US – Pakistan Dispute Exacerbated. What Now?

The US-Pakistan relationship steadily going for the worse is an issue that hits the radar screen of world media outlets. One thing leads to another transforming into a vicious chain of events spurring the negative process.The Shamsi Air Base incident exacerbated the situation to the boiling point.The volatile region is of great concern to many world chess board players. The turn of events evokes some embarrassment as the situation creeps to further tensions and making any predictions or assessments of what is in store seem to be a tall order. Pakistan has vowed to close permanently the U.S.-NATO logistics routes through which a major part of supplies needed for the Afghanistan war effort must be transported. Some analysts say this time around the decision may not be reversed as on may occasions before because of mounting popular political pressure. The deployment of air-defense systems along the border with Afghanistan to counter US air strikes is an intention declared. Prime Minister Gilani told the BBC on December 11 that Pakistan was using the blockades on the supply routes as a bargaining chip to make Washington introduce new "Rules of Engagement" for forces in the border area. Pakistan has already halted the convoys, leaving hundreds of trucks stranded at roadside depots. Further retaliatory actions are foreseen including the closure of Pakistani airspace to the United States aviation. The Prime Minister emphasized that neither Pakistan nor the United States trusted each other in the fight against Islamic militants. The USA responded by with holding about $800 million in aid to Pakistan's armed forces. Since 2001, the U.S. has provided $21 billion in civilian and military assistance to Pakistan, including $4.5 billion in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Washington has long been highly critical of the Pakistan military cooperating with Afghan insurgents and other jihadist groups. Two bills in the US Congress would have cut off aid to Pakistan altogether if not voted down. What now? It has become a frequently asked question by analysts and observers. To see how the events may unfold it’s expedient to pick up odd and ends and piece them together to see what is behind the actors actions and what factors influence the situation.

Pakistan

- As all actors in the region Pakistan is looking at the strategic impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s vital to hold it in control to provide a strategic home front in case of war with India. Once established and supported with Saudi money coming through Pakistan the Taliban is expected to accomplish the mission. The Pakistan government finds the obvious improvement of India-Afghanistan ties (as well India – US rapprochement) to be a matter of serious concern (Afghanistan and India signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement in New Delhi on October 4, 2011);

- The anti NATO feelings are strong. Parliamentarians are pushing the government to impose taxes on NATO supplies. Senator Tariq Azim of the Defence Committee said each container passing through Pakistan was exempt from all duties and tolls. He stressed that worked when the US was a close ally, but not when NATO was attacking Pakistani troops.

- The policy towards Washington is of double nature. Pakistan badly needs US financial aid to fight terrorists within its own borders that may undermine stability and raise havoc inside the country. The Pakistan government strongly believes their actions are backed by India. Israel produced arms were found in the hands of dead terrorists in Karachi. Besides there is another threat - separatist ideas spread and take toll in some provinces. But if the USA is not there to help – someone else should. This way by “punishing” Pakistan the US Congress pushes it into China’s embrace.

- The disputes and misunderstandings with the USA are there to stay for, probably, a long time. But an armed conflict is a too remote possibility. Islamabad and Washington are to be at loggerheads till overall improvement of Pakistan – Afghanistan relations takes place. The two issues are intertwined. Any Pakistan government decision is doomed to have in mind the growing anti-US sentiments widely spreading among all walks of life of the country’s population. But Pakistan is a nuclear state. The conventional capabilities make an effective deterrent for anyone, a potent force to be reckoned with. It’s hard to imagine the USA and its NATO allies bringing in hardware (something that NATO forces lack and don’t need for practical purposes in Afghanistan) to engage it in the times of well known economic woes and military expenditure reductions. Besides, the start of operation to bring the force in would warn Islamabad in time to get ready and make life a nightmare for the aggressor. More to it – the USA will need Russian air space to get its combat and auxiliary aircraft to the region as well as Abrams tanks and Bradley heavy infantry vehicles will have to use Russian railway system to get to the place of destination. And what is especially important - attacking Pakistan means risking war with China – a possibility the Chinese government has openly warned about. Too many risks, too few gains that make a US - NATO military operation a hardly acceptable option;

- The rapprochement of Pakistan and Russia is a factor to be taken into consideration. The two states leaders have met five times in the past three years. President Zardari’s May 2011 visit to Moscow is an event of great importance. Moscow is really interested in giving a boost to the bilateral relations. Pakistan and Russia finalized the modernization of the Soviet built Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi, the building of rail tracks from Dushanbe to Islamabad, cooperation in the energy sectors and agriculture. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the funding of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline at the May 2011 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Dushanbe. With India being a strategic partner and an old friend Russia’s clout in the region and its ability to influence events in a favorable way is obvious.

