WASHINGTON, DC - Wednesday, August 15, 2012 -
Pakistan reopened NATO’s logistical route to Afghanistan on July 4. This was made possible by an official apology from the U.S. regarding the November 26, 2011 drone attack on the Salala border post, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
While western analysts are optimistic over the outcome, the Pakistani public at large does not see the recent developments in the Salala affair as a win-win situation. Policymakers in Washington D.C. view Pakistan as an unreliable player in the region, while their Pakistani counterparts increasingly do not view the U.S. as either an ally or a partner. The resumption of NATO supply line hence bears closer resemblance to a fire-fighting mission than a reset of U.S.-Pakistani relations.
BACKGROUND: Islamabad continues to condemn unauthorized drone strikes in its tribal territories, which have reportedly claimed more civilian lives than a few claimed but unidentified al-Qaeda operatives. In Washington’s perspective, the loss of NATO soldiers or embarrassing hostage-taking inside the secure areas of Kabul are a consequence of the skills and outreach of the Haqqani network allegedly based in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal district.
After Pervez Musharraf’s decision to desert Afghanistan’s Taliban militia, the U.S. and Pakistan branded their renewed relationship as strategic and long-term in spite of widespread suspicion after tensions between the two Cold-War era allies throughout the 1990s.
The Pakistani leadership’s decision to join the U.S. against the Taliban militia in Kabul that it had previously supported was dictated more by its urge for international recognition than any pursuit of collective national interests. Musharraf then agreed to offer an air corridor for NATO bombers, a land route for the bloc’s lethal and non-lethal supplies, and permission to conduct sting operations across the country to airlift any Pakistani on mere suspicion of assisting Muslim extremists.
Neither of the parties then felt the need to turn these modalities into a formal agreement. Meanwhile, the U.S. launched missile strikes through Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones. Though Islamabad’s elite joined forces with the U.S. for over half a decade, Islamists attacked NATO supply convoys en route to Kabul and Kandahar on Pakistani soil.
The shooting of two Pakistanis by U.S. contractor Raymond Davis on a busy Lahore highway provided for public resentment of the presence of foreign spies. Relations plunged to an unprecedented low as the U.S. not only refused to apologize for the shootings but also claimed that the culprit was an embassy official who enjoyed diplomatic immunity. The fallout of the messy affair bought greater leverage for right-wing politicians and extremists alike. In the monsoon of 2010, Pakistan witnessed the worst floods of the century and the bloodiest drone strikes in its tribal regions.
On May 2, 2011, U.S. soldiers found and killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani cantonment city of Abbottabad. While Pakistan’s political and military leadership went into a coma for about a week, nationalist elements invoked the question of sovereignty. The Pakistani military elite faced an enormous pressure at home and abroad for its failure if not full-out connivance.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Pakistan on October 21 in an attempt to prod Islamabad to do more in eliminating terrorist safe havens. The U.S. accused Pakistan of harboring the Haqqani terror network, while Pakistan sought to end the drone strikes ahead of its military operations in the Waziristan region. The casualty rate of villagers in drone strikes, the military claims, drives the local population against them and reduces the chances of a successful military campaign.
On November 26, Pakistan ordered a halt to NATO’s logistical supplies, a withdrawal of U.S. drones from the Shamsi airbase in its southwestern region and demanded an apology for the killing of 24 soldiers in a NATO raid at the Salala check post. While disputing Pakistani claims of innocence in the Salala incident, the U.S. vacated the airbase but continued drone strikes from its bases in Afghanistan.
IMPLICATIONS: Washington slashed its financial assistance program for Pakistan while continuously accusing Islamabad of supporting terrorists. A particularly demonstrative move was to cut $33 million from its $800 million annual assistance package over Pakistan’s jailing of a doctor who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden. Pakistan considers the man to have betrayed his country by not sharing the vital information with Pakistani law enforcement agencies.
The Pakistani parliament conducted an overall review of the country’s relations with the U.S. and came up with a set of categorical recommendations, including a refusal to compromise Pakistan’s sovereignty in any bilateral relationship, thus demanding an immediate end to drone strikes on its territory; an unconditional apology by NATO and the U.S. for the killing of Pakistani troops; a renegotiation of terms for the NATO/ISAF supply routes besides strict monitoring of items and proper taxation regimes; monitoring of all foreign intelligence operating on Pakistani soil with better transparency; no covert or overt operations on Pakistani soil; and faster reimbursement for Pakistan’s services to Coalition Support Funds.
Each side has hence overreacted on various occasions. The U.S. refusal to offer an apology for the Salala incident cost American taxpayers $700 million due to the seven-month blockade of NATO supplies, forcing NATO to make increased use of the longer route via Azerbaijan.
Pakistan and the U.S. both fail to review their respective weaknesses and mistakes in a marathon war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The U.S. has somewhat unrealistically devised a greater role for India in post-NATO Afghanistan. The encirclement of Pakistan by India is viewed as a longstanding security problem in Pakistan. Just like NATO supply lines, any future prospect of India-Afghanistan transit trade would be vulnerable to sabotage and closure unless key disputes between the two arch rivals are settled. Such a development would be extremely unfavorable to the U.S.’s relations with Pakistan.
The process of unblocking of the NATO supply line has already caused tremendous uproar in Islamabad with the violation of the parliamentary recommendations. Washington denied the Pakistani government an opportunity to save face by killing 21 unidentified people in a drone strike the very next day.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, told CNN in a recent interview that Pakistan has not accepted any American drone strikes on its territory in exchange for Washington’s apology over the Salala attacks.
“No, we have not agreed on anything. In fact, those conversations are yet to happen. As I said, the apology has opened the space for an opportunity where we can have constructive conversations that might be … to the satisfaction of both sides. Right now, we have given no go-ahead at all,” she said.
Washington too seems to be preparing for a bumpy road to normalization. After their first meeting since the logistical corridor was reopened, Clinton flanked, by her Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani, told reporters in Tokyo: “Obviously there’s a lot of follow-up work that has to be done. I’ve said a number of times that is a challenging and interesting relationship and it remains so.”
The impressive show of strength by Pakistani nationalists across the country and in Islamabad on July 9 is a reminder of the obstacles such a secretive deal with Washington may face from a more liberated and assertive public as well as media.
At the same time, foot-dragging on settling the outstanding issues with the U.S. would limit Pakistan’s bargaining power. Having lost precious time in year-long rift, a transparent and focused agreement must come sooner rather than later, lest NATO logistical supplies will fall prey to sabotage or an incident on the treacherous border.
CONCLUSIONS: In the current state of bilateral mistrust, Pakistan and the U.S. cannot forge ahead for fruitful reconciliation. The biggest challenge for Islamabad is to minimize cleavages between its civilian and military leaderships on strategic issues such as Afghanistan.
Similarly, the U.S. should separate its national interest from that of India when negotiating with Pakistan. Officials in Islamabad have been wary of a massive push, through official and track-two channels, in favor of providing access for Indian goods to Afghanistan.
Moreover, a U.S.-Pakistan rapprochement could be facilitated considerably if Turkey or the UK were to play a mediatory role. The lack of a long-term vision and a high degree of bilateral mistrust may yield catastrophic consequences not only for Afghanistan and the region but also for the international community at large.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic with a special focus on diplomacy, security and energy politics. He jointly heads Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges, a multi-lingual journalistic organization promoting cross-cultural and cross-religious efforts for social integration and peaceful co-existence. He can be reached at email@example.com.