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NATO Supply-Lines: Crocodile Tears and India Dilute Pakistan’s Ghairat

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 06, 2012

    The hair-splitting over the word to be used to convey a US ‘apology’ for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by US choppers last November, so that the US-Pakistan relations could be reset and NATO supply-lines to and from Afghanistan reopened, finally came to an end on July 3. Tucked somewhere in the 436 word statement of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a word ‘sorry’, which Pakistan latched on to as a face-saver to back down from its increasingly unsustainable and completely counter-productive show of puerile defiance. So relieved was Pakistan to hear ‘sorry’ that the context in which it was used–Secretary Clinton said that she along with Pakistan's foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar “acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives…we are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military”–was completely brushed under the carpet. If there was any ambiguity in Clinton’s statement, it was removed by the State Department spokesperson who said that “the statement makes clear, there were mistakes made on both sides that led to the tragic loss of life, and we are both [emphasis added] sorry for those” and for good measure added that “the intent here is that we are both sorry for the losses suffered by both our countries in this fight against terrorists” [emphasis added].

    Quite clearly, the US statement is dripping with as much remorse and sincerity as Pakistan’s condolences and condemnation of terrorist attacks in India by its jihadist proxies. Nevertheless, the ‘S’ word was accepted by Pakistan, if for no other reason than because it is easily comprehensible and translatable into Urdu. More importantly from the US viewpoint, it has achieved the purpose of getting the NATO logistics lines reopened and that too on the cheap–no price gouging at $5000 per container fees as earlier claimed by Pakistan. But since there are no free lunches, Pakistan expects to get around $ 2.5 billion (under various heads) over the next couple of months as the price for its return to a modicum of sanity.

    While all of the rest of the terms and conditions on which US-Pakistan relations have been reset are not yet public, there is talk of the US rebuilding the roads damaged by the NATO container cargo, not obstructing multilateral financial institutions from extending loans to Pakistan, funding some other infrastructure projects etc.–small change considering the excess amounts being spent on using the Northern Distribution Network. But there is no give by the US on ending drone strikes or forswearing any unilateral strikes against high-value terror targets, two major conditions laid down by the Pakistani Parliamentary resolution on the new parameters for re-engaging the United States. Nor is there any clarity on other issues like CIA operations in Pakistan, non-use of Pakistani airspace for transporting arms and ammunition to Afghanistan, bringing those responsible for the Salala attack to justice, negotiating for a civilian nuclear deal, etc.

    So what prompted Pakistan to eat humble pie and reopen the logistics lines? Regardless of the spin and gloss that Pakistan puts on this decision, it was in large measure the result of sustained, and therefore successful, US economic, political and diplomatic pressure. Pakistan clearly wilted under the fear of getting completely isolated both globally as well as regionally, especially in the so-called Afghan endgame. The stoppage of US aid had steadily squeezed Pakistan’s economy and pushed it towards an imminent meltdown. Quite simply, without Uncle Sam, there was no money left in the coffers to pay the bills of the Pakistan government. With Pakistan becoming a four-letter word in Washington, the focus soon turned to targeting Pakistan’s soft spots. A Congressional hearing on the situation in Balochistan organised by a maverick Congressman was soon followed by a seminar planned on this restive province by the Defence Intelligence Agency. While this seminar was cancelled at the last minute, it hardly ended Pakistan's growing discomfiture especially after reports of moves in the US Congress to impose the most debilitating sanctions on Pakistan. And the unkindest cut of all was that the Americans were blatantly using the India card to ratchet up the pressure and force compliance on Pakistan.

