Leaders discuss route reopening: Face-saving deal almost worked out -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Leaders discuss route reopening: Face-saving deal almost worked out

Baqir Sajjad Syed

ISLAMABAD: A day before the government enters a decision mode on ties with the United States, key civil and military leaders at a meeting at the Presidency on Monday approved, in principle, a face-saving deal that would allow both sides to move beyond the Salala issue which has been holding up the crucial relationship for months.

The meeting, attended by President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and senior aides, took stock of the ongoing behind-the-scenes negotiations both in Islamabad and Washington.

Noting progress in the dialogue, a source who had been briefed on the meeting said the principals agreed on ending the status quo.

Speaking at a media briefing on the prime minister’s visit to the United Kingdom after the meeting, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar also gave a similar impression and said: “Pakistan has made the point and we now need to move on and go into a positive zone of trying to conduct our relations.”

It was, however, obvious that the government was now in a hurry for “closure on Salala incident” despite having overstretched the process earlier.

The meeting took place hours before Pakistani and US negotiators sit down for finalising a memorandum of understanding on Nato ground supply routes which they had been negotiating for weeks. Discussions on other ‘irritants’ also continue.

Crucial meetings have been lined up for the next two days. On Tuesday, a meeting of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) will be convened to recommend forward movement in ties with the US, while the corps commanders and the federal cabinet will meet separately the following day to endorse the DCC decision.

Earlier over the weekend, the army was involved in a bilateral dialogue with the US-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) for Afghanistan and a tripartite meeting with Isaf and the Afghan army.

The new found urgency, according to an observer, is for catching the bus for Nato summit in Chicago beginning later this week.

Following the Nov 26 border incident, the government had ordered a parliamentary review which demanded an unconditional apology, cessation of drone attacks in tribal areas, formalisation of bilateral agreements with the US and renegotiation of the terms for supply routes passing through the country’s territory. The parliament, however, recommended reopening of routes for non-lethal supplies only.

While much of the media focus has recently been on apology and reopening of supply routes, known as Ground Lines of Communications (GLOCs) in official parlance, both sides are said to be negotiating a ‘wholesome package’, which includes alternatives to drone attacks, Coalition Support Fund reimbursements and border coordination for preventing recurrence of Salala-type incidents.

Foreign Minister Khar at her press conference left no doubt that the government was all set to reopen Nato supply routes as she said Pakistan did not want to be seen as a ‘blocker’ and that its objectives were aligned with the rest of the world for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

“We want to continue to be a facilitator and enabler for world’s efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan and not a blocker,” Ms Khar said.

A green signal on GLOCs will in effect mean a confirmed invitation letter for the Nato Summit. The apparent desperation in government echelons for attending the Chicago event on Afghanistan is because of a growing feeling of isolation vis-à-vis developments in Afghanistan. Pakistan had earlier opted out of Bonn conference because of the Salala incident.

The only unknown element in the GLOCs reopening story is that in what shape it will come and at what terms. And whether the US will apologise or the government is in a climbdown and will settle without it.

The softening tone on apology was evident. Asked if the government was still expecting an act of contrition, the foreign minister, who is now being accused of botching up the apology offered by the US in February, talked about looking at the matter from the perspective of “partnership approach” and “building trust”.

Pakistan, she said, was ready to play its part for rebuilding trust and that there was no reason to believe that the other side would not reciprocate.

She said parliament had only recommended that the government sought apology from the US for the death of 24 soldiers in the Nov 26 Salala attack and that it had done.