By D Suba Chandran
The military commanders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO in Afghanistan met recently to discuss border security issues. An important question, at present, seems to be the invitation for Pakistan to the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago. The NATO would like Pakistan to open the supply line before that, while Pakistan would want the US to issue an apology for the attacks on Salala post in 2011 and stop further drone attacks.
A self-dug trap: Political rhetoric and public adrenalin
Much before the Salala attack in 2011, relations between the US and Pakistan were in a critical phase. Two incidents and politically orchestrated responses to them had already created a distinctive environment. First was the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, near a military complex. Instead of self-introspection on how he was able to live in such a neighbourhood, there were a series of accusations against the US for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty; as if Osama bin Laden was a State guest and the international community had committed an undiplomatic and inhuman atrocity.
The second incident was the Raymond Davis shooting. Whether the persons killed by him were Taliban or not is not the right question – they were citizens of Pakistan who had been killed by a foreigner on their own soil. Instead of letting the law takes it natural course, the US flexed its muscle to get him back to the US, severely denting Pakistan’s national pride. If Pakistan was willing to protect the Ladens and Saeeds of the world at the cost of its own national interests, the US was willing to do the same with Davis.
Both the incidents placed the political and military leadership in an embarrassing situation. They had to be seen as doing something, given the public and political pressure. The Salala attack took place against this backdrop, and Pakistan decided to cut off the NATO supply line.
Wasting the trump card: The NATO supply line
The NATO supply line via Pakistan was the greatest trump card Pakistan had. Though there is a Northern Distribution Network via Central Asia, the bulk of supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan went through Pakistan from Karachi port. The supplies did not come only from the US for American troops, but from all NATO countries to the ISAF in Afghanistan. Therefore, when Pakistan decided to close down the NATO supply line via Karachi, it affected not only the US but all NATO countries whose troops are fighting in Afghanistan.
What was the primary reason for Pakistan cutting-off this line? And what are the demands for its reopening?
The two primary demands are for bringing drone attacks to a halt and an American apology for the Salala attack. The most important reason for stopping the supply line seems to be domestic, rather than its use as a bargaining chip. The political and military leadership, stung by a series of internal failures in every respect, played to the gallery when it decided to stop the NATO supply line. Did Pakistan really believe that the US would stop drone attacks? The demand for an apology is a weak proposition and in fact self-defeating.
The decision to close down the NATO supply was taken by the leadership primarily to pacify the public and the opposition. While it did, and still does, affect NATO troops, the ISAF has been making do for the last six months, and are likely to do so in the foreseeable future. Though the other route is expensive, the NATO countries have the potential to afford it. What Pakistan fails to understand is that while the supply line through Karachi may be the easiest and the most economic option, it is not the only option for NATO.
Nevertheless, it was a trump card that Pakistan had. The aftermath of Pakistan playing the card for domestic reasons is hurting the country more than NATO. Today, there is a stronger sentiment against Pakistan all over the world, and especially in the NATO countries.
The US is not likely to stop drone attacks. If Pakistan continues to keep the line closed, a section within the US, especially in the Congress, would go for the kill in terms of stringent measures linked to the aid which Islamabad badly needs. The political and military leadership in Pakistan may be willing to open the supply line, but may also be worried about the public backlash. Invitation for Pakistan to the Chicago summit would become another political issue. Pakistan refused to attend the Bonn summit and this time NATO may be hesitant to invite Pakistan, unless the supply line is opened prior to the meeting. Certainly, Kayani and Zardari need a face-saving exit from the trap that they have orchestrated.
Ending the drone attacks would mean incurring significant military costs from an American perspective. In comparison, what would an apology for the Salala attack cost, especially if it helps Pakistan to save face and open the supply line? Let not national rhetoric and political ego affect the future course in Afghanistan.
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS & Visiting Professor, Pakistan Studies Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia
email: [email protected]