Use the legal to underpin other responses
Pakistan is out of the Bonn conference. Shamsi airbase is to be vacated. NATO supply lines have been blocked. What will United States-Pakistan relations look like beyond this point?
First, as I have noted elsewhere, the charade of a strategic partnership needs to end. This was always a transactional relationship grounded in coercive diplomacy. The NATO attack – even if ‘accidental’ – has pulled the covers off it. The reported decision by US President Barack Obama to not offer formal condolences on the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers, despite a request to this end by the US ambassador to Pakistan, is a telling statement on this relationship. It would help to acknowledge publicly what the two sides, at the highest level, have known for some time.
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, has said Pakistan will review the entire gamut of relations. That’s a good start. However, it is important to note that a realistic review does not mean Pakistan has to necessarily embark on a collision course with the US. But expectations of what they can do for each other must be pared down.
Some of it is already on the table, for instance the need by both sides to take all measures to curb non-state terrorism. Pakistan must continue to do what it can, given its constraints, to put down such groups on its soil. The US-led coalition should be responsible for doing the same in Afghanistan.
Those who cross the border from Afghanistan to attack Pakistani interests are to be fought by Pakistan while those who go east to west should be ISAF’s. The border is porous, and if the US-led coalition cannot prevent west to east movement, it is downright dishonest to expect Pakistan to be able to do that for the reverse. There are ways in which Pakistan can counter the accusations that go both ways: that it is not doing enough to curb militant movement from east to west and that it is also harbouring the Afghan Taliban without any reference to how the elements Pakistan is supposedly harbouring enter Pakistan in the first place.
Pakistan must also agitate the issue of fencing the border at certain places, a proposal that came up some years ago but was shot down by Kabul. There is inherent contradiction in the position which blames Pakistan for not doing enough to stop the east-west movement and then turns around, when Pakistan proposes measures, and accuses Pakistan of hardening the border and by doing that separating the tribes either side of the Durand Line.
When I raised this point at a recent conference in Berlin on Afghanistan, many Afghans said to me that their country will never accept the Durand Line. Afghanistan wants to beat Pakistan both ways because it does not want recognition of the Durand Line and accepting fencing is the path to state practice under international law which can then be cited.
Americans know this and they have been less than honest about it.
We also know, now because of at least three incidents (there have been more) – Raymond Davis, bin Laden, Mohmand – that the US will happily and readily sacrifice any larger strategic partnership with Pakistan to satisfy its operational goals. This is just one flaw.
The other is in the US’ higher strategy. In Nov 2010, when Obama went to India on a 5-day visit, this is what I wrote in an op-ed for The Hindu:
“Behind all the nice talk about setting the world right through a Lockean cooperative framework lurks Mr. Hobbes… Mr. Obama… (de-hyphenated) Pakistan and India by not including Pakistan on this visit even as Pakistan is supposed to be a vital strategic partner and a state that is, presumably, going to determine, by his own admission, not only the future of this region but of the entire world. This would be amusing if it did not indicate a deep policy flaw.”
So, steps have to be taken to review relations. However, the many Pakistanis who want a direct military response to the US need to understand two things.
One, in an asymmetric relationship, the weaker side should not go for a direct response. It makes no sense to play on a pitch that favours the stronger side. The trick is to find the space between inaction and direct action and to reduce the possibility of coercion by the stronger side without compromising on one’s strategic concerns.
Inter-state dealings are not about emotions but working out a sustainable course of action. Let me specify two such courses of action. One, why should NATO be conducting the inquiry into an incident involving fire by its own troops? Pakistan should insist on an inquiry that involves NATO, Pakistan and a third entity. Pakistani officials have said the inquiry will go nowhere but have not suggested proactively the acceptable composition of any such inquiry.
Two, the supply lines. The routes should remain blocked until the results of an impartial inquiry, a US apology, and – if it is proved that its troops fired at and killed Pakistani soldiers without any reason and in violation of established SOPs – compensation.
But – this is important given the absence of any strategic partnership – Pakistan is under no obligation, even under the UN Security Council legal regime on terrorism, to allow supplies through its land to Coalition troops to help in their war effort in Afghanistan. The only thing Pakistan can, and should, do is to let in only those goods and materials that are important to the development of Afghanistan and for which Kabul provides Islamabad a list. All such goods must clear customs at the port of entry and checked.
The US should be informed that no materials, including fuel, that help its war effort can pass through Pakistan. Statements emanating from the US show that America can do without the Pakistani route. Pakistan should welcome another choice by the US.
The next step should be the use of airspace. The US may be told that it can use Pakistani airspace only for non-military purposes. As for drones, Islamabad needs to take the issue to the UNSC, whose legal regime is very clear on the fact that no state can operate in the airspace or on the territory of another state without the latter’s permission. This means the US can operate the drones only if it shares information on what targets it wants to engage and why. If the US operates its drones without Islamabad’s permission, it will be in violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and also of the UNSC legal regime.
None of this will make the US happy. None of what has happened makes Pakistan very happy. There’s realpolitik in all this. But by taking the legal route in consonance with its own law as well as the UNSC regime, Pakistan would be establishing a baseline. Anything that the US does after that would establish a clear violation for which the onus will be on Washington. Pakistan could make its choices more clearly beyond that point.
The writer is Executive Director of Jinnah Institute. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect JI’s policy