Pakistan and US: Towards a transactional relationship

Once you hit rock bottom, the only place to go is up. Going by this dictum, US-Pakistan relations should now be on their way up. Under strain after the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces inside Pakistan in May last year, the bilateral relations hit a rock bottom last November. A US airstrike on Pakistani army outposts at Salala, on the Afghan border, led to the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers. In retaliation, Islamabad suspended NATO supply lines through Pakistan into Afghanistan, which then carried nearly 30 per cent of non-lethal supplies for NATO forces fighting the Taliban.

But Pakistan army’s hopes of bringing the US to its knees were soon dashed. The US moved more supplies through the alternative route in Central Asia and by air. The alternative routes are expensive: Central Asian route is three times and direct flights to Afghanistan ten times more expensive than the Pakistani route. Despite this, not once has the US publicly requested Pakistan to open the NATO supply lines. In fact, all the clamour for opening the supply lines has been inside Pakistan.

Backlash fears: Pakistani protesters setting fire to US and NATO flags against the reopening of the NATO supply route to Afghanistan. Fearing such repercussions, neither the Pakistan army nor the civilian government want to be held responsible for opening the supply lines

The reason for this clamour is obvious. Pakistan army’s National Logistics Cell earns handsomely from the exclusive contract for transporting NATO supplies from Karachi. Moreover, the inflow of US military aid to Pakistan is dependent on keeping the supply lines open. Some $15.8 billion has been transferred by the US in military aid to Pakistan since 2001, which is roughly 40 per cent of Pakistan’s total military expenditure during the period.

As much as Pakistan army would want these supply lines to reopen, the powerful and pervasive anti-American sentiment in the country has complicated matters. As per the latest Pew poll, 75 per cent Pakistanis hold an unfavourable view of the US while only 11 per cent hold a favourable view. Such is the fear of popular backlash that neither the Pakistan army nor the civilian government wants to be held responsible for opening the NATO supply lines.

While General Kayani conveniently asked the democratically elected government to decide on the matter, the civilian government passed the buck on to the parliament. The task finally fell on the parliamentary committee on national security (PCNS). After one botched attempt due to political opposition, PCNS was finally able to produce a report last week. The parliament unanimously approved the report immediately without any discussion. But even this report has left the decision to open the NATO supply lines on the government. It merely recommends guidelines for conduct of Pakistan’s foreign policy, which are not binding on the government.

But even this fig-leaf of a political consensus wasn’t achieved easily. A nudge by the Pakistan army and meetings with the US ambassador weren’t sufficient to convince the political parties. It needed the Saudis to clinch the deal. General Kayani paid a visit to Riyadh which brought the Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah to Islamabad. Prince’s meetings with political leaders led to the adoption of PCNS report.

In the 14-point report, there are only four real points of discussion between the US and Pakistan. First, PCNS wants the US to stop drone strikes in Pakistani territory. US has already ruled it out and that stance is unlikely to change. Second, Pakistan wants an unconditional apology for the Salala incident. US has officially expressed regrets but an unconditional apology from Obama is unlikely in an election year. Third, Pakistan wants the US to resume Coalition Support Fund (CSF) payments which have been on hold since December 2010. US auditors have already approved $600 million in CSF payments, which can be transferred quickly. Finally, the additional levies that Pakistan army wants the US to pay on every container moved through Pakistan. These rates will be bargained between the two sides. But the US is likely to give in because it now needs the Pakistan route to move military equipment out of Afghanistan in a timely manner.

Whatever be the outcome of these bilateral negotiations, the pious homilies of a strategic partnership between Pakistan and the US are over. At best, it will be a transactional relationship where Pakistan army gets paid for the services it provides to the US.  

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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