliamentarians and their families and 'publicly slaughter' drivers ferrying NATO supplies."

Fifty religious scholars belonging the Deobandi Sunni school of thought - which is considered close to the Taliban - have issued a fatwa (religious edict) terming the reopening of the NATO land supplies route un-Islamic, adding that such a decision would be tantamount to inviting the wrath of the Almighty. The edict warned that any cooperation with the "occupation army killing innocent Muslims in brotherly Muslim country Afghanistan" was forbidden under Islam and said the Pakistan government should compel US and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan immediately.

Before his departure for a nuclear summit in Seoul, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani responded to the opposition parties' onslaught against the government by reminding that the suspension of the NATO supply route was the government's decision and there was no dictation from any side at that time, especially from the opposition.

"The opposition is playing to the gallery on the issue of the NATO supply route and hopes to cash in on emotional anti-American sentiment," Gilani said. "If the opposition thinks that we discontinued NATO supplies under their pressure, then they are wrong. We decided to block the supplies after discussing it with the defense committee of the cabinet." The decision on whether to reopen the NATO supply routes will be taken by parliament unanimously, the prime minister added.

Recent American media reports that the US military is not planning to discipline its forces over the November 26 NATO air strike contribute to factors that make it hard for Pakistan to reopen the NATO supply route in the near future.

A US military investigation last year had already exonerated American troops operating in Afghanistan from inappropriate use of force against the Pakistani military - even as the US military acknowledged some blame over the incident.

The New York Times reported on March 25 that Pakistani troops were the first to fire in the incident, citing a Pentagon probe. "We found nothing criminally negligent on the part of any individual in our investigations of the incident," the newspaper quoted one senior US military official as saying. Many Western diplomats in Islamabad believe the PCNS recommendations are a laundry list of unilateral and unworkable demands from Islamabad.

United States President Barack Obama, who met Gilani on Tuesday on the sidelines of the summit in South Korea, made it clear that the ongoing parliamentary review by Pakistan of its ties with the US would take a balanced approach and respect US national security needs.

According to diplomatic circles, the implications of Obama's statement are clear - it will be hard for the US to accept new terms of engagement that don't take into consideration overall American goals in Pakistan as well as the region at large.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ. 

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