Hillary Dickory Dock

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Semantics save the day for estranged allies

The great jigsaw puzzle has been solved — or so it seems. Pakistan and the US are back from what many feared was getting perilously close to the edge of the precipice.

Apparently, all it took was for Uncle Sam to say “sorry” — an improvement on the decidedly weak expression of “regret” — to reopen the ground lines of communications or GLOCs (admittedly, a delectable recipe — for both the US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan and the cash-strapped Pakistanis).

However, there may be more to contrition — genuine or otherwise — than meets the eye. There’s semantics, to begin with. It’s a whole wide wor(l)d of diplomacy designed to wade through troubled waters. For the uninitiated, of particular interest, is how and why states resort to semantic lexicon where the context becomes all important.

The seven-month itch over the US refusal to “apologise” for the killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers at the Salala check post in an ill-directed blitz and merely “regret” and condole the deaths left the world’s most critical relationship teetering on the edge.

The behind-the-scenes relentless burning of the midnight oil did open a thin window last April — the only time the Americans came agonisingly close to apologising but it was postponed at Islamabad’s behest, which wanted the full contrition to calibrate with the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security.

By then, the desecration of the Holy Quran by American soldiers in Afghanistan triggered an international outrage, leading President Obama to offer apologies for the despicable act.

Thereafter, the administration decided not to offer an apology to Pakistan for fears it would impinge on Obama’s chances of re-election as having reduced the world’s hyper power to literally an apologetic state — and that, too, to states virtually dependent on its largesse.

Domestic compulsions obviously overrode the merit of such action, which in fact, would have helped salvage the bilateral relationship as well as kept the Nato supplies going without the phenomenal cost the Northern Distribution Network incurred, much earlier.

However, in what turned into a battle of attrition, Pakistan, too, dug in its heels, and as well as snapping the GLOCs also ordered the US forces out of the Shamsi Airbase. The action was premised in the knowledge that the alternative routes were far too expensive for the US-led Nato mission to sustain.

According to a security expert, it was costing them an extra $100 million every month to send the supplies, which were also taking a long time to reach their destination.

However, in hindsight, it appears Islamabad had misread the mood in Washington and soon the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) was withheld and other aid dried up as well.

Even though Pakistan’s decision to boycott the Bonn conference on Afghanistan last December was seen as a bold gambit at home, it had a lateral effect of a combined Nato alliance breathing down Pakistan’s neck.

Hopes were raised of a breakthrough when Pakistan was invited to the Chicago Summit in May at the last minute as it were, but “deliverance” was elusive once again because of domestic compulsions for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party of President Asif Zardari, who found himself in a corner after his military cleverly shifted the onus to reopen Nato supply routes on the civilian government — in what is also likely to be an election year at home.

The president weathered the storm — including a visible snub from President Obama, who refused to engage with Zardari officially once it had become clear he had no plan to announce the resumption in sync with the conference, which dealt with the Afghan endgame.

Islamabad’s attempt to seek a higher price — $5,000 per container floated against the previous term of a paltry $250 — was dismissed by Defence Secretary Leon Panetta as “price gouging”.

Last week, the two sides were up to speed with semantics ruling the roost on account of domestic compulsions even as speculation was rife that the understanding may be broader than is visible on the ground.

So while there’ll be status quo on the containers weaving their way into Afghanistan, the CSF reimbursement will be considerably more than the one earlier announced after Islamabad admitted inflated bills and an assurance to pay for the rebuilding of the damaged road infrastructure.

In the end, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only offered to be “sorry”, not fully “apologetic” even though some sections of the media in Pakistan were made to believe the pre-condition to reopen Nato supply routes had been met with the latter.

Consider the crafty calibration in her phone(y?) regret to counterpart Hina Khar. As well as saying, “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military”, she also said, “Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives.”

Does that imply Pakistanis, too, committed “mistakes” that led to the deaths of its own soldiers? Pakistan has settled for far less than it had bargained. But its hand was also forced thanks to enormous pressure from an almost 50-nation strong alliance with which it could not really afford to be on the wrong side.

The repercussions were huge, for, a continued stalemate would have been a recipe for disaster — politically and economically, feeding into regional instability.

For now however, the hopefuls see “sorry” as the ignition to restart the engine of peace.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at [email protected]