By Bhaskar Roy
On July 03, in Washington D.C., US Secretary of State Ms. Hillary Clinton declared that finally Pakistan was going to, with immediate effect, open the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) to US and NATO supplies from Karachi port to Afghanistan. This vital route was closed last November after US helicopters in Afghanistan attacked a Pakistani military post at Salala on the border of Afghanistan. Pakistan demanded nothing short of an apology for reopening the route, and the incident became a national political issue accompanied by a sharp rise in anti-American among the people of Pakistan.
In her press statement Clinton disclosed that she had spoken to the Pakistani Foreign Minister Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar that morning and had conveyed US was “sorry” for the losses suffered by the Pakistani army in the Salala incident, that America respected Pakistan’s sovereignty, and was committed to working together in pursuit of shared objectives on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect. Clinton also said that the two sides had enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation against terrorists that threatened Pakistan and the US, with the goal of defeating the Al Qaida in the region.
Pak Foreign Minister Khar’s reply that the GLOC were opening up and Pakistan would continue not to charge any transit fee in the larger interest of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region, was described by Ms Clinton as a tangible demonstration of Pakistan’s support for a secure, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan and shared objectives in the region.
At the end of six months of negotiations, mostly acrimonious, both sides were relieved. But each side had its own and separate reasons to feel so.
Finding the appropriate text of the American “apology” and Pakistan’s “response” was a protracted affair. Needless to say, both sides faced mounting pressures, each trying to stare down the other.
Did someone blink?
In the American statement, as read out by Clinton, the word “apology” was not mentioned in any form. The operative words and phrases were “sorry”, “mistakes” and “respects Pakistan’s sovereignty”. This diplomatic shuffle will allow the US State Department to mollify the US Congress which was in an agitated mood across the party divide, to cut off all aid to Pakistan. Washington is set to release $1.1 billion in coalition support aid to the Pakistani army, and civilian aid will follow.
The Pakistani authorities had dug themselves in a hole, with the army led by Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the ISI playing mischief from behind the scene. Anti-Americanism among the people was engineered by the army and the ISI with their religious right party and group acolytes spreading the propaganda. Political parties like Imran Khan’s PTI, which is widely reported to be working with the army against the ruling Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) led by President Asif Ali Zardari, have been leading the charge. The government had no option but to fall in line.
The main problem, or embarrassment for the army and the government started with the discovery and killing by US Navy Seals of Al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in the military town of Abottabad, last year. The Pakistani establishment including the army, foreign office, and the cabinet had consistently denied the presence of Osama in Pakistan. And here was Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, safely lodged in the lap of Pakistan’s army and the ISI. The Pakistani doctor, who helped the Americans locate Osama has been charged with treason and sentenced to 33 years in prison.
Jailing Dr. Afridi for treason opens Pakistan to another charge. That is, Osama bin Laden was Pakistan’s national asset, and discovering him in Pakistan went against the highest of Pakistan’s national interest. All distilled, made Pakistan a sponsor of international terrorism. It was, therefore, a compulsion for Pakistan to muddy the waters for distraction. The distraction was also for internal mind control. Following the terrorist attack on Pakistan’s Kamran naval base and the Osama incident, the army’s reputation was in tatters among the people. The attention had to be diverted. The psychological and media operation was a success for the army nationally.
Returning to the American “apology”, there was no ‘apology’ and the terms “regret” and “sorry” were close to “apology” but not quite. Has the Pakistani establishment succeeded in selling “apology” to the broad segment of the people? Partially, yes. Despite opposition from the right-wingers, the army has accepted, though the GHQ will continue to instigate the constituency to keep up pressure on the USA.
The basic fact is that the Pak army needs US financial aid and weapons and equipment support. Much of what US has given them including F-16 aircraft, are not counter-terrorism equipment. They are counter-India equipment. The Americans are very aware of this fact, but they need to keep the Pak army with them. This is a multi-nodal game.
Secretary Clinton’s press statement suggests the US has forced Pakistan to address Al Qaida, terrorism in general, and specifically in Afghanistan. If the immediate past history is examined, the hope of the US will turn to disappointment. Washington knows that. But quiet pressure is the only other option. The Pakistan Special Parliamentary Committee set up to negotiate restructuring of relations with the US, had a long list of demands including a nuclear agreement on the same basis as the India-US nuclear deal, and the same status for Pakistan as that of India with the US, and an end to drone strikes. None of these were addressed by Washington. Certainly, there are still some old cold war thinkers in the US, but their numbers are dwindling. Increasingly, Pakistan is viewed as a rogue state in the US as more and more evidence points to Pakistan as the epicentre of international terrorism, and that too, with the assistance of state institutions.
Pakistan’s main ally is China. Both sides loudly speak of their time tested friendship and trust. The Pakistani people have been made to believe, with some evidence, that China is the best friend and supporter. China has helped set up Pakistan as a nuclear weapon country, for which Pakistan is grateful. It has, however, been proved with hard evidence that Pakistan and China are collaborators in nuclear proliferation. China is Pakistan’s major military supplier, but the Chinese supplies lack the sophistication of American equipments.
But Pakistan’s GHQ is yet to understand that China is a different country now. It is on the top echelon of the global high table. It has international responsibilities as well as its own security concerns. Beijing is highly concerned about Pakistan’s support to Islamic terrorism which threatens north-west China. Beijing has fixed Pakistan’s culpability quite openly at very high levels in Islamic separatism in Xinjiang.
At the same time, China has advised Pakistan more than once in recent times, the last being in May this year, not to provoke the US and repair relations with the US. China will be loath to be drawn into a Pak-US confrontation where it may be forced to side with Pakistan. The Chinese position may have also contributed to Pakistan drawing down from its obdurate posture against the US.
Sections of the Pakistani media controlled by the ISI, had recently tried to project that China and Russia were behind Pakistan against the USA. It was poor judgement. Russians have made it clear to Islamabad their concerns over Pakistani sponsored or trained terrorists infiltrating Russia and Central Asia.
Having said all that, it does not appear that Pakistan’s most powerful institutions, the army and the ISI, have changed even a little bit from their Afghan strategy and use of terrorism in the proxy war. What they cannot comprehend is that their terrorist warriors like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) have mutated to Al Qaeda clones with an international agenda. Or even if they realise it, these elements have become independent agents and will turn on their masters if impeded. This is exactly what happened with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a progeny of the ISI as an anti-America organization and to Talibanise Afghanistan.
One of the reasons that the US wanted the GLOC open is not only for the costs of transporting through the northern grid of Central Asia and Russia. It wanted its military footprints to remain in Pakistan, for which they have spent billions of dollars. The US and Pakistan are at odds, especially on Afghanistan. The coming future can be bloody, as the US and the NATO prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. There may be a re-enactment.
The centre of gravity is now shifting to Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton arrived in Kabul on July 8 from the Tokyo meeting in Afghanistan, and declared Afghanistan as “Major Non NATO Ally” of the US. This will enable Afghanistan to procure military assistance from America which it will not get otherwise. The Tokyo meeting pledged $16 billion to Afghanistan. If the Pakistani GHQ and the Taliban and the Haqqani network hoped the US and NATO withdrawal would leave Afghanistan at their mercy, they are mistaken. The international community including China and Russia hope some presence of the US and NATO will still remain active in Afghanistan after the general withdrawal in 2014.
(The writer can be contacted at e-mail: [email protected])