By D Suba Chandran
Pakistan has closed the NATO supply route and asked the US to vacate the Shamsi base. The prime minister has threatened that relations with the US would not be business as usual. What is next in US-Pakistan relations?
Whom does the Shamsi base belong to? And what does the US use it for?
Before analyzing the implications of the US leaving Shamsi base, there is substantial confusion even within Pakistan about whom the airbase belongs to. According to available reports, the airbase has belonged to the UAE since 1992, thanks to an agreement between the UAE and Pakistan. Why would Pakistan lease an airbase in Balochistan, few hundred kilometres from Quetta, to the UAE? For recreational purposes of the UAE royalty, who liked to land in Shamsi and indulge in some hunting. So much for the sovereignty of Pakistan!
According to further reports, it was the UAE that handed over this base to the US and not Pakistan. One is not sure of the legal arrangement between the UAE and Pakistan; although Pakistan has made it clear more than once that the US cannot use this base for undertaking military operations. It could be used only for transport purposes along with the Jacobabad airbase in Sindh.
The Pakistani defence minister statement made a reference to Shamsi after the killing of Osama bin Laden: “When US forces will not operate from there, no drone attacks will be carried out. Islamabad has been pressuring the US to vacate the base even before the May 2 raid in which US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. After the raid we told them again.”
Given the double game that Pakistan has played vis-à-vis the US in terms of privately accepting the drone attacks while publicly condemning them, the facts are unlikely to be released.
Will the NATO supplies be totally cut-off?
The NATO supply lines are a huge leverage that Islamabad has vis-à-vis the US. However, it is also imperative to understand that allowing the US access to supply lines from Karachi port to Kabul is not indicative of Pakistan’s part in fighting the war on terrorism. There is a substantial commission attached to this process. While Pakistan is likely to suffer economically due to the cut-off, the US will face the primary brunt of this cessation.
Hence either the US will have to look for alternative supply routes or pressurize Islamabad in a different way. If Pakistan closes the NATO supply lines, the US could threaten to suspend aid to Islamabad. Pakistan gets ‘pay-per-truck’ for the NATO supply lines, so closing them would not hurt the country that much monetarily. However, American aid is imperative for the survival of Pakistan’s economy and its suspension would affect the country significantly. No other country provides as much aid to Pakistan as the US. Even China, with whom Islamabad shares a relationship ‘higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the oceans’, does not provide that much liquid cash to Pakistan. Either Islamabad expects the US to continue its charity, or hopes that every Pakistani citizen would miraculously agree to expand the tax net.
It is safe to expect that Pakistan would like to get a few more apologies and further aid before silently agreeing to reopen the NATO supply lines. The question of sovereignty will be mortgaged until the next round of crisis erupts.
The Pakistani leadership has been fooling its people since General Musharraf on the question of sovereignty. One the on hand it has privately yielded to the US, and on the other, aroused anti-American sentiments amongst the public.
Bonn without Pakistan?
Islamabad has also announced that it would not take part in the Bonn dialogue. Can this be read as a protest against the NATO air strike? The Bonn conference is aimed at working towards stability in Afghanistan after 2014. Pakistan’s positive role is extremely important to build a stable Afghanistan. With Iran already politically untouchable for the US, it is extremely important to have Pakistan as a part of the process. While many would like to critique the role of Islamabad in building a stable Afghanistan, it would be a bigger problem if left outside the Afghan solution. Pakistan no doubt also understands that Afghanistan would become a bigger problem to its own security if it is not part of any Afghan dialogue process.
Did US not calculate these outcomes?
Why did the US fail to calculate these outcomes? Or, what could have gone into the decision-making that ultimately led to the NATO attack on the two Pakistani posts? Perhaps the US was waiting for a chance to ‘teach a lesson’ to Pakistan.
This was a disaster waiting to happen. Bigger problems would follow.
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS & Visiting Professor, Pakistan Studies Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia
email: [email protected]