Pakistan’s New Player: The Expanding Role of Parliament

The Pakistan parliament has now completed its action on a resolution defining the terms of reference for future Pakistan-U.S. relations, adopting it without formal dissent. Action now passes to the Pakistani cabinet, which must formally initiate discussions with the United States. All eyes will be on how the U.S. and Pakistani governments negotiate the actual working of this troubled relationship. The parliament’s central role in this process also tells us about some things that have changed – and some that have not – in the way Pakistan’s government institutions work, both internally and with the United States. Both countries should take this opportunity to revise their well-practiced negotiating tactics, which have become a recipe for failure.

The parliamentary resolution laid down guidelines for Pakistan’s negotiators. Its most important points were predictable. It provided for resumption of ground shipment of supplies other than arms and ammunition for NATO and coalition forces in Afghanistan, at a higher price. It also demanded an immediate cessation of U.S. drone strikes or “hot pursuit” by U.S. forces into Pakistan; directed the government to seek an unconditional apology for last November’s attack by NATO forces on a Pakistani border post at Salala; and rejected past or future verbal or implicit agreements between Pakistan and the United States. It concluded that the “footprint” of the United States in Pakistan needed to get smaller. It also threw in one curveball – a demand that Pakistan seek a civilian nuclear accord with the United States matching India’s – and apparently rejected a second one, the release of Dr. Afia Siddiqui, currently serving an 86 year sentence in the United States for assault with intent to kill U.S. officials trying to question her. The context for all these recommendations was respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The Pakistani Cabinet now needs to turn these principles into an Executive Order that, after vetting in the Law Ministry, will guide officials working out the details with the United States. Like the three-week parliamentary deliberations, implementation is likely to be slower than anticipated. The resolution also specifies that all future agreements of any kind must be reviewed in detail by “all concerned” government ministries and submitted to the parliamentary committee. This uncharacteristically rule-bound process probably mirrors the legalistic approach Pakistan considers typical of American negotiators.

More importantly, the pace and content of negotiations will reflect the explosive politics in Pakistan of relations with the United States. The issues themselves are complex. Priorities have shifted during the four months since the Salala incident put relations in the deep freeze. Pakistan’s civilian leaders will be reluctant to take advantage of ambiguities in the resolution in ways that might look like weakening of resolve. They will be concerned that another downward swoop on the U.S.-Pakistan roller coaster could expose them to public outrage. The resolution’s directive that the government put all U.S.-Pakistan agreements in writing will shine an unwelcome spotlight on how the two governments address their most sensitive military and intelligence issues. Take drone attacks. To the United States, they are uniquely useful for reducing the terrorist threat, and some of them have been welcomed by – and quietly coordinated with – the Pakistani leadership, both civilian and military. But as we know from Wikileaks, this coordination flew in the face of what Pakistan’s leaders had told their own public.

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