Reviewing engagement - Asif Ezdi - Monday, March 19, 2012

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The government took two immediate steps following last November’s attack by US forces on Pakistani army posts in Mohmand. It closed the land route for US and Nato supplies to Afghanistan; and it took over the Shamsie Airbase, which had been in American use for drone strikes against targets in Pakistan. The government also decided to undertake a “complete review” of cooperation with the United States and Nato in the diplomatic, political, military and intelligence fields.

The result of that review has not yet been made public, but it is increasingly clear that the terms of re-engagement will not be substantially different from the old ones. Most of the debate on the issue has focused on the question of Nato supplies through Pakistan. The government’s own inclination has been to allow a resumption of supplies, now that the public anger has waned. Some steps to ease the embargo have already been taken. A month ago, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar disclosed that “for humanitarian reasons” Nato had temporarily been allowed to ship perishable food to its troops in Afghanistan.

If the government has so far been slow to announce a full-scale resumption of supplies, it is mainly because it is afraid of a public backlash. Besides the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, the JUI-F and the Jamaat-e-Islami have expressed strong opposition to a lifting of the blockade. If they were to join hands they could pose a formidable challenge. The government is unsure how much public support they might be able to muster.

It was in anticipation of this problem that the government left the “final” say on the issue to parliament. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security Committee was specifically requested to deliberate on the matter and submit its recommendations for consideration by a joint sitting of parliament.

The government has also taken care to get the army on board. The army chief attended a meeting of the government’s coalition partners held last Wednesday under Zardari’s chairmanship, which is understood to have reviewed the recommendations of the parliamentary committee and endorsed the government’s plan to reopen the Nato supply routes.

The government is now expected to seek the support of the opposition parties on the proposed move. The PML-N, which has recently been concentrating its fire on such earth-shaking issues as an extension in Pasha’s tenure – and has been noticeably reticent on the future terms of engagement with the US – is not expected to pose any problems. Even the JUI-F, a party whose leader has a well-earned reputation for flexibility – some call it opportunism – would most likely go along after making the obligatory noises to attack the US.

A joint session of parliament is being convened to finalise the recommendations. There is no suspense over what the decision would be. Officials at the Karachi port have already begun preparations for reopening the supply route and the traffic of Nato convoys could resume soon after a decision by the government. After that decision, Gen James Mattis, head of the US Central Command, who has taken over the previous role of Mullen as the chief US trouble-shooter in relations with the Pakistani military, is expected to visit Pakistan to revive frozen bilateral cooperation. He might even offer some form of apology for the US raid in Mohmand.

Parliament would likely recommend that the government should secure “better” terms for reopening the supply routes. One report even speaks of unspecified “tough conditions.” But the “new” terms of engagement are expected to contain little of substance that is new, beyond the introduction of a transportation charge on Nato’s supply convoys.

The US currently pays $50 million per month through the Coalition Support Fund for use of transit facilities through Pakistan. The new transit fee is expected to bring in additional “tens of millions of dollars a year,” according to one estimate. That is hardly a fortune, especially when viewed against the tens of billions of dollars suffered by the Pakistani economy for its support to the US war in Afghanistan, or even when compared to the additional transport costs that the US has been bearing after the closure of the Pakistani transit route. In January alone, the US paid $87 million more than when the cargo was trucked through Pakistan.

If Pakistan has been short-changed again, the fault is not that of Washington but of our own leadership, which has failed to turn to advantage the leverage which Pakistan enjoys as the transit country of choice for Nato forces operating in Afghanistan. Even more important than the land routes via Torkham and Chaman is the air corridor through Pakistani airspace. The Northern Distribution Network, which runs through Russia and the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, is only available for non-lethal supplies. For airlifting munitions to Afghanistan, including those which were used to slaughter our soldiers in Mohmand, the US has no alternative to the air passage through Pakistan.

The government’s announcements on the closure of the “Nato/Isaf logistic supply lines” following the Mohmand raid were completely silent on the fact that the air corridor remained open. It was US ambassador Cameron Munter who confirmed to the Pakistani media on February 9 that despite the blockade of land routes, Pakistan’s airspace was still being used for Nato supplies. Either because of his ignorance or because he sought to mislead, our defence minister said five days later that Pakistan had allowed Nato to use its airspace only to fly supplies of perishable food items. It took another 12 days before Prime Minister Gilani contradicted Mukhtar and admitted that the cabinet had decided to suspend supplies only through the land route and that the air corridor for Nato supplies had never been closed.

The government has not only been less than truthful about the continued use of Pakistani airspace by the US to airlift munitions into Afghanistan, it has also failed to pursue meaningfully the demand for an end to drone attacks. Privately, the government has been pressing Washington not so much to put a halt to these strikes as to share intelligence and to coordinate action in advance. The gap between the government’s public opposition and private acquiescence on this question might have been narrowed but has not been closed. Washington has turned down even the demand for advance information and coordination because of fears that intelligence given to Pakistani authorities might be passed on by them to the intended targets.

The drone strikes were restarted on January 10 after a pause which began with the Mohmand attack. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly informed Pakistani leaders beforehand of the impending resumption of the attacks, despite Pakistan’s objections. There have been 11 drone strikes so far since then. But there has been no protest from Pakistan and the recommendations of the parliamentary committee do not include a demand for an end to the attacks.

Besides, we do not know to what extent Pakistan has been able to push through the demand for a reduction of the CIA footprint in the country, or for the curtailment of its covert operations. Some reports suggest that at least some of the US “military trainers,” including Special Forces teams, who had earlier left Pakistan, might return in a month or two.

The government had promised a “complete review” of Pakistan-US relations in the wake of the Mohmand attack. Nearly four months after that murderous raid, it seems that the only tangible outcome of the policy review would be “tens of millions of dollars a year” more that Pakistan will collect in transit fees for the US supply convoys to Afghanistan. The question might legitimately be asked whether the 24 Pakistani soldiers who laid down their lives at Salala defending the country died in vain.


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