The US-Pakistan relations seem to be well on its way of eventual demise after an ISAF airstrike across the border that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last week. In reaction, Pakistan has blocked the NATO supply from Torkham and Chaman, asked the US to vacate the Shamsi airbase in Balochistan and announced to boycott the Bonn Conference next week.
Earlier in May when the SEALs killed Osama bin Ladin in military town of Abottabad, Pakistani officials demanded the US to vacate Shamsi, but this time with the deadline of December 11, the US is reportedly preparing to leave the base. CIA ran the drone operations from there targeting militants in the tribal areas. However, the base is no longer in use as it ceased in April, and the closure will not affect militarily.
Blockade of the NATO supply route might continue for weeks given the extreme Pakistani reaction. Currently, only 48 percent of NATO supplies come through Pakistan, and 52 percent through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The US plan is to transit 75 percent of all non-lethal supplies through the NDN. And 30 percent of the supplies, mostly lethal weapons, come by air through Pakistani airspace. They have not placed restrictions of overflights.
Prime Minister Gilani rejected a personal request by President Karzai in a phone call on Tuesday, saying if Afghanistan officially condemned the ISAF airstrike, Islamabad might reconsider the boycott decision on the Bonn II. There is a fuss about this boycott in the international media, calling it a blow to the entire process. The question is what if the ISAF strike had not happened and Pakistan was in Bonn? Would it make the chances of a breakthrough in the peace process with Taliban more plausible? Of course not! The fact that Pakistan has significant influence over the Taliban leaders makes it an important player in the process, but there was no progress in the US efforts to persuade Pakistani military in this regard. Both countries have contrary objectives for the endgame in Afghanistan. Pakistani military is against long-term presence of US troops beyond 2014, which will be approved in a US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement, supported by a Traditional Loya Jirga recently.
Though reconciliation with the Taliban was high on the agenda of Bonn Conference, no breakthrough was expected. Pakistan’s support and cooperation is indeed vital, as the Afghan Government or the US cannot approach militant leaders who are hiding in Pakistan. Rawalpindi has significant influence on the Haqqani Network and Quetta Shura. But they have not indicated to cooperate on this, and mere participation in Bonn will not ensure that.
The conference is not a debate forum to last for days. Agenda and decisions are taken behind the scenes following the Istanbul Summit. Pakistan gains nothing by boycotting a German-hosted and Afghan-chaired conference attended by representatives of about 90 countries to make pledges on the arrangements of post-2014 Afghanistan. Pakistan would rather isolate itself further with this boycott. Instead they could use the forum to raise their concerns.
Let me come back to the airstrike that caused the final blow to a relations based on lies and deceit between two so-called allies. There are conflicting and disputed reports based on claims from both sides. Pakistani military say the airstrike was unprovoked. While ISAF and Afghan officials say they received fire from the Pakistani side first. If there was no firing from the Pakistani side of the border, either insurgents or from the check posts, it would be beyond understanding why Afghan and ISAF commandos would ask for air support. Pentagon has appointed an Air Force Brigadier to investigate the incident. ISAF has said all future engagements on Durand Line have to be approved from their Headquarters in Kabul.
But such incidents are inevitable in future if militant incursions continued from across the border. Militants come to fight in Afghanistan and when the US troops chase, they retreat on the other side. It’s a daily business for them to move back and forth on the border.
Top Pakistani military officials have said they have “no expectation” from the ISAF inquiry. And it is expected that Islamabad will make further blowing decisions to reduce cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan after a joint session of parliament.
The closure of Shamsi airbase does not debilitate overall drone operations, as it is based in Afghanistan. It’s likely that the supply routes will be restored. But the US should now increase focus on the Northern Distribution Network.
It is time for the US and Pakistan to put the game of distrust and deceit aside, get honest to each other and put their options clear on the table. There are two scenarios. Pakistan might continue the supply blockade and cease the limited intelligence and military cooperation with NATO. And eventually reduce ties with the US. In this case, we should expect increased suicide bombings in Kabul, and mass incursions of militants from across the border. In scenario two, if the US does not get tough on Rawalpindi, it will be business as usual after more concessions to tone down their overreaction. Pakistani Defense Minister said yesterday the supply routes will be restored if NATO apologizes.
If Pakistan decides to officially uncover the reality of this relation and cease their limited cooperation in the war on terror, the US should stop the military aid—$20 billion since 2001–and strengthen civilian supremacy in Pakistan. A small part of the military aid that the US gives to Pakistan Army could raise a Special Border Force in Afghanistan enough to be deployed all over the Durand Line to fight militant incursions. If insurgents have no Jihadi recruits, and weapon supply from across the border, it will not take long to wipe out the terrorists.
The ‘peace plan’ suggested by Pakistani military for the endgame in Afghanistan is simply not acceptable for Afghans and the international community. They want a big share in power for Haqqanis and Quetta Shura saying militants represent Pashtuns. Pakistan’s main objective is full withdrawal of US troops. They are against the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership agreement that allows presence of US troops long beyond 2014. Pakistani military has its reasons. They fear US military intervention from Afghanistan against their nuclear capabilities.
It’s time for both countries to stop lies and deceit and decide they are allies or not. The US should ensure Pakistani military that their presence in Afghanistan is not a threat. Washington should offer Rawalpindi a vital role in the peace process with Taliban exclusive among the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan should persuade the Taliban to come to table talks and give up violence and help the US and Afghanistan to eliminate those who continue terror. Similarly, the US and Afghanistan should assure Pakistan about their legitimate security and strategic concerns on the endgame in Afghanistan. But for this, General Kayani would have to compromise his current ‘peace plan’.