USA

A very important statement of leading right wing heavy weights saw light on Dec. 5. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham urged the United States to “fully review” its relations with Pakistan and further curb military and economic aid. The statement reflected the feelings widely spread among the Washington’s political elite: “The time has come for the United States to fully review its relations with Pakistan. We must assess the nature and levels of our support.” McCain is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, while Graham is a member of the same panel and the top Republican on the committee responsible for US foreign aid. Pakistan’s decision to prevent NATO supplies from reaching Afghanistan, sending US intelligence officers away from the country and refusal to take part the Bonn conference – all such actions came under harsh criticism. “Such steps by the Pakistani government would mark a new low for our relationship”, the senators warned. There are many other senators and representatives who use the stand-off to make the Obama administration get tough with a country that is soft on insurgent groups, the Taliban to name a few. Whatever problem the country faces it’s election campaign that defines the things. No conflict with any state serves the interests of the Obama administration. But at the same time it cannot allow itself the luxury of being soft on the issue.

Russia

- Russia has threatened to cut off the NATO supply routes to Afghanistan if there is no deal on the missile defense in Europe. It opposes the deployment, arguing it undermines the existing nuclear balance. The concern is obviously real and well substantiated. A number of measures is to be taken in response to such plans including installment of Iskander short-range ballistic missiles near Kaliningrad, considering a possibility of pulling out of the START-3 Treaty to name a few. The USA better think twice before letting the things slide. Secure strategic supply lines are an imperative to success in any military operation. The routes into Afghanistan have never been under NATO control, all of them go through third countries (even talking about air cargo planes – one can hardly imagine any other way but Russian airspace);

- The Russian Federation keeps on intensifying its foreign policy efforts in the region looking for cooperation and friendship with all, not excluding anyone. Constructive dialogue is the main instrument in achieving the goals set. For instance, the Russian initiative to create a new organization at the Sochi August 2010 summit with presidents of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The four countries are building economic structures to undertake joint economic projects in power generation, transport infrastructure and coal, copper and gold mining. They are rebuilding a trade Silk Route from former Soviet Central Asia via Afghanistan to Pakistan. Russia provides funds for a road and a railway infrastructure, as well as investing in energy sectors of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. The US could certainly gain more by joining instead of relying on unmanned aerial vehicles and stealth combat helicopters to achieve its foreign policy objectives.

- There is one more issue of concern – will the USA preserve military facilities in the region after the withdrawal from Afghanistan making possible intervention into Central Asia states a possibility? On the other hand with the military phase of operation over, Russia could join NATO in the efforts to stabilize the northern part of Afghanistan. These joint efforts could be beneficial for Russia- NATO relations in case other issues like missile defense would find a solution and not be an apple of constant discord;

- Moscow promises to support Pakistan’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) comprising the states that have vital interests in the region – a very important turn of events. As a country that has good relations with those who are divided India – China, India-Pakistan and to great extent the USA – Pakistan as we have been witnessing recently, Russia enjoys advantageous position for becoming a driving force of a wide scale joint effort process bringing all states concerned at the round table using The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) instruments. Afghanistan is a unique place where Russia, the USA, Europe, India and China have common interests and a common enemy. Bringing Pakistan in and assuring its legitimate concerns are taken into consideration would be the right way to achieving long sought stability in the troubled region. Besides it would be a good example of how global and regional actors join together against the backdrop of falling influence of well established organization like the UN Security Council (its resolutions many a time ignored or not carried out as supposed to be, like in case the NATO operation in Libya, for instance) on world affairs, and the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund loosing impact on the way world economy is run nowadays..

Wrap Up

With Pakistan on the brink of joining it, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization an even more important actor in the region. More countries may join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) next year. Turkey has filed a formal bid for a dialogue partner status in what analysts say is a sign of recognition of the organization’s role and influence in world affairs The very idea of bringing together SCO, CSTO, the USA and its NATO allies, China, India and other countries influenced by events in the region means a policy of involvement rather than isolation or going it alone – a unilateral approach that the US Bush administration strongly advocated. Actually it’s the only way to handle the regional troubles avoiding stand offs and misunderstandings that have been complicating things so much for so many years. In many instances the Russian government stressed the expediency of the involvement approach. NATO has been reluctant to tackle the issue but an important change of policy has taken place that is a feather in the hat of the Obama administration. The United States has begun talks on possible cooperation with the SCO. No doubt it’s a positive step forward. The USA and Pakistan have had many disagreements. No way America admired Pakistan (and India) going nuclear. Human rights have always been a dividing issue of the agenda. This time around Afghanistan is at the root of the problem. One can choose kind of a chess play played by “siding” with one actor to counterweight another. Or a choice may presuppose bringing together all actors influenced by the way the situation unfolds. Try to take into consideration their interests and concerns and make bilateral disagreements be elements of a much broader scale issue. Involve nor exclude. If there is a will, especially on the part the USA and its NATO allies, there is certainly a way. In the days I worked as a research fellow at Institute of the USA and Canada of Russian Academy of Sciences I had good luck to get acquainted with the American I have great respect for. It was Mr. Jeremy Stone, former President of the Federation of American Scientists. I admired arguments he adduced and his ability to be open to fresh ideas and his unique flexibility of thinking. He gave me as a present his book called “Every man should try”, devoted to new ideas concerning nuclear security issues. It impressed me much and I think every state should try too. Say try multilateral instead of still to great extent unilateral way of doing things. The USA should try. We all should. Otherwise the world will never balance away from the quagmire of constant discords and dangers of armed conflicts flare up in the times when humanity is faced with too serious global challenges like global warming, “Arab springs” and financial woes.