Following protracted negotiations, the Pakistani government appears close to reaching an agreement on the resumption of NATO supply lines Pakistan closed after a NATO strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November. While it is unclear what Pakistan gained from the six-month diplomatic standoff, what is more apparent is that popular sentiment against both governments’ handling of the crisis is high in Pakistan and both are likely to be adversely affected.
Immediately following the Salalah tragedy, the Pakistani government demanded a U.S. apology for the incident, an end to U.S. drones strikes, and blocked NATO supply routes until a parliamentary review of U.S. – Pakistan relations was complete. The parliamentary review essentially reaffirmed the government’s initial positions and called for an increase in transit fees and taxes on NATO vehicles traversing Pakistani land routes.
However, by the time the Chicago Summit rolled around, (in a bid to receive an invitation to the meeting where Zardari was subsequently reprimanded by Hillary Clinton and snubbed by Obama and Rasmussen), the Pakistani government dropped its demand for a U.S. apology. Despite its rhetoric to the contrary and parliament’s resolution condemning their use, the government continued to allow U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas. On the issue of transit rates, while Pakistan had initially demanded an increase of more than 2000% per truck (from $250 to $5,000), it scaled back significantly in recent weeks and according to reports has now agreed to an approximate rate of $500 per vehicle.
What did Pakistan secure in exchange? The U.S. government agreed to extend $1.18 billion in Coalition Support Funds (CSF) to the Pakistani government. While this support was critical to prevent a “massive deficit hole in (Pakistan’s)…fiscal budget”, as Pakistan had already factored it in to its 2012/13 budget, this is not aid being given to Pakistan but a reimbursement for its military operations in the tribal belt.
Thus, in the end, Pakistan neither received an apology, nor an end to drone strikes, nor a significant increase in the revenue from its transit routes. This is especially troubling given the fact that in recent months Pakistan’s negotiating position had in fact strengthened and not diminished.
When the GLOCs were first blocked, NATO had a stockpile of weapons and equipment to last at least a couple of months. However, more recently as the stockpiles depleted and the fighting season intensified in Afghanistan, the urgency to have Pakistan-based supply routes reopen increased for NATO. Hence, despite the fact that NATO inked ‘reverse transit’ agreements with three central Asian states, Pakistan’s leverage increased as this was the only land route through which lethal supplies could be carried to Afghanistan.
While the central Asian states and the Northern Distribution Network provide an alternative to Pakistan, the U.S. and NATO members are aware of the limits of their influence in these countries, which continue to be more responsive to Russian influence. For instance, at the NATO summit in Chicago, the leaders of all five central Asian states were invited to participate and not one accepted the invitation. Instead, they sent their foreign ministers. It is believed that Russia was behind their collective absence, as it tries to ‘harmonize the foreign policies’ of the CSTO member states as a counterweight to NATO.
Secondly, instead of facing international isolation, Pakistan is increasingly seen as a key player to off-set U.S. influence in Central Asia by regional heavyweights Russia and China. Just this past week, senior Chinese and Russian officials made their way to Pakistan to underscore their support. According to Indian analyst, Bhardakumar:
“What stands out is that Beijing and Moscow have come forward to extend political support to Pakistan at a time when Washington is trying to isolate it and make Islamabad bend to its wishes…Indeed, neither Yang nor Kabulov overtly nudged Pakistan toward a “strategic defiance” of the US. But then, they didn’t have to. Suffice to say, the new paradigm already presents Pakistan with an unprecedented opportunity to negotiate with the US from a position of strength.”
The fact that the Pakistani government has not used the opportunity to its advantage does not bode well for its relations with its electorate in an election year.
As drone strikes continue, the government’s credibility continues to erode for its failure to protect its citizens, in clear violation of Article 9 of the country’s constitution, which “guarantees all citizens the fundamental right to the “security of ...— in its failure to take a clear stance on drone strikes, the government simultaneously appears criminal, complicit, and incompetent.
In contrast, groups such as Difa-e-Pakistan Council, made up of an assortment of 50 religious groups some of whom are banned, will continue to gain strength as they better articulate and address the concerns of the Pakistani population through their thunderous opposition to drone strikes and resumption of NATO supply routes.
As for the U.S. government, its strong-arm tactics will only take it so far and not help its long term goals in the country or the region. A Pew Global Attitudes poll in Pakistan last year found that among those surveyed, only 12% had a favourable view of the United States, 70% percent considered the U.S. more of an enemy than a partner, 65% thought the U.S. could pose a military threat and about 20% felt the U.S. took other countries’ interests into account when making its own policy decisions.
Since the killing of Pakistani soldiers and the U.S. refusal to apologize along with the resumption of drone strikes, this sentiment is only likely to increase. In the face of the Pakistani government’s ineptitude, non-state actors, individuals and groups will begin to take matter into their own hands.
For instance, a retired military officer in Pakistan recently filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the expansion of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad and has called for a restraining order against further construction of an embassy that would make it the second largest in the world (second in size only to the U.S. embassy in Iraq). The court has yet to respond to the petition but if indeed there is a halt in construction, it would certainly impact U.S. plans inside the country.
For far too long, the U.S. and Pakistani governments have gotten away with hurting the interests of the Pakistani population—in time, both will realize they are no longer immune to the backlash building against them.