By Shabbir Cheema
On April 12, Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously approved a new set of guidelines on relations with the United States, an action that could pave the way for the reopening of critical U.S. and NATO supply lines into Afghanistan. For the past few months, those routes have been closed by Pakistan as ties between the two allies in the “war on terror” have plunged to an all time low in the wake of the U.S. raid against Osama bin Laden, the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore, and the accidental U.S. attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border military post.
While the U.S. and NATO will no doubt welcome the reopening of the supply lines, which are essential as the U.S. starts withdrawing its troops, they are likely to be far less enthusiastic about some of the other provisions of the 14-point framework provided by the Pakistani Assembly, including an end to drone attacks, no future foreign bases or U.S. troops on the ground in Pakistan and a ban on transportation of weapons through Pakistan to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Intense diplomatic negotiations are already underway between the U.S. and Pakistani governments in an effort to find enough common ground to implement the guidelines.
The drone attacks especially are hugely unpopular in Pakistan, where they are viewed by the public as counter-productive and leading to civilian casualties. The Obama administration, however, views drones as a particularly effective tool against remote militant safe havens, and the U.S. is unlikely to end them readily.
Because of its dependence on U.S. civilian and military aid, Pakistan is unlikely to make the reopening of supply lines conditional on an end to drone attacks. However, there may be some room for compromise on the scope of the attacks: during the Bush administration, drones were used only against high-value targets, but their number has expanded greatly under Obama, leading to more civilian casualties and greater anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
The Pakistani Parliament’s guidelines also call for the U.S. to apologize unconditionally for the accidental cross-border attack, something which is very difficult for the Obama administration to do, especially in an election year. A U.S. investigation has concluded that the Pakistani troops fired first in the incident, a finding that Pakistan strongly disputes. A compromise is likely, resulting in a declaration of remorse by the U.S. that falls somewhere short of a formal apology.
Within Pakistan, the new terms of engagement approved by the Assembly are significant in several ways. First, the guidelines would introduce domestic transparency in Pakistan-U.S. relations dealing with the war on terrorism. This is a radical departure from previous military-led Pakistan governments, which did not take the public into confidence about security and foreign policies.
Second, parliamentary oversight of Pakistani foreign and security policies will promote more democratic accountability, and will help provide more legitimacy to the civilian government – which is an important objective of Obama’s Pakistan strategy. Over the long term, however, it is yet to be seen whether a habitually dominant military establishment in Pakistan will reconcile to playing a subordinate role to parliamentary and civilian oversight.
Despite their many disagreements, America and Pakistan are well aware of their interdependence, especially when it comes to the “end game” in Afghanistan. President Obama’s meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the recent nuclear disarmament conference in Korea helped set the stage to for a re-setting of the relationship, and this was followed a week later by a meeting in Islamabad between the countries’ two highest-ranking military officers, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Continued diplomatic engagement between the two countries is essential to rebuild the kind of trust required to achieve their common objectives, including greater cooperation in intelligence gathering and sharing.
In the short term, the U.S. will be strongly motivated to find a compromise that would enable the re-opening of the supply lines to Afghanistan. Officials are hoping the routes can be opened before an important NATO summit in Chicago next month.
Shabbir Cheema is Director of Asia-Pacific Governance and Democracy Initiative at the East-west Center. He recently led a study tour to Pakistan with a group of prominent U.S journalists.
(Note: This commentary first appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on April 18, 2012)