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Who’s Sorry Now?

pakistani truckers

Photo Credit: Fareed Khan / The Associated Press

The agreement reopening NATO supply routes lays bare Pakistan’s strategic isolation.  But is anyone in Islamabad paying attention?

Some are spinning last week’s deal ending Pakistan’s seven-month closure of key NATO supply routes into Afghanistan as a triumph of Islamabad’s resolve.  The reverse is much closer to the mark, however.  Pakistan overplayed its hand in this affair, underscoring once again just how strategically isolated it has become.  The key issue is whether the country’s security managers have learned anything from the episode.

The settlement, reached after prolonged negotiations between Washington and Islamabad, contains two main elements:

1.)   A carefully-worded (and open to interpretation) statement of sorrow by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for last November’s incident in which U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani troops deployed along the poorly-defined border with Afghanistan.  Islamabad had shut down the NATO routes in protest and demanded a fulsome apology as a condition for their re-opening.

2.)   A release to Islamabad of $1.18 billion in coalition support funds that the Obama administration froze after the routes’ closure.  The funds are used to reimburse Pakistani expenses for its counter-insurgency operations along the Afghan border.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar contends that the deal is evidence of the United States being forced to “back down” and accept “red lines” on its actions.  Her colleague, Information and Broadcasting Minister Qawar Zaman Kaira, sounds the same theme, claiming that “the nation has been able to bring the world superpower to offer an apology.”  A commentator in the Frontier Post, an English-language newspaper published in Peshawar, opines that the settlement represents “a great diplomatic victory for Pakistan over the sole superpower.”  For his part, Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser on AfPak issues, views the deal as proof of the futility of “the U.S. trying to bully Pakistan into submission.”

Yet the accord is hardly a vindication of Pakistani policy or fortitude.  Clinton’s nuanced statement, for instance, is not much different from earlier expressions of U.S. regret for the border incident and far from the unconditional apology Islamabad had insisted upon.  Notable, too, is what is left out of the deal, namely the vast increases in transit fees and a cessation of the U.S. campaign of drone warfare that Pakistan had publicly demanded.

Islamabad’s negotiators had wanted a sharp rise in transit fees charged for each container that is hauled from the port of Karachi into Afghanistan, reportedly asking at one point for as much as $5,000.  The Obama administration had been amendable to a more modest increase.  Strikingly, however, the settlement provides for nothing more than the $250 per container that Pakistan received prior to the routes’ closure.

Some Pakistani commentators contend that the drawn-out negotiations were never really about money but, rather, concerned eliciting a sincere act of penance to salve wounded national honor.  But this contention does not square with Pakistan’s months-long demand over the fees.  According to a senior U.S. official quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the public dust-up between President Obama and President Asif Ali Zardari at the NATO summit in Chicago in May was largely due to disagreements over money.  The claim also leaves unclear why the final stages of the negotiations with the State Department was handled by the Pakistani finance minister.

As for the drone strikes, they continue unabated even with Islamabad having evicted the CIA operators from Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan in retaliation for the border incident.  Just a few days after the settlement, a drone attack killed some 20 militants in North Waziristan, prompting a leading Pakistani newspaper to comment that “the message was obvious: America intends to get back to business immediately, and will not let Pakistani concerns get in the way of its counterterrorism goals.”

Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta urged Pakistan to get over its fixation with a formal apology, saying that “it’s time to move on.”  Still, Washington faced its own set of incentives on coming to terms with Islamabad.   Although the Northern Distribution Network, the collection of supply lines running into Afghanistan via Russia and several Central Asian countries, had picked up some of the slack from the Pakistani closure, it was costing $100 million a month (and perhaps more) in additional expenses.  It also was inadequate in handling the exodus of heavy equipment that would soon start in earnest as the drawdown of Western military forces in Afghanistan gathers pace, as well as vulnerable to Vladimir Putin’s mercurial whims.

But the pressures Islamabad was facing were even greater.  NATO forged agreements last month with Central Asian nations regarding the withdrawal of equipment from Afghanistan, demonstrating that it was not quite as dependent upon the Pakistanis as they had first calculated.  The thread-bare public treasury – not to mention the Pakistani army’s vast business empire – is in desperate need of revenue from the cargo transit fees as well as the resumption in U.S. military assistance.  Moreover, the country will soon be forced to turn once again to the International Monetary Fund for a financial lifeline – reportedly Islamabad will seek as much as $4.3 billion – a move that was subject to Washington’s veto.

Islamabad was also in danger of putting itself into a diplomatic box, a point underscored by events over the last few weeks.  During his trip last month to South Asia, which pointedly did not take him to Islamabad, Mr. Panetta was making overtures for a closer strategic partnership with Pakistan’s arch-nemesis – including calls for greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan, a neuralgic issue for the Pakistanis – while warning Islamabad that U.S. leaders were reaching “the limits of our patience.”

At the same moment, China and Saudi Arabia, two of Pakistan’s most reliable allies, were cozying up to the Indians.  On the sidelines of last month’s summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang (who is widely expected to become the next head of government) made a special point of telling Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna that Sino-Indian ties were destined to become the century’s important bilateral relationship.  Li’s phrase is a virtual echo of the Obama administration’s regular formulation about Washington and New Delhi constituting “an indispensable partnership for the 21st century,” and it signals that the two most important external powers in South Asian security affairs are in competition for India’s strategic allegiances.  Underscoring this point is Beijing’s recent move upgrading its ambassador in New Delhi to vice-ministerial status.

And spurning Islamabad’s vociferous objections, Ridayh deported Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari (also known as Abu Jundal and Abu Hamza) to New Delhi.  Ansari, an Indian national who was arrested last year by Saudi authorities while traveling on a Pakistani passport, is suspected of playing a central role in the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008.  He is expected to provide New Delhi with a gold mine of information about Pakistan’s intimate ties with jihadi groups targeting India.  Ridayh reportedly is also planning to turn over another Indian national, Fasih Mahmood, wanted for terrorist activities.

Lastly, the supply blockade was threatening to alienate relations with the some 50 countries that make up the NATO-led military coalition in Afghanistan.  Pakistan’s new prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, voiced this precise concern at a meeting of national security officials.

These accumulating points of pressure were enough to cause Islamabad to yield on the transit issue.  But is the growing diplomatic isolation it faces enough to cause a more fundamental shift, such as modifying the behavior in Afghanistan that gives Washington fits but which also promises a self-inflicted strategic defeat?  Alas, Pakistan’s security managers seem adept at giving only tactical ground when circumstances impinge.  A more meaningful change of direction appears beyond their capacity.

This commentary was originally posted on Chanakya’s Notebook.   I invite you to follow me on Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.