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
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 November
26 NATO air strike on a
Pakistani border post, Salala, which killed 24
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
next politician to issue a more serious warning
was the amir of 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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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