Reopening of NATO Supply Route
July 06, 2012
For the past year and a half, US-Pakistan relationship has been beset by recurrent downturns, caused by the Raymond Davis affair and the Bin Laden issue in the first half of last year. The ensuing tension climaxed with the November 26 Salala incident. Since then, even though the two sides kept the diplomatic channel open to sort out mutual differences, the broader pattern of relationship has been one of growing hostility. This past week, however, the two countries have made visible progress in resolving one key issue: that of the reopening of NATO supply route, which was blocked by Pakistan after the Salala incident.
For the past year and a half, US-Pakistan relationship has been beset by recurrent downturns, caused by the Raymond Davis affair and the Bin Laden issue in the first half of last year. The ensuing tension climaxed with the November 26 Salala incident. Since then, even though the two sides kept the diplomatic channel open to sort out mutual differences, the broader pattern of relationship has been one of growing hostility. This past week, however, the two countries seem to have made visible progress in resolving one key issue: that of the reopening of NATO supply route, which was blocked by Pakistan after the Salala incident
Even on the eve of last month’s NATO summit in Chicago, the issue appeared to be nearly resolved—as NATO extended an invitiation to President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistani government showed felxibility over the new Terms of Engagement for US-Pakistan relations laid down by a parliament committee and approved unanimously in a joint parliamentary session. Under these terms, the supply route blockade by Pakistan was to continue until the US apologied for killing 24 Pakistani soldiers at Salala checkpost, stopped drone strikes in FATA, pledged to respect Pakistani sovereignty and agreed to a new payment for NATO containers using the Pakistani route catering to the “wear and tear” of the country’s port and road infrastructure.
Since April, a team of US negotiators had been staioned in Islamabad to sort out with their Pakistani counterparts the pricing issue, with Pakistan demanding $5,000 and the US willing to pay $1,000 per container. The earlier price per container was merely $250. In the past decade of the ‘War on Terror’ Pakistan had not raised the pricing issue, since it contiued to receive mumti-billion dollar security assistance under the US Coalition Support Fund. However, as US-Pakistan tensions grew post-Bin Laden killing, the US stopped releasing the CSF payments.
In the second week of May, while the two sides were busy discussing the pricing issue, Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, travelled to Pakistan and met Army Chief General Kayani in Rawalpindi to “review operational matters straining the cooperation” of the two countries in the Afghan war and “search for a way out of the impasse” caused by Salala incident. On May 13, Afghan military commander Gen.Karimi joined the two Generals at a meeting of the (US-Pakistan-Afghanistan) Tripartite Commission in Rawalpindi, in which “border control measures, and mechanisms put in place to avoid untoward incidents on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border” were discussed.
Gen.Kayani followed his interaction with US and Afghan commanders with a meeting with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani. Subsequently, Foreign Minister Khar at a press conference indicated Pakistan’s prospective flexibility on the issue of NATO supplies. She said the government had made the right decision to close the border to NATO to send a message to Washington that the attack on its troops was unacceptable, while adding: “Pakistan has made a point, and now we can move on.”
Then, on May 15, the day NATO extended invitation to President Zardari to attend the Chicago summit, the Defense Committee of the Cabinet met, with former Prime Minister Gilani in the chair. Somehow, however, domestic political constraints prevented the government to delay its decision on the NATO supply route. Thus, as soon as the Chicago summit was over, US negotiators left Islamabad, and the whole issue was marred with renewed uncertainty.
Seen in this backdrop, what has essentially happened in the past week is the repeat of last month’s exercise. On Monday, Thomas Nyes, a senior U.S. State Department official, accompanied by Gen. Allen and other US officials, completed a two-day round of discussions with Pakistani civilian and military leaders, including Gen. Kayani, Foreign Minister HinaRabbaniKhar and Finance Minister Senator HafeezShaikh.
The same day, initial local and foreign media reports quoting US and Pakistani official sources suggest the talks between the two countries’ officials centered on whether Washingon was willing to agree to Islamabad’s demands for higher fees per container and to ship only non-lethal supplies – not weapons and ammunition - through its territory. Other issues, such as when the U.S. would allow delayed military and civilian aid payments to Pakistan, were also reportedly part of the talks. But the main sticking point, according to these sources, was still the Pakistani demand for an apology from the US for the Salala killings.
A section of the Pakistani media, quoting un-named official sources, however, later claimed that the two aides had resolved most of the lingering issues, including that of US apology. Accordingly, the US will pledge not to violate Pakistani sovereignty. The two countries will increase intelligence sharing with respect to drone strikes in FATA. Pakistan will re-open the supply route, but only for non-lethal items. The US will release $400 million as unpaid CSF dues, out of the total $2.5 billion amount due to Pakistan, and also resume the dialogue to resume civilian assistance to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act. There were conflicting reports about the toll charge per container, with most suggesting it to be fixed at a rate between what the US was offering and Pakistan was demanding.
A special session of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet—with Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in chair—was held Tuesday evening to review the progress in US-Pakistan relations and approve the new understanding reached between the two countries, including the announcement regarding the resumption of NATO supplies through Pakistan after the lapse of seven months. Following the meeting, Foreign Minister Khar reportedly phoned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and informed her about Pakistan’s decision to re-open the supply route. For her part, the US Secretary of State apologised over the killing of Pakistani soldiers at Salala.
In a sense, the re-opening of the NATO supply route will be a symbolic booster to the Afghan conflict resolution process amid the ongoing withdrawal of US and NATO combat forces from the war-torn country within the next two and a half years. It goes without saying that without Pakistan’s help, neither the NATO withdrawal process nor the stablisation of Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be possible.
As for NATO supplies, the main utility of the northern route through Central Asia and the south-eastern route through Pakistan until 2014 will be the reverse shipment of the material, lethal or non-lethal, that the US and NATO have amassed in Afghanistan to fight the war since late 2001. And there is no reason why Pakistan should not assist the NATO during the withdrawal period, since as long as the international war macginery exists in Afghanistan, the war and its ripple effect will continue to haunt the region, especially Pakistan.
Of course, the most recent history of US-Pakistan relations has been so uncertain that just one round of parleys between the top civilian and security leaders of the two countries cannot be expected to resolve all the lingering issues. However, even if as a starting point, the resumption of NATO supplies through Pakistan is nothing short of a major breakthrough in US-Pakistani ties. In other words, this is the least we can expect in a relationship that has deteriorated so deeply since the start of last year that any talk of quick recovery could not make any sense. Unfortunately, this deterioration in the two countries bilateral relations has occurred from an unprecedentally high point of a Strategic Dialogue.
Under this Dialogue, which was lauched in March 2010 and had its three sessions until October the same year, the US was to assist Pakistan in over a dozen civilian sectors, including energy, agriculture, education, and health. Pakistan was to receive a five-year package of $7.5 billion from the US under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act. Pakistan direly needs external help, as its own capacity to manage multiple domestic crises, particular in the energy sector, is extremely limited. Of course, faced with such gigantic internal challenges, the country can ill afford to isolate itself in the region.
It is only by making simultaneous progress in managing domestic challenges and improving its relations with the outside world that Pakistan can meet the growing demands of its people and recover its fast deteriorating image in the international arena. Given that, if real progress indeed becomes visible in the country’s ties with the US in the coming days, the next major task for the present civilian government will be to build upon this inherently positivists trend and put the destiny of the nation on a firmly progressive course.