Last week’s deal between Pakistan and the US to reopen NATO’s supply routes into neighbouring Afghanistan ends seven months of deep freeze in the bilateral relationship. But the deal will be very fragile.
The circuit breaker to this outcome was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s very carefully crafted apology for the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops killed in a NATO air strike in November last year. Clinton expressed "deepest regrets" for the November incident and offered "sincere condolences" for the loss of lives.
This apology, which appears genuine, was a big win for Pakistan given that US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta had recently stated that there would be none.
This was the best Pakistan could hope for.
In return Washington will now be able to release $US1 billion from the Coalition Support Fund for Pakistan’s contribution to the War on Terror. Until the supply trucks rolled again, these overdue funds remained frozen.
Given the decrepit state of the economy, those funds will be most welcomed, especially to pay for the cost of having 150,000 Pakistani troops stationed along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
This was a critical deal to get right because both countries had high stakes in it.
For the Americans, the importance of getting the route re-opened was not so much in order to be able to bring in non-lethal material into Afghanistan as it is to ensure a route to transport out of Afghanistan all the Coalition’s military equipment by the end of 2014. Much of Washington’s strategy for a smooth transition to 2014 depended on this deal.
For Pakistan, it was important to be able to demonstrate that it will be a reliable participant in the lead up to the transition to 2014. Accordingly, it dropped its demands for a very substantial increase in transit fee for the thousands of trucks rumbling through Pakistan. Islamabad certainly did not want to give the Americans any ammunition to blame Pakistan for things going badly wrong in the Coalition’s exit from Afghanistan.
But what is interesting about the deal is that there was no mention of the un-manned drone strikes against Afghan and Pakistani Taliban targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Islamabad had been insisting that these had to stop before the supply lines could be reopened.
While these drone strikes is a particularly sensitive issue in Pakistan because of the collateral damage it causes among civilians, Pakistan would have known that Washington had no intention of stopping these. As a matter of fact it has been cranking them up recently.
While publicly Pakistani authorities have complained that these strikes are an attack on the country’s sovereignty, privately they have been quite pleased to see some of the more nasty Pakistani Taliban terrorists being eliminated with these strikes.
But this deal has not been well received by the Islamic parties and their ideological followers. The Defence of Pakistan Council, a coalition of right-wing groups and Islamists, organised a ‘long-march’ of about 30,000 followers from Lahore to Islamabad, arriving in the capital on Monday, to force the government to close the supply route.
The Defence of Pakistan Council intends to organise another two ‘long marches’ later this week and next week one from Quetta and the other from Peshawar to the border crossings with Afghanistan, again to put pressure on Islamabad to stop the convoys.
The Pakistani Taliban militants have already promised to attack the convoys once they start rolling. They will undoubtedly deliver on their promise.
But even with some of these drawbacks, the deal would not have gone ahead without the approval of Gen Pervez Kayani, the head of Pakistan’s army, and his Corps Commander. They had to be able to ‘sell’ the deal to the middle-ranking officers and soldiers who are fighting the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban along the border with Afghanistan. However, it would appear that not everyone in the military was happy with the deal. This should come as no surprise to anyone.
In the many discussions I recently held with high-ranking military officers in Pakistan, there was much bitterness towards Washington. Having lost more men than the Coalition in Afghanistan, Pakistanis feel that the Americans do not appreciate Pakistan’s contribution in blood and rupees to the war effort. Hopefully, this deal will partially assuage these sentiments.
However, the big loser will undoubtedly be President Asif Ali Zardari and his government.
Zardari, who is already seen as too pro-American, will be accused of having caved in to US pressure and should have demanded more.
Moreover, given the fragility of the present government, this can only be good news for former cricket hero, Imran Khan, whose anti-Western and anti-government rhetoric have been important factors in his growing popularity. We can expect him to be highly critical of this Pakistan-US deal.
Still, the good news is that the deal will at least for the moment set bilateral relations back on track. The question is for how long.