US-Pak Relations: Now Ally, Now Alien
The recent North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit held in Chicago last month was not expected to announce any major changes in the roadmap agreed upon for Afghanistan in the earlier such meeting held in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, in November, 2010.
Predictably, the 28-member western military alliance reaffirmed plans to gradually withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and continue the five-phase transition to the Afghan security forces. The commitment to continue training and advising the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) post-2014 was renewed and fresh promises were made to President Hamid Karzai that Afghanistan will not be left alone even after the drawdown of the NATO forces.
France, often the odd man out in the western world and now led by its newly elected Socialist President Francois Hollande, who during his election campaign had promised to pull out his troops from Afghanistan in 2012 a year ahead of schedule, broke ranks with NATO. He refused to back out of his electoral promise. There are 3,400 French troops and 150 gendarmes in Afghanistan and, according to President Hollande, all his combat soldiers would be withdrawn this year. However, military trainers would stay back to train Afghan security forces. He also made it clear that France would make its own decision instead of following Germany and other countries as to how much it should pay towards the upkeep of the Afghan security forces, which would need USD 4.1 billion annually for up to 10 years. France was asked to contribute USD 200 million a year. Though the US would be footing most of the bill for equipping, feeding and training the Afghan security forces, some of its allies are plagued by their own economic problems and do not appear enthusiastic about sharing the costs. Concern has also been expressed that other NATO member countries could follow France’s lead and pull out their forces from Afghanistan before the agreed time schedule.
From the speeches at the NATO Summit and its final declaration, it became obvious that expectations with regard to the 10-year-old-war in Afghanistan are systematically being lowered. There is no longer talk of a military victory against the Taliban and the new vocabulary being increasingly used is to prevent a Taliban takeover and deny space and sanctuaries to Al Qaeda and its allies so that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorists again. None of the NATO leaders conceded defeat, but nobody claimed victory either and it seemed most were convinced that the war was a draw and it was time to leave Afghanistan as no end was in sight.
Though it was a NATO Summit and around 60 countries, more than half being non-NATO allies, were represented at Chicago with President Barack Obama playing the host in his hometown, two of Afghanistan’s most important neighbours got the short shrift and nobody asked Iran and Pakistan to give their input for bringing the Afghan conflict to an end. Without support from Islamabad and Tehran, it will not be easy to stabilise Afghanistan, but it seemed the US and its allies were not ready yet to accept this hard fact.
It was expected that Iran would not be invited due to its ongoing confrontation with the West on account of the dispute over its nuclear programme. Pakistan did receive an invitation at the eleventh hour, after an earlier announcement by NATO’s hawkish Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that it would not be invited, but as it turned out President Asif Ali Zardari was humiliated instead of being welcomed. Obama, in his inaugural speech, did not even acknowledge his presence, though he warmly welcomed the high-ranking officials from Russia and the Central Asian states for cooperating with NATO in facilitating supplies to its 130,000 forces in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network (NTN). It was obvious that he was angry with Pakistan for not reopening the NATO supply routes that it had closed down six months ago after the US airstrikes in Salala that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and injured another 15 during an attack on two border posts in Mohmand Agency. Though no formal meeting between Obama and Zardari was scheduled on the sidelines of the NATO Summit, one could have been devised or their two brief chats extended had the US President wished to do so. However, this wasn’t done as the US didn’t expect Zardari to oblige them by announcing reopening of the NATO routes during the Chicago summit. Instead, he sent Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to talk to Zardari and convey the US demands to him.
The US President was oblivious of the fact that even now NATO supplies are passing through Pakistan’s airspace to Afghanistan and only the overland routes have been shut down. Also, he failed to mention that since 2001 Pakistan has allowed unhindered access to all kinds of NATO supplies passing through its airspace and land despite the fact that this has generated controversy in the country, led to polarisation and often created law and order problems due to attacks by the militants on the Afghanistan-bound vehicles. This would also help explain why Obama is not ready to offer an apology to Pakistan over the deaths of its soldiers as it would amount to conceding a mistake and acknowledging the veracity of Islamabad’s position on the Mohmand Agency incident. On its part, the US has continued to insist that the attack on the Pakistani troops was accidental and was undertaken in self-defence.
To add insult to injury, selected information was leaked to the US media that Pakistan was demanding a ridiculous amount of dollars per container as a condition for reopening the NATO supplies routes. It was reported that Pakistan wanted to be paid USD 5,000 per container after getting paid USD 250 only before the NATO supply routes were closed down last November. There wasn’t much mention of the fact that Pakistan’s main demands were a US apology for the deaths of its 24 soldiers and an end to the drone attacks.
