Pak-U.S. Relations and Re-opening of NATO Supply Lines


“We cannot be left out of the many strategic agreements taking place around us nor can we ignore the bigger economic picture that is slowly taking shape: Pakistan has to be a part of the regional and extra regional developments”

– General (retd) Jehangir Karamat

Ending the six month blockade of NATO supplies that pass through its territory to Afghanistan, Pakistan announced Wednesday that it will consider re-opening the supply routes after intensive parliamentary consultations. The blockade was enforced days after the Salala attack of November 26, 2011, that had claimed the lives of 24 Pakistan Army soldiers and further strained Pak-US bilateral relations. The restoration of NATO supplies comes after the Tripartite meeting of Pakistani, Afghan and U.S./NATO military commanders in Islamabad on Sunday, May 13, 2012.

The re-opening of the NATO supply routes was a key decision made after a parliamentary review of Pak-U.S. ties, led by the Parliamentary Committee of National Security (PCNS), which allowed Pakistan to reconfigure terms of engagement with its allies in the War on Terror. President Obama welcomed the parliamentary review, but hoped that Pakistan would factor in American concerns and security interests in its calculations.  Prime Minister Gilani stated that the terms of re-engagement with the U.S., NATO and ISAF would be decided in a “respectful manner”. Meanwhile, President Zardari has expressed willingness to attend the upcoming Chicago Summit.

In the backdrop of these events, Second Opinion asked policy experts their views on the future of bilateral ties between Pakistan and the U.S., with specific emphasis on ramifications for Pakistan’s security.

Re-opening NATO supply routes through Pakistan

When asked of his response to the notion of re-opening NATO supply routes through Pakistan, General (retd) Jehangir Karamat, former Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army and Director Spearhead Research, said that there was “inevitability” in re-opening the NATO supply routes through the country. He asserted that the Pakistani leadership has taken a broad decision to the effect, which is reflected in the recent meeting of the Defence Committee of Pakistan’s Federal Cabinet (DCC). However, Mr. Karamat observed that the timing of the decision could have been better; hinting that it appeared as if the decision to reopen the supply routes has been taken by Pakistan under intense external pressure. “There is no doubt that the U.S. and even the EU had applied direct and indirect pressures that Pakistan could not have sustained for long without serious consequences”.

Former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan Tanvir A. Khan is also of the view that re-opening the NATO supply lines is “the advent of the inevitable”. According to Mr. Khan, “Pakistan had taken a bold but essentially unsustainable stand. The intention was not to create insurmountable difficulties for ISAF-NATO forces but to leverage the stoppage in order to renegotiate terms and conditions, and make them more favourable to Pakistan and also to seek an apology from the United States for the wanton killing in Salala”. Khan’s opinion is that Pakistan has not succeeded in achieving these targets because it has never truly tried to balance its international relationships, and because the country’s ruling elite cannot conceptualise an existence other than that of “dependence on Washington”.

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AVM (retd) Shahzad A. Chaudhry, defense analyst and former Air-Vice Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force, believes that it is a sensible thing to re-open the supply routes. He observed that “beyond a certain point, our reaction against the Salala incident had reached a point of diminishing returns”. According to Mr. Chaudhry, sensible policy calls for a change before reaching that point, and if delayed further, the change begins to lose its likely impact as well as elements of goodwill. Mr. Chaudhry is of the view that the potential leverage that could have been exploited by Pakistan in this facilitation was lost; when Pakistan opens the routes now, it shall essentially be viewed as a “transactional arrangement”.

Former Ambassador Ayaz Wazir is of the view that restarting NATO supply routes at a time when Allied forces are planning their withdrawal from Afghanistan is a decision that has not been calculated in Pakistan’s interest; “starting the exercise afresh when they are on their way out will not serve our interest.” Mr. Wazir also acknowledges that creating hurdles for NATO at this stage will not serve Pakistan’s interests either; he states that Pakistan’s reservations over NATO supply routes should have been discussed ten years ago, when this logistical arrangement was being started.

Future of Pak-U.S. bilateral relations

According to General (retd) Jehangir Karamat, this decision by Pakistan can serve as the pivot for resetting the U.S.-Pakistan relationship – a relationship that he believes is vitally important for Pakistan. “We cannot be left out of the many strategic agreements taking place around us nor can we ignore the bigger economic picture that is slowly taking shape: Pakistan has to be a part of the regional and extra regional developments”.

AVM (retd) Shahzad A. Chaudhry’s views offer a contrary viewpoint. He does not believe that there will be a major impact of this decision on Pak-U.S. bilateral relations: “we may just avoid making an enemy of a super power, not a friend”. Mr. Chaudhry asserts that Pakistan will have to work assiduously on all fronts, internal and external, to bring value to its status, and also to regain relevance once again to the international order in a positive way.

Re-opening the NATO supply routes averts a worsening crisis in which the United States has already demonstrated the will to apply coercive diplomacy and impose sanctions, according to Tanvir A. Khan. “If Pakistan has the necessary diplomatic skills, it should use the expected thaw to position itself into a position of reduced helplessness”. Mr. Khan also states that there is no way to bring back a strategic partnership that never existed, but it is possible to have a “somewhat restricted but mutually beneficial relations”.

Stretching bilateral relations to a point of no return is not good diplomacy, according to Ayaz Wazir. “We registered our concerns by not attending the Bonn Conference, and thereafter should have resumed negotiations and done business with them which we cannot easily write off”. Mr. Wazir stated that America is a sole superpower and a very important country along with the NATO alliance; Pakistan cannot afford to completely ignore them or say no to them. He recommends re-engagement with the U.S. and NATO, but keeping Pakistan’s own interests in mind when doing so.

Understanding the response on the Pakistani street

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In General (retd) Jehangir Karamat‘s opinion, the Pakistani street faces many problems of its own and is being influenced from many quarters in a variety of ways. “Right now, the opinion is negative, but the right narrative – put across with sincerity and without subterfuge – can do wonders”.

Similarly, AVM (retd) Shahzad Chaudhry states that the Pakistani street will be “confused” but by no fault of its own. The Pakistani street has been reared on “an anti-America diet”, despite which “they will find their leaders doing what America or the world wishes them to do”. Mr. Chaudhry wonders whether the country’s leaders have the necessary acumen to help the Pakistani people now understand why Pakistan must act responsibly.

Tanvir A. Khan posits that the manner in which the decision to re-open NATO supply routes has been taken will exact a political cost. The response of the Pakistani public will depend on how the principal political parties, opinion-makers, and the media project and assess the decision. “The government seems to have forfeited its ability to ask the political parties to lend a helping hand in a matter of national security and foreign policy”, according to Mr. Khan, “and the increasing American penetration of the media through their own efforts, however, may ensure a less hostile reaction”. Mr. Khan also observes that the Pakistan street is too preoccupied with sheer survival to react violently.

“The Pakistani’s reaction has been known all along”, says Ayaz Wazir, “ever since we became the front-line ally in the War on Terror”. The public reaction to re-opening NATO supply routes will not be favourable because the Pakistani people have not been prepared for this.  “That is what the government should have done; prepared the people for the consequences. Even if one was totally against its re-opening, the government should have put everything in black and white before the people, and then assessed and reacted accordingly”. The Pakistani people are under the impression that nothing would happen if the supply routes are completely closed, and that such a move would register Pakistan’s concerns seriously; Mr. Wazir believes that such is not the case. “We have to look at both the sides; the returns that they give and the effect that it will have on our relations”.

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