Interpreting the ‘national consensus’
After making public a variety of clashing views, all parties in the joint parliamentary session in Islamabad have produced a unanimous 14-point document of “national consensus” on the war on terror. This is an important moment in Pakistan’s history in so far as the politicians did not sabotage the session as they appeared to indicate earlier, but agreed to make an effort to arrive at a consensus over the crisis of terrorism in Pakistan. Needless to say, any “consensus” among people of differing points of view had to be abstract and broad, which is what the agreed document is. The corollary to that is that its interpretations will abound in the days to come.
For starters, the newspapers produced varying headlines on Thursday reflecting their separate understanding of what has been agreed to. Papers that were worried about the “dialogue” taking place with the terrorists blazoned the part that said there would be talks only with those who would lay down arms. The document actually says: “Dialogue will be encouraged with all those elements willing to abide by the Constitution of Pakistan and rule of law”. This is a most lucid pledge given by the joint session that negotiations will not be held with the militant violators of the law. One can say that this is where the PPP-led government has scored a victory.
The other headline claimed that “the army operations will cease” and that dialogue would be a first priority to meet the challenge of terrorism. “Army will not be used in FATA”, proclaimed another such headline. And one headline said: “No military operations; the army will be withdrawn”. This twist on the consensus document refers us to the section that says, “The challenge of militancy and extremism must be met through developing a consensus and dialogue with all genuine stakeholders”. And the suspension of military operations and withdrawal of the army is assumed from the section that says, “That the state shall establish its writ…(using customary means)…and that the military will be replaced as early as possible by civilian law-enforcement agencies…”.
There was even a headline that said, “Pakistan’s foreign policy will be changed”, meaning perhaps that Pakistan will get out of the international coalition against terrorism. However, an overhaul of the entire issue of militancy and insurgency in the Tribal Areas as well as in Balochistan is promised in the opening sentence of the consensus resolution: “We need an urgent review of our national security strategy and revisiting the methodology of combating terrorism in order to restore peace and stability to Pakistan and the region though an independent foreign policy”. But this remains subject to the interpretation of the government. The opposition, however, will hold it to the implied undertaking that it would change policy in consultation inside the parliament.
On the other hand, the government will steadily make reference to the section that says: “That Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity shall be safeguarded. The nation stands united against any incursions and invasions of the homeland, and calls upon the government to deal with it effectively”. Read it together with the pledge given in the sentence, “That Pakistan’s territory shall not be used for any kind of attacks on other countries and all foreign fighters, if found shall be expelled from our soil” and you have given the government the latitude to take on the Taliban of all varieties plus their overlord Al Qaeda because they are invading Afghanistan across the Durand Line.
The normal outcome of such a broad and “inclusive” consensus is that bickering starts over what it means, at two levels. First, there will be some altercation between the government and the opposition over how to go about implementing this consensus. And, second, there will be quarrels within the opposition parties whose leaders have signed the document and “betrayed the party cause”. This bickering is normally supposed to give space to the government to continue its policy based on objective conditions. The national issue remains politicised, producing some dissonance in a national environment that everybody thinks should be consensual.
The document is an achievement of the PPP government. Despite the negative jurisprudence of some signed inter-party documents of the past, it was able to persuade leaders of radically differing views to sign under the 14 points that did not all reflect their position. Will the army facing the terrorists in the Tribal Areas be reassured by the production of this document in the parliament? There is no doubt that it will be less put off now than before by a lack of national consensus, but it will still have to work under the familiar democratic ambiance of dissent in the media where the opposition is able to make a strong appearance.
The army will remain deployed because of the threat to Pakistan’s survival as a state. Islamabad will not allow the country to be isolated internationally simply because it needs outside help to survive economically. And it will cooperate with Afghanistan and India to explore ways and means to reduce the triangular conflict of interests. All this is for the good. (Daily Times)