The 26th November attack by US gunships on Pakistani military posts at Salala, along the Pak-Afghan border in Mohmand tribal agency, killed 26 Pakistani soldiers and brought the relationship between the two “strategic partners” to a low point perhaps lower than any other point in the long and chequered 60-year old history. The anti-American feeling that pervades Pakistan’s body was further inflamed. Relations at the official level already strained by the May 2nd air raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed and Mullen’s accusation that the Haqqani network was a “veritable arm” of the ISI after the Haqqani network attack on the US embassy in Kabul in September came close to a virtual breakdown.
In rapid succession, the Pakistanis announced the closure of the routes through which US and NATO troops received a large part of their non-lethal supplies and after some time announced that these would be reopened only when agreement had been reached on the transit fees that each truck would have to pay. They asked for the closure of Shamsie airbase from which drone attacks were allegedly launched and for the reduction in the number of American personnel based in Pakistan. They refused to participate in the inquiry that the Americans and NATO announced and rejected as insufficient the expression of regret (not an apology) about the loss of life that was belatedly conveyed by President Obama. They also rejected the offer of compensation to the families of the victims maintaining that the Pakistan Armed forces had their own welfare system and would look after the families themselves. They also decided to boycott the much touted Bonn Conference which was to have been according to American expectations an occasion for securing international endorsement of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan and an endorsement by the international community of pledges of non interference in Afghanistan by Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours. Lastly they set up a parliamentary committee to re-evaluate the entire gamut of Pak-American relations and to come up with a definite plan on what the nature of the engagement between the US and Pakistan should be in the future and to insist that this engagement should be in the form of written agreements.
The closure of the transit has now lasted for more than a month and the Pakistanis maintain that while the routes will be re-opened it will only be when new transit fees – based on international practice – are paid. Presumably they will look in this context at the transit fees that are being paid by Turkish trucks crossing Syria to get their goods into Lebanon. According to news reports the Turkish ministry of economy has said that in 2010, 46000 Turkish trucks crossed Syria and the transit cost was $2135 per truck carrying a 40-foot container. They will also probably look at what the Americans are having to pay for the shipments they are making through Russian ports and the Central Asian states via what is called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Currently estimates are that for each container the cost is $10,000 more than when the shipment is made through Pakistan. The Pakistanis may well argue that the difference should be split or in other words that the transit cost through Pakistan should be about $5000. Given the fact that the American military is spending $120 billion a year in Afghanistan and given the fact that a total of some 750 trucks and fuel tankers are currently using this route every day the total cost of $ 375,000 a day or $150 million a year will cause no particular strain.
In the meanwhile the Americans maintain that they have ample supplies in Afghanistan and can weather the closure for sometime to come. The Northern Distribution Network is said to be more effective now and the Pakistan route provides about 1/3rd of the supplies needed according to one report and less than 40% of US and less than 60% of NATO supplies according to another. The level of American dependence on this route has therefore declined considerably and will decline further as American and NATO troops are reduced from the current high of 130,000 to about 80,000 by the end of 2012. The NDN in the meanwhile will derive some peripheral advantage from the recent opening of the railway line between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
The Pakistanis have also asked for and secured the removal of all American equipment and personnel from Shamsie air base in Pakistani Baluchistan-a base the Americans had used for launching their drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas. For sometime now however it has been apparent that for reasons of proximity drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas have originated from bases in Afghanistan rather than from Shamsie or any other base in Pakistan. For the moment the question is moot because it seems that since the Salala incident all drone attacks have been stopped.
Very few people had expected that the Bonn Conference would live up to the high expectations that the Americans had originally bruited about. Pakistan’s non-participation in this much-heralded event, attended by 85 countries and 15 international organisations, ensured that it turned out to be a damp squib. How much damage this did to Pakistan’s relations with Germany and other participating countries is not clear but it is clear that it did little to advance the prospects for the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The Parliamentary Committee on National Security set up to review Pak-American relations has not yet completed its work. But there have been revelations that there were some 9 agreements that had been reached between America and Pakistan during the Musharraf era, most presumably in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Although the exact nature of the agreements is not known, it is believed that they pertain to intelligence sharing, permission to use the country’s airspace and allowing NATO to use Pakistan’s roads and the Karachi port for carrying supplies for troops in Afghanistan. Presumably the Committee will also look at agreements on the reimbursement from the American Coalition Support Fund of expenses Pakistan incurred on the deployment of its forces for the war on terror and for providing support services for the use of Pakistani bases by the Americans. Currently it is known that the US has been questioning the claims that Pakistan has put forward on this account and that no payments have been made on this account since December 2010 and that now the outstanding claims amount to almost $2 billion.
In the meanwhile, even while the American administration has been steadfast in stressing that it wants to restore relations with Pakistan the US Congress is taking a different tack. There have been statements against Pakistan by Senators who in the past had supported a strong US-Pak relationship criticising Pakistan and suggesting that even while the relationship remained important more conditions should be attached to it. A defence bill has also been adopted which requires that 60% of the $850 million allocated to help Pakistan develop its counter-insurgency capabilities should be withheld until the US Secretary of State certifies that Pakistan is cooperating in countering Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This relates to the American claim that the IEDs used against Americans in Afghanistan use as their principal ingredient the fertiliser Ammonium Nitrate and that this is imported from Pakistan. The cut is more symbolic than real since the Secretary of State will have no problem in providing such certification given the fact that the principal manufacturers of Ammonium Nitrate in Pakistan have already agreed to American proposals for adding distinctive identification to their product so that its export to Afghanistan can be more easily checked. Pakistani officials have also agreed to strengthen the checks at the border on such exports.
Where is the relationship headed? It is clear that both countries need cooperation. First because while bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan and preventing it from becoming once again a safe haven for terrorist groups is an important American objective such peace and stability is even more vital for Pakistan because much of the present turmoil in Pakistan is owed to the Afghan situation and while the Americans can withdraw Pakistan cannot do likewise. If the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates it is Pakistan that will have to bear the brunt of the ensuing chaos and become host to yet another influx of refugees from the civil war that is bound to ensue in Afghanistan.
The Pakistanis may not get the apology they want for the Salala incident though it is clear from the report of the Americans themselves that the incident occurred because the Americans had not informed the Pakistanis of the operation they were undertaking as they were required to do. They will not get it because in this election year Obama’s domestic policy advisers feel that it would be a sign of weakness that Obama cannot afford. But they cannot on this account afford to ignore their own vital interest in working with the Afghans and the occupation forces to bring about the reconciliation that is the only way out of the current imbroglio. They cannot ignore the impact that the continued strain in the relationship will have on Pakistan’s fragile economy.
Some form of constructive engagement will have to be found. It may come in the form of more transparent agreements and most importantly through the cooperation that will be needed to bring the Taliban and the Haqqani network to the negotiating table on terms that are acceptable for an Afghan led and Afghan owned reconciliation process. Pakistan has also to accept that even if reconciliation succeeds, the Americans will stay in Afghanistan for some time after 2014 and that even while there is the feeling that Al-Qaeda has been rendered ineffective in this region there will be a continued American interest in reducing if not eliminating the terrorist/ extremist threat that the Americans believe continues to emanate from the tribal agency areas of Pakistan.