Drifting apart

With elections coming up in Pakistan and US,neither wants to back down

What seems most certain after the NATO Summit in Chicago last week is the weakening of the partnership between the United States and Pakistan. Many in Pakistan and in the US were disappointed as nothing concrete happened to realign the equation between the two countries. While the US remained determined to not apologise to Pakistan for the attack in Salala in November 2011,Islamabad did not appear too keen on conciliatory measures like opening up the NATO supply route.

But a larger point was missed altogether: unlike in Bonn last year,Pakistan had agreed to come and present its case. The Pakistani president was there to represent a consensus perspective from his country,which he may or may not have agreed with at a personal level.

The result of the NATO summit could be predicted even before it started,simply because both Pakistan and the US have locked themselves in pre-determined positions. With both countries approaching elections,neither party could back down drastically. It is not just that President Barack Obama cannot afford politically to apologise. The forces in Washington,which seem tired of Islamabad’s tactics,were not willing to play ball and concede to the excruciatingly high rates for transportation of goods through the Pakistan border. Although the Pakistani team had brought down the asking price from about $10,000 per truck to approximately $3,000,the Americans were not ready to pay this price. Their position is that the price of the Pakistani route,due to the high rates and pilferage,is excessive. More can be done at lower or equivalent prices through dependable routes such as those across some of the Central Asian republics.

In spite of President Asif Ali Zardari’s intention to keep talking to the US,he went to Chicago with a limited brief. Pressure from the military through its allies,in the form of the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council rallies,Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and statements by the JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman on the impossibility of re-opening the NATO supply routes,didn’t leave the civilian president much room to manoeuvre. Reportedly,the army chief,General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani,had even dispatched a certain analyst to help the Pakistan ambassador to the US remain on course through these negotiations as well as through earlier ones. It is also possible that close advisers and analysts of the defence establishment had recommended the GHQ use the good offices of the president to get the maximum out of a strategic relationship that is on its last legs. The US-Pakistan relationship is at best cyclical — a crisis-generating strategic convergence of views and tactical divergence that normally gets reconfigured,in a matter of six to seven years,into strategic divergence and tactical convergence.

Indubitably,not much was expected of the Chicago summit except getting a few more dollars out of a relationship that has exhausted itself until the next time there is a crisis to bring the two states together. For Pakistan and its military,this period is critical in redefining the future of Afghanistan, shaping it in accordance with Pakistan’s strategic interests. The strategic depth formula,which does not necessarily mean physical territorial control but political influence,seems to dominate the thinking of the military establishment vis-à-vis Afghanistan. There is a strong sense that Western military forces in Afghanistan are almost a thing of the past,just like economic,military and political aid from Washington to Islamabad.

For the generals in Pakistan,it is now important to regroup and get public support behind the military strategy that is to be applied to Afghanistan. Public support has been moulded so that the US is regarded as a hostile force. Yielding to it in Chicago was therefore out of the question. There are greater stakes in building influence in Afghanistan so that the territory could be used to provide strategic depth to the non-state warriors. Islamabad knows that Western forces are not likely to return until there is another attack from the region.

In the end,it is the lack of a strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia that may have caused the freeze in Chicago. With 2014 in sight,it seems almost too late to think of the future.

Note: This article originally published here.