Politics on the supply route


The rubber meets the road

The reopening of supply route through Pakistan for NATO/United States goods on July 3 was the outcome of one of the longest and arduous negotiation processes between the United States and Pakistan. On both sides, domestic considerations, in addition to security and foreign policy factors, influenced the process, making it difficult to evolve a mutually acceptable solution.

Both sides became hostage to the initial moves after the Salala border post incident. The US military authorities were not prepared to accept any responsibility for the incident. Nor were they willing to make any conciliatory gesture against the backdrop of May 2 incident involving secret military raid in Abbottabad. The Salala incident was viewed in Pakistan as yet another evidence of American military activity being in total disregard of its implications for Pakistan’s besieged civilian government and the military that was pursuing an unpopular war in the tribal areas.

Pakistan’s army/ISI decided to play tough primarily to assuage domestic public opinion that raised question about its professional capacity to secure Pakistan territory against US military operations. It encouraged the Islamists and militants to launch an anti-US propaganda barrage. The military looked towards the civilian government to take the final decision. The latter was not in the habit of deciding key security issues all by itself, it passed on the matter to the parliament. This delayed the matter and gave the opportunity to the Islamists and the mainstream opposition to play on the deaths of Pakistani soldiers to make it difficult for the government and the parliament to adopt a moderate posture. The official circles argued publicly that Pakistan suffered a loss of $100 billion because of the use of roads by heavy trucks and tankers that carried American supplies through Pakistan. In this way the official circles joined the anti-US campaign. A good number of retired army officers argued that Pakistan suffered enormous losses in its relations with the US after September 2001.

The civilian government and the military became hostage to the ongoing anti-US campaign when they wanted to restore the supply route. By May, Pakistani civilian and military leadership wanted to revive the relationship with the US, but no high official had the courage to say so in public and question the Islamist perspective of defiance of the West. They could not make a case in public that the revival of relationship was in Pakistan’s interest.

The US and Pakistan have shown accommodation to resolve the supply route issue. The US Secretary of State expressed “sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistan military,” and both sides “acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives.” Pakistan did not insist on new transit fee but expected that the US would release funds under Coalition Support Fund, the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Law, and military assistance in the form of equipment and training.

The resolution of the supply route issue has hopefully generated goodwill that will enable Pakistan and the US to find accommodating solutions to other problems like the drone attacks, two-way movement of militants on the Afghan-Pakistan border, the Haqqani group in North Waziristan, Pakistan’s security concerns in Afghanistan after 2014 and support for Afghan reconciliation and stability.

Pakistan could not contribute to solving the Afghan problem and protect its interests in and around Afghanistan without engagement with other states dealing with the Afghan problem. There has been a lot of active diplomacy on Afghanistan in the post-Salala incident period. The US signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and designated it as a Non-NATO ally. It also resolved the problem of night-raids and control of prisons to the satisfaction of Afghanistan. The US strengthened wide ranging economic and security cooperation with India which signed a strategic partnership arrangement with Afghanistan. This was in addition to India’s significant contribution to Afghanistan’s economic reconstructions and development. China’s role also expanded in Afghanistan in 2011 with involvement in mineral development. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are engaging with Russia and the US in connection with terrorism issues and Afghanistan. Iran is dealing with Afghanistan at the bilateral level.

The only country out of this loop during these months was Pakistan. The US and others may not be able to evolve a satisfactory solution of Afghanistan by excluding Pakistan. However, Pakistan cannot promote stability in Afghanistan and secure its interests in isolation from other countries. If Pakistan stays away from the Afghanistan process, India gets a better opportunity to be more proactive.

Pakistan’s latest decision on cooperation with the US and NATO provides Pakistan with a new opportunity to engage with the rest of the world for evolving a workable solution of the Afghan problem in a manner that Pakistan’s security is ensured. Pakistan would need skilful diplomacy, patience and internal coherence to be an active participant in the changing political and security environment in an around Afghanistan.

The major challenge to Pakistan’s role comes from within its territory. The Islamists and militants are challenging the revived relations with the US by street agitation. They are not expected to succeed in launching a nationwide agitation because the mainstream political parties would not join them. However, they have the capacity to create law and order situation and disrupt working of the government for some days. It will be clear in a week or so if Pakistan’s foreign policy is run by Islamic and militant groups or the federal government.

Pakistan’s military authorities need to use their covert influence with some of these Islamist groups to calm them down. The civilian government alone cannot cope with their challenge because it also faces strong pressure from the superior judiciary and the opposition. As the military is part of the decision and it will benefit from the revived relationship, it needs to contribute towards sustaining the new relationship.

The United States can also help Pakistan to cope with internal opposition. Its official and non-official circles need to tone down their negative rhetoric about Pakistan. Too much fixation on the Haqqani group and the trashing Pakistani criticism of drone attacks adversely affect bilateral negotiations and provide ample ammunition to the Islamists to shoot down Pakistan’s efforts to maintain normal interaction with the US. Counter-terrorism polices cannot be decided in Washington alone. There is a need to adopt a shared approach with Pakistan. If the US faces a difficult domestic situation on Afghanistan, Pakistan’s government and military too have to cope with a highly volatile domestic context.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.


  1. .
    A very sensible article until the last paragraph. A trouble free bilateral is not possible without addressing the Haqqani problem. It's an OBL case in waiting and everything starts from square zero. Pakistan looses time and energy for internal development while the world moves on …

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