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Foot-Dragging And Firebrands: The Politics Of Pakistan's Engagement With The U.S.

Supporters of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam chant slogans during an anti-U.S. rally in Abbottabad in May 2011
As the Pakistani parliament struggles to finalize recommendations of the parliamentary Committee on National Security (CNS) on the terms of engagement with the United States, a number of opposition parties and groups, both inside and outside parliament, are out to score political points.

The leading opposition party in parliament, the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, besides being critical of the committee’s recommendations, now wants to add two more points before agreeing to the reopening of the NATO supply route. They are: the release of Aafia Siddique, a scientist convicted in the United States, and a solution to the Kashmir dispute.

By the same token, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the head of his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam party, has adopted a tougher stance on the reopening of the supply route and told the 12-member CNS that he would boycott the upcoming meetings of the committee if the members failed to pay heed to his demands.

Then there's the Justice Movement of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and the Pakistan Defense Council, a conglomerate of several political and religious groups and leaders, which doesn't have any representation in parliament.

Both Khan and the leadership of the Pakistan Defense Council, which dramatically appeared on the political scene only a few months ago, are said to have backing from Pakistan’s security establishment. The latter is known for keeping and supporting a pressure group to pull on the levers from time to time and thus humble elected officials into giving credence to their (security establishment) demands.

While the Justice Movement and leadership of the Pakistan Defense Council believe in parliamentary democracy, they openly flout the supremacy of parliament when it comes to the reopening of the NATO supply route. (After the debate, parliament will vote in the days ahead.)

In their public gatherings, the Pakistan Defense Council leadership has openly said that they would resist even if parliament approves the reopening of the supply route.

Political Points

It is hard to say how much of the opposition to the reopening is genuine or just an effort to gain public support ahead of general elections early next year.

Representatives of the Muslim League and Jamiat Ulem-e Islam were part of the 12-member CNS, attended all the meetings, and had a say in finalizing the draft recommendations, which were released on March 20.

But once the matter was brought to parliament for further discussion, the two parties started dissociating themselves from the recommendations in public and criticizing the government for showing leniency toward the United States.

While the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its allies, which enjoy a majority both in the National Assembly and Senate, appear eager to end the over three-month-long deadlock with the United States, they are actually in something of a fix over which way to go. In the words of a PPP lawmaker, “we are looking both left and right before making a decision.”

By left and right he means the country’s powerful security establishment and popular public support. The PPP leadership fears both. The most likely price for the ruling party reopening the supply route without getting a nod from the country’s security establishment is -- at the very least -- the public wrath already fomented by the firebrand leadership of the Pakistan Defense Council that could translate into problems at the polls next March.

Perhaps the Muslim League and Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, who are vying for a maximum number of seats in the next parliament, have a good understanding of this harsh reality, which explains their foot dragging.

-- Daud Khattak

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