Pakistan wants a whopping $5,000 for each Nato supply truck; the US will not pay so much. Where do the two estranged allies go from here?
During his visit to New Delhi last week, the United States’ defence secretary, Leon Panetta, concentrated on the shift of American “pivot” from West Asia to East Asia or Indo-Pacific, as the region is increasingly being referred to of late.
He even created a minor flutter, combined with some scepticism, by declaring India to be the “lynchpin” of the recalibrated American policy on Asian security. However, all this paled immediately, compared with the storm caused by his brief remarks on Pakistan before leaving for home.
Mr Panetta made it clear that the US was “losing patience” with Pakistan because of “militant safe havens” on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. And, for good measure, he added that the US would continue drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt despite protests from Islamabad that these “violate Pakistan’s sovereignty”.
No wonder Pakistan reacted angrily. The first statement came from its ambassador in Washington, Sherry Rehman, who protested that such statements from a senior member of the US administration “reduced space for narrowing the differences” between the two countries and left “little oxygen for those of us seeking to break the stalemate”. The next day the official spokesman of the Pakistani foreign office “strongly rejected” Mr Panetta’s “assertions”.
This, especially the issue of an end to drone strikes, cannot but aggravate what is arguably the worst crisis in relations between the two countries because cessation of drone strikes is one of the two preconditions of Pakistan for ending the present standoff that has gone on for more than six months and has caused much tension. The second pre-condition is an apology by the US for the November 26, 2011, airstrike at Salala in North Waziristan that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. After this ghastly “friendly fire”, Pakistan had closed the transit route for supplies to Nato troops in Afghanistan. It remains shut because US President Barack Obama has refused to apologise, and it is doubtful that in an election year he can change his mind.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari also faces election some four months after the presidential poll in the US. He is in no position, therefore, to give up either of the two preconditions prescribed by an all-party committee of Pakistan’s Parliament. The man most pleased with this intractable situation must be the all-powerful Army Chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. Ever since the US attack on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden 13 months ago, the Pakistan Army has felt humiliated but has successfully turned the public anger over its failure to prevent the incident against America. The anti-American feeling within the Pakistan Army may not be as strident as among the public, especially the jihadis, but it is strong enough. The general can, therefore, sit back while the weak President is left holding the baby.
It is in this context that one must view also the big blow at the Nato Summit on Afghanistan in Chicago last month to the heavily fraught US-Pakistan ties. The US had seen to it that the invitation to Mr Zardari was delivered at the last minute, when it seemed to Washington that Nato supplies through the southern route would be resumed by the time the Pakistani President arrived at the summit.
When this did not happen, Mr Obama gave Mr Zardari a cold shoulder. At the opening of the summit, he did not even acknowledge Mr Zardari’s presence while welcoming Afghan President Hamid Karzai and even “officials” from Russia and Central Asian republics. Moreover, he denied Mr Zardari a one-to-one meeting. In Chicago, there was understandable concern that the widening gulf between the US and Pakistan might “complicate” the planned exit of Western combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
From then on, bilateral talks between America and Pakistan – which have not broken down even though there are senior members in both establishments who would like to end them – are focused on inducements to Pakistan to reopen the supply line. For several years since the two countries became “key allies” in the war on terror after 9/11, Pakistan, under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had given free passage to all supplies to American and coalition troops in Afghanistan. After him, a token charge of $250 per truck was imposed. Now Pakistan wants a whopping $5,000 a truck; America will not pay more than a thousand dollars. Mr Panetta described it as “price gouging”. Some others call it “bazaar bargaining”. The question, therefore, is: Where do the two deeply estranged allies go from here?
Over the years there have been grave crises between the US and Pakistan (America’s “most allied ally”, in the words of Ayub Khan), but these have been overcome somehow or the other, especially when America needed the rapprochement. Two life-long American experts on South Asia, Teresita and Howard Schaffer (a husband-and-wife team each of whom served as deputy assistant secretary of state for the region), wrote a book on the subject with the eloquent title Three Marriages, Two Divorces. Is a third divorce in the offing, or will the two partners prevent it?
All things considered, the second alternative seems more likely. America and Pakistan need each other. More than the southern supply route, the US requires Pakistan’s cooperation in the endgame in Afghanistan. Pakistan, with its precarious economy, cannot do without American largesse. On the other hand, a delegation of high US officials, led by assistant defence secretary Peter Lavoy, has returned home after failing to come to an agreement with top Pakistani officials on the wording of a statement that could be acceptable to both sides. This happened despite intense negotiations lasting 10 days. The sticking point remains the apology.
Yet, it must be noted that the bottomline even in Mr Panetta’s harsh pronouncement against Pakistan was: “We are not going to ‘walk away’ from that country.”