    The first hint of this policy came with the arrest of the ISI agent, Ghulam Nabi Fai, in July 2011, pretty much unravelling the propaganda machinery in the US and to an extent in Europe. In recent months, however, this policy has gathered steam. Pakistan was badly shaken by a move in the US Congress to get the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network declared terrorist organisations, which would in turn allow for Pakistan to be labelled as a sponsor of terrorism and lead to painful diplomatic and economic sanctions. Then there was the formation of the Afghanistan-India-US trilateral forum for discussing Afghanistan’s future. The prospect of India playing an important role in the Afghan end-game was clearly a provocation for Pakistan, which has been basing its entire Afghan policy and indeed its double-game in the War on Terror on ensuring India’s marginalisation in Afghanistan. The visit of US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to India and his statements during his visit, including about how US patience was running thin with Pakistan, also set alarm bells ringing in Rawalpindi. And if all this wasn’t enough, the US and Saudi role in the deportation of Abu Jundal, one of the main handlers of the 26/11 attacks, would have completed the growing disquiet in the Pakistan military establishment about its growing isolation.

    Let’s grant it to the Americans that they know their Pakistan much better than the Indians. They know how to exploit Pakistan’s insecurity and indeed its inveterate hatred of and compulsive hostility towards India–according to a recent survey of Pakistani public opinion, over 60 per cent of Pakistanis see India as a threat but only around 20 per cent see the Taliban, who are merrily beheading Pakistani soldiers and blasting bombs in Pakistani cities, as a threat!–to get their way. While they don’t want a shooting match between India and Pakistan, they also seem to have understood that, at this stage at least, normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan do not serve US interests. No-war-no-peace suits America for now and in these circumstances the US can cause enormous uneasiness inside the Pakistani establishment circles by not merely tilting but actually weighing in on India’s side. This sort of limited hyphenation actually suits India as well because it helps India get a lot more out of both the US and Pakistan than would have been possible otherwise.

    Apart from proving the efficacy of using the ‘India trap’ to get its way with Pakistan, the opening of the NATO supply lines will also expose the balderdash of a backlash from the ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ teams of the Pakistan establishment, i.e. terrorist organisations, pro-Al Qaeda and pro-Taliban parties like the Jamaat Islami, Jamaatud Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-e-Insaaf etc. that have been used by the military establishment to whip up emotions on the street which are then used as a negotiating tool to extract concessions and extort money from the Americans. Come to think of it, this is a strategy that has always been used profitably by Pakistan, not just with America but also with India. How many times have Indians fallen for the nonsense that they must make concessions to ward off a fundamentalist take-over in Pakistan? Similarly, after 9/11, Pakistanis tried to delay the US attack by saying that it would incite public opinion since it was the month of Ramazan. After the 2010 floods, a narrative of civil unrest was floated to extract aid from the rest of the world. The Raymond Davis affair was played up and images of the dam of public outrage bursting were plastered to negotiate the US presence in Pakistan. There are innumerable such examples, but suffice it to say that other countries have now probably seen through this game and it will no longer work the way it did in the past.

    Of course, there will be some political repercussions: the image of the PPP among the right-wing, Islamist majority is already at its nadir and will stay there even though the government will try and improve its ratings by using dollars to provide some relief to the people; the army will lose some of its lustre but will nevertheless shift the blame for the decision on to the PPP; right-wing political parties headed by Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan will play the reactionary card to keep their conservative, Islamist vote-bank in place while at the same time keeping their lines of communication open with the Americans and will giving them assurances on the back channel about their commitment to keep the relationship on track. Thus, it will pretty much be standard operating procedure, also known as double-speak, which the Pakistani political system has internalised.

    This is not to say that it will be all peace and quiet. Pakistan has gone too far down the radical Islamist road for it to ever have peace and quiet. If anything, there will most likely be attacks on the NATO convoys and there could also be a small spike in terror attacks on other targets. But this again is par for the course in Pakistan. As far as the conglomerate of terror organisations, Islamist parties, some rootless politicians and Defence of Pakistan Council is concerned, it will at worst make some noise before settling down. In other words, after all the song and dance, it will be back to business as usual and none of the apocalyptic scenarios being floated are likely to come into play for some time to come.