Brinkmanship can be a perilous gambling of wits even among supposedly steadfast and old allies, such as United States and Pakistan. This was clear at the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari was given a late entry ticket to this important conclave billed to come up with a final exit plan for the US and its NATO and other ISAF allies from an embattled Afghanistan. Earlier feelers from both Washington and Brussels, the NATO headquarters, suggested that Pakistan wasn’t going to be invited to the table because of its failure to reopen transit routes for NATO supplies into Afghanistan.
The Pakistani generals, whose ego was badly bruised by the November raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, quickly donned the mantle of the aggrieved party. They also decided to pass the buck to the political leadership, knowing only too well that Pakistan’s mostly thieving politicians were, invariably, caught snoozing. It was an awkward moment for Pakistan and the generals didn’t want to own the hot potato that the blatant US raid had become.
The politicians, especially those from the opposition camps, wasted no time in whipping up a frenzy bordering on hysteria. It mutated, quickly, into an issue of honour and dignity of the people of Pakistan. An unconditional apology from the Americans was demanded as quintessential to assuage the public hurt in Pakistan. Equally crucial to mollify an enraged public was to demand that US put a complete end to the nightmare of its drone attacks against the civilian population.
Political pundits didn’t need to peer into their crystal ball to soon conclude that the government had become a prisoner of its own ploy by taking the issue to the bar of public opinion. The people of Pakistan concluded that it was only the arrogance of an imperialist power that could trounce their sovereign rights with such gross insensitivity.
The Pakistani parliament added its own weight of demands by bringing in the lofty principles of sovereign equality and mutual respect. As its own icing on the cake, it also insisted on an end to done attacks and an unconditional apology.
The Pentagon and CIA — primarily responsible for drone incursions into Pakistan — were loath to entertain the idea of washing their hands off a weapon they deem strategically crucial to their fight against terrorism. An apology to Pakistan — a client state being paid $2 billion a year for its services — could be politically embarrassing to Obama in this election year. US President Barack Obama is only too aware of his Republican detractors waiting in the wings for any chinks in his armour; they would exploit even a hint of apology to Pakistan as sign of a weak president and commander-in-chief knuckling under pressure from a client state.
So the stalemate between Washington and Islamabad continued while containers bringing in supplies for the NATO troops in Afghanistan kept piling up at the Karachi port, until both the military and the civilian leaderships of Pakistan realised that the hiatus in relations with US was exacting a heavier toll of itself.
The route through Pakistan remained the most convenient way of getting supplies into Afghanistan; but it wasn’t something they couldn’t live without. At worst, it jacked up the costs by deploying the longer route across Russia and Central Asia. With so much at stake in the home-stretch the price was worth paying.
However, Pakistan’s near-bankrupt economy found the going really tough without American aid inputs. The military establishment woke up to realise that it was owed at least $1.1 billion in ‘coalition support funds’ by Washington for the Pakistani war effort against the scourge of terrorism. A reality check, long overdue, finally caught up with the Pakistani policy-makers.
Thus Pakistan sought the help of its traditional friends in Turkey to seek an invitation for Zardari to attend the Chicago meet. The Turks obliged and in time an invitation was sent to Zardari. It was anticipated that a deal with NATO-ISAF, with Washington standing behind them, would be in place and operational before Zardari took off for Chicago. That didn’t happen and Zardari reached Chicago without a present for his hosts.
In obvious pique, Obama snubbed Zardari by refusing to receive him one-on-one. NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen pulled the rug from under Zardari’s feet when their meeting was called off because of ‘scheduling problem’.
It hasn’t dawned, yet, what went wrong to scuttle the deal. It may still be sometime before the nitty-gritty of it is filtered down. The American side has faulted the Pakistanis for being overly-demanding in insisting for a new landing fee of $5,000 for each NATO container, as against the previous fee of just $250.
The Pakistanis argue that their demand for a revised fee is legitimate to pay for the extensive damage done by heavy trailer-trucks to their roads. Besides, they insist, in the overly emotionally charged ambience of the Pakistani people firmly opposed to any resumption of transit facilities for NATO and the Americans, extra security arrangements will have to be catered at a considerable cost.
However, the excuse of a stand-off on the trifle issue of price for trucking is only a fig leaf to hide the real impediment posed by the popular resentment in Pakistan focused on the totality of the issues at stake, foremost of them being the demand for an American apology and an end to drone attacks.
In real terms, the tussle and the resultant stand-off is between the people of Pakistan and the US; the Pakistani ruling elite, anxious as always to oblige their US patrons, has been caught helplessly between the two pugilists.
Obama pandered to his political needs, spawned by an election year, in assembling 60 leaders of the world to endorse his exit plan from Afghanistan in his home town. The outcome of it should give a hefty boost to his re-election bid to the White House later in the year.
Zardari, too, has to keep an eye on upcoming elections in Pakistan, less than a year away. So the stalemate drama is likely to go on for some more time until Pakistan eventually blinks. That fate invariably awaits the client in an unequal client-master situation.
(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat.