Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse
That the already-fractured relations between the US and Pakistan have now totally crashed is evident from the latest aid cut proposed by a US Senate panel. Expressing outrage over Pakistan’s conviction of Dr Shakil Afridi who helped the CIA to track down Osama bin Laden, a US Senate panel has cut aid to Islamabad by $33million - one million for every year of the physician’s 33 year conviction.
Relations, which seemed to be on the mend just a week ago in the wake of President Zardari getting a last minute invitation to attend the NATO summit in Chicago, have taken a nosedive. In the absence of an agreement on opening the NATO supply routes through Pakistan, the Obama administration is not hiding its increasing frustration with Islamabad’s policy of playing hardball.
Foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar briefing journalists flying with the prime minister on his recent trip to the UK claimed that the time had come to reopen NATO routes as keeping them shut had become counter-productive. She even agreed with a journalist who said that Pakistan simply couldn’t afford to become another North Korea by pursuing such rejectionist policies.
TheDCC (Defence Committee of the cabinet) meeting chaired by the president had decided in principle to reopen the NATO supply routes. With a subsequent invitation for the president to attend the Chicago moot, it seemed like a done deal. Not so, as later events have proved.
Pakistan wants $5000 per container, as opposed to the $ 250 it was getting before the Salala incident. This manifold increase has perhaps been proposed after looking at the $7000 NATO is incurring on using the Central Asian route.
Added to this demand is the longstanding (forlorn) wish that Washington should tender an unconditional apology for the Salala incident and that there should be an end to drone attacks over Pakistan.
The ostensible snub meted out by Obama in refusing a meeting with Zardari on the sidelines of the Chicago summit is ample evidence that Islamabad is continuing its policy of punching much beyond its weight. America, in its anxiety to disengage from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, is no longer in a mood to humour Pakistan.
Washington is paying lip service to the notion that Pakistan must be part of the solution leading to the Afghan endgame. In reality, however, the US administration, the Congress and the erstwhile perennial backer of the Pakistani military, the Pentagon, have gone ballistic on Islamabad in unison.
The latest spat over Dr Afridi’s sentencing has exacerbated the rift between Islamabad and Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the sentence in unequivocal terms. This sentence could not have come at a worst time. The hapless doctor has been punished for treason against the Pakistani state. Or in other words, Afridi has been made a horrible example out of for helping the CIA to nab the most wanted man in the world.
On one hand, Islamabad claims that Osama was found at his Abbottabad abode as a result of vital intelligence cooperation over time with the CIA. While, on the other, it cannot hide its annoyance at the clandestine operation conducted by the US Navy SEALs completely blacking out Pakistan.
As a result of Dr Afridi’s sentence, Islamabad is being called names and addressed most derisively on Capitol Hill by US lawmakers belonging to the ruling Democratic Party as well as the Republicans. Senator Lindsay Graham (R) while supporting a cut in assistance for Islamabad went to the extent of calling Pakistan a double-dealing “schizophrenic ally” for aiding the Haqqani network on the side. Moreover, members of the Senate panel went as far as calling Islamabad’s demand for more money on the containers passing through its territory “mafia-style extortion”. It is obvious in an election year tempers are running high in Washington and that is impacting negatively on Islamabad.
Interestingly, it is election time in Pakistan as well. No Pakistani politician worth his salt can ignore public opinion at this juncture either. Even the US, thanks to surveys conducted by its own independent agencies, is well aware of the low approval ratings it enjoys amongst the Pakistani public.
An additional complicating factor is the Pakistani military’s own standpoint closer to the popular jihadist opinion rather than following the imperatives of a sophisticated and nuanced foreign policy. Naturally, President Zardari is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Even master Bilawal has been inducted into the perception game as he exhorted Washington to extend an apology over Salala.
Our policy makers, military and civilian, have to quickly decide where they place Pakistan vis-à-vis the US and the West. It is obvious that none of the demands put forth by Islamabad and the GHQ are going to be met. Washington seems reluctant even to meet Islamabad halfway.
The White House has reiterated its stance about not apologising to Islamabad for killing 26 of its soldiers. Nor are drone attacks going to stop any time soon. Actually one of the most lethal one only took place only a day ago.
Obama has expanded the use of modern technology in the war on terror during his three years as president. And drones are central to what John Rhode, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, has described in Foreign Policy magazine as ‘the Obama Doctrine’. Back in 2007, candidate Obama while referring to Pakistan said, “If we have actionable intelligence about high value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will”.
Obama has fulfilled his campaign promise by authorising an attack on Abbottabad last May without the knowledge of the Pakistani president, the military and its intelligence apparatus. Similarly, the US President has not only dramatically increased drone attacks in Pakistan, he has attempted to flood the country with CIA agents.
Islamabad has to give itself a reality check and it will have to drastically scale down its demands. For example, if it continues to insist that its military will not move against the Haqqani network ensconced in N Waziristan, it cannot realistically expect Washington to abandon its drones programme.
At best, Pakistan can negotiate new terms of engagement and intelligence sharing. But, unfortunately, after Dr Afridi’s conviction, the trust deficit has widened to the extent that meaningful intelligence sharing between the two countries has become even more difficult.
Islamabad will have to scale down its price for letting NATO containers pass through its territory as well. Perhaps, this is the easiest demand that can be met and it could create mutual goodwill which would be helpful in resolving thornier issues.
Pakistan has already lost more than one opportunity to receive an apology over Salala. Reportedly, when Senator John Kerry was due in Islamabad to proffer one on behalf of the US president, he had to cool his heels as the news was leaked from Islamabad.
A closure on the current chapter of Pakistan-US relations is pivotal for strategic, economic and political reasons. The present downward slide will take us inexorably towards a sanctions regime.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today