New U.S.-Pakistani Supply Accord Seen as Tenuous

As NATO supply convoys began crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan for the first time in more than seven months Thursday, analysts here warned that the reopening of the key route does not necessarily signal a new dawn in the fraught relations between Washington and Islamabad.

The agreement, which will save NATO countries, especially the U.S., hundreds of millions of dollars in logistical costs, was worked out over the past two weeks, primarily by Washington’s top Afghanistan commander, Gen. John Allen, and the powerful Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Parvez Kayani. The men met twice over a 10-day period, most recently last Sunday, two days before the long-awaited accord was made public.

On the one hand, Pakistan got a rather lacklustre apology from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Nov. 24, 2011, aerial attack on its Salala border station that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. For its part, Washington’s most cost-effective route into Afghanistan was finally re-opened.

For more than six months, the U.S. and its NATO allies have had to rely increasingly on far more expensive air routes and the Northern Supply Network (NSN) that runs from Europe via Russia and Central Asia to get needed supplies to their troops in Afghanistan. The Pentagon estimates that it spends about 100 million dollars a month using those routes than it would if the Pakistani border was open.

While U.S. officials here have touted the accord as a major step toward normalising ties with Islamabad, more sceptical voices described it as both superficial and tenuous.

“Bilateral relations have always been bumpy,” according to Zia Mian, director of the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University. “Whether it was (CIA operative) Raymond Davis shooting people in Lahore, (Al-Qaeda chief) Osama bin Laden being caught in Abbottabad, or the attack at Salala, there’s no love lost between the two countries. But money talks, and the U.S. got tired of paying through its nose for routes which could be had for much less.”

Still, it appears that the Pakistanis may have overestimated how much Washington needs them vis-a-vis Afghanistan, according to former U.S. diplomat Wendy Chamberlin, who served as Washington’s ambassador in Islamabad from 2001 to 2002.

“The U.S. was pretty successful in finding other routes and other alliances in dealing with Afghanistan,” she said, “including much to Pakistan’s concern, India,” which, at Washington’s urging, last month moved to increase its already-sizable economic investment in Kabul and hinted at an increased role in training Afghan security forces.

“It certainly must have been disturbing to Islamabad to see us cross one of their red lines, and that is greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan,” she noted, adding that Pakistan was also facing pressure from other NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan.

Washington and its allies might indeed be saving hundreds of millions of dollars, but Pakistan stands to gain more than 1.1 billion dollars in military aid that had been frozen for most of the past year, as Congress became increasingly doubtful about Pakistan’s value as an ally, especially after the May 2011 raid by U.S. Special Forces that killed bin Laden at his Abbottabad compound within shouting distance of Pakistan’s premier military academy.

Pakistan is also expected to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where Washington exercises major influence, for approximately 4.3 billion dollars in the coming year.

In addition to a formal apology, Pakistan had reportedly demanded a sharp increase in the transit fees it would be paid for each lorry passing through its border into Afghanistan – from 250 dollars to 5,000 dollars.

In the face of growing U.S. anger, however – with U.S. Pentagon chief Leon Panetta publicly warning in Kabul last month that Washington was “reaching the limits or our patience” with Islamabad – it backed down, apparently contenting itself with the resumption of the suspended aid, most of which goes to Pakistan’s military as re-imbursement for costs incurred fighting its own Taliban insurgency.

Pakistan also got the apology it had been seeking since the disastrous aid strike last November.

“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military,” Clinton told her Pakistani counterpart, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, in a telephone call, according to a statement issued by the State Department Tuesday. “We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”

“Our countries should have a relationship that is enduring, strategic, and carefully defined,” she stressed.

But that will likely remain an elusive goal, according to experts here.

“I think (the new agreement) is a temporary fix, but there are still powerful fault lines in this relationship, not least of which is the Pakistanis’ approach to reconciliation in Afghanistan, as well as their desire to control the use of their territory as a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban and the very powerful popular resentment of continuing U.S. drones strikes into Pakistan,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.

“Any number of things could upend the truce – attacks by (Pakistani-based) militant groups in India or Afghanistan, or if the U.S. thinks they can get (Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman) Zawahiri in Pakistan, or even a drone strike gone bad that causes civilian casualties and provokes a lot of popular unrest in the country,” he added.

“One should be grateful that this contretemps is over and that they have proved they can talk with each other. They need to continue doing that on a regular basis,” according to Nawaz, who suggested that each government designate one agency or individual to supervise, co-ordinate, and continuously tend bilateral ties to ensure greater coherence in policy-making.

Vali Nasr, advisor to the late U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, agreed in a column published by Bloomberg News Thursday that “the apology is just a first step in repairing ties deeply bruised by the past year’s confrontations.

“Managing relations with Pakistan requires a deft policy – neither the blind coddling of the George W. Bush era nor the blunt pressure of the past year, but a careful balance between pressure and positive engagement.”

Some analysts here, however, argued that Washington gave its apology too readily and should have held out for more in light of its continued support for elements within the Taliban insurgency.

“(T)he agreement on the ground logistical routes should have gone forward only if Pakistan agreed to end support for insurgent elements,” wrote Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University, in The Huffington Post Thursday.

“Critics of this position will say that Afghanistan’s future can only be solved with Pakistan at the table. Unfortunately, so far, Pakistan has only tried to chop up the table and use it for firewood.”

But most analysts here believe that, despite Washington’s immense frustration, that demand remains a bridge too far.

“President Obama has to deal with reality. The U.S. did what it had to do. Sure it’s a temporary truce, but between these two countries, long-lasting calm is never an option,” said Mian.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.