It seemed there was a calculated effort to present the situation as some kind of hard bargaining by Pakistan to extract as much money as possible from the US for allowing the NATO supplies. Pakistan’s demand for payment of the blocked compensation funds under the Coalition Support Fund was also presented in a way as if it was exploiting the situation to its advantage.
It appears that the Americans had attached too many hopes with President Zardari. They failed to realise that the president of Pakistan couldn’t take such major decisions on his own as his country’s parliament had tied his hands by demanding that the US should tender an apology for the Mohmand Agency attack and thatthe drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas should be halted. Besides, they are fully aware that Pakistan’s powerful military needed to be on board before Zardari could commit himself because in this case Pakistani soldiers had been killed and not seeking a formal apology from the US for their deaths would be demoralising for the troops. Moreover, Zardari as the ruling PPP co-chairman, had to tread carefully to avoid a political fallout in an election year by being seen as too close to the US in a country where anti-America sentiment is always strong. However, these considerations do not really bother the superpower, which is used to having its way in such matters with weaker countries, more so in the case of Pakistan due to its obsequious leaders, whether they be military dictators or elected democrats.
Instead of providing an opportunity to achieve a breakthrough in ending the US-Pakistan standoff, the Chicago summit appears to have made the situation more complicated as the expected reopening of the NATO supply routes through Pakistan did not happen. The US anger against Pakistan became public at the summit as Obama failed to show any goodwill towards his Pakistani counterpart. Subsequently, newer issues causing further differences among the two countries emerged.
One such issue is the fate of CIA informer Dr Shakeel Afridi, the Pakistani physician who staged the fake anti-polio vaccination in Abbottabad to confirm Osama bin Laden’s presence in his compound and has now been convicted for maintaining close contacts with the anti-state militant organisation, Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-e-Islam, and sentenced to 33 years imprisonment by a tribal court in Bara, Khyber Agency, under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). The US reacted sharply to his sentence and demanded his release and US Senators recommended curtailing aid to Pakistan by USD 33 million, one million for each of the 33 years imprisonment handed down to Dr Afridi. Secretary of State Clinton was quick to add that Dr Afridi’s case would henceforth be part of the agenda of talks with Pakistan. There is thus one more contentious issue that would make it difficult for Washington and Islamabad to overcome their differences and revive a trustworthy relationship.
The other ticklish issue is the increase in the US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. There have already been six attacks in May, all in North Waziristan, killing up to 45 people, including unidentified militants and several civilians. Beginning on May 5, when the first drone strike in 35 days was carried out and 10 people were killed in what was described by the Pakistan government as “illegal and totally counter-productive,” the attacks have continued despite public protests by Islamabad and the rise in the anti-US sentiment in the country. Though sometimes those killed by the drone strikes are wanted by the Pakistan government and, therefore, acceptable, in most other cases unimportant militants and foot-soldiers are eliminated as it has increasingly become difficult to locate high-value targets. In any case, many known Al Qaeda militants have been taken out or captured and a number of Pakistani Taliban commanders have also been killed or forced to lie low or shift elsewhere.
There have been 327 US missile strikes using drones in Pakistan since 2004 and those killed totalled between 2,464 to 3,148 and the injured numbered around 1,200. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been collecting and researching the figures, 482 to 830 among those killed in drone attacks were civilians, including 175 children. This is in sharp contrast to US claims that civilian casualties in the last year or so have been reduced to zero.
Amid the wrangling between the US and Pakistan on a host of issues, the larger objective of stabilising Afghanistan failed to get the required attention from these two so-called allies whose role is crucial in achieving this goal. Though President Obama in his speech at the end of the NATO conference reiterated the US stance that Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan, no concrete steps were discussed or outlined to make it happen. There is a difference of opinion in this context as well. Pakistan has been pleading for a negotiated solution through engagement with the Taliban and other armed groups, including former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, and offering to help bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table. The US, on the other hand, is yet to make up its mind regarding what role the Taliban could be assigned for ending the Afghan conflict.
In fact, the recent strategic partnership agreement between the US and Afghanistan has angered both the Taliban and Hekmatyar and prompted them to rule out any further peace talks with Washington and Kabul. In the absence of talks and the failure to find a political solution, there would be continued fighting and little hope of ending the Afghan conflict. Pakistan would suffer the consequences of the instability in Afghanistan, but it may not get the role that it wishes to play in Afghanistan if its relations with the US don’t improve.
This article was originally published in the June issue under the headline “Now Ally, Now Alien.”
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