The unending Pak-US soap opera

Published: Nov 29, 2011, 07:16 IST | Sushant Singh |

Even the most popular soap-opera can't match the twist and turns that grip US-Pakistan relations.

Even the most popular soap-opera can't match the twist and turns that grip US-Pakistan relations. 24 Pakistani soldiers lost their lives over the weekend when NATO aircraft and helicopter gunships attacked two Pakistani border posts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Pakistan retaliated with an official statement that it will shut down NATO supply routes operating through its territory. This has happened for the first time, although supply routes have previously been temporarily blocked unofficially. It further asked the US to evacuate the Shamsi Airbase in Balochistan within 15 days.

NATO has two supply routes which pass through Pakistan -- one across the Khyber Pass to Torkham and on to Kabul, and the other through Balochistan to Chaman and on to Kandahar. While nearly three-quarters of NATO supplies in Afghanistan used to come via Pakistan in early 2010, these two routes now account for just over 30 per cent of supplies.

Where do the roads lead? Trucks carrying supplies for NATO forces in
Afghanistan are parked at Pakistan's Torkham border crossing

NATO's decision to push supply networks away from Pakistan has been made possible by its increasing use of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) via Central Asia. Over one-third of all NATO sustainment heading to Afghanistan now moves on the NDN. The balance one-third, usually consisting of lethal provisions, is directly flown in to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the US has also been experimenting with shipping more supplies to a nearby friendly country, like Bahrain, and then flying them into Afghanistan using C-17s.

With NATO already holding 45 days of petroleum reserve on ground in Afghanistan, Pakistani moves to close the supply routes are not going to immediately cripple NATO operations. Notwithstanding the fact that the NDN takes much longer and is three times more expensive, if Pakistani routes remain shut down for a significant period of time, the US can increase its use of airdrops and move more supplies on the NDN to offset the diminutions. Let us not forget that Pakistan army's business interests -- via its National Logistics Cell which earns around $1,500 per container -- are directly affected by the closure of NATO supply lines.

The case of the Shamsi airbase is even more curious. Leased by Pakistan to UAE in 1992 for hunting expeditions of Sheikhs, UAE gave it to the US after 9/11. It was then used by the US as a base for operating its armed drones to target terrorists in tribal areas of Pakistan. But its status has since remained ambiguous. As per Washington Post, since April this year, all US drone attacks in Pakistan have been flown from bases in Afghanistan. In effect, Pakistan has asked a small contingent of fewer than a dozen Americans that had remained at Shamsi to move out in 15 days.

If these actions are not going to threaten US military operations in Afghanistan or stop drone strikes in Pakistan, then why has Pakistan chosen to announce them publicly? Islamabad's statement may have been addressed to the US but the message was meant for internal consumption in Pakistan. US is increasingly portrayed in Pakistan as its arch enemy, whose sole aim is to gain control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. General Kayani has been under pressure from the rank and file of his army after being perceived as a US-friendly General and this declaration is meant to ward off pressure from his own officers and soldiers. In this highly charged environment, it is extremely unlikely that Pakistan and US can have even limited military cooperation in the region, leave alone a strategic partnership.

How is India affected by all this? If Pakistan army makes any tactical concessions to India now, it won't be because it is on-board Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's peace process. It will be because Pakistani Generals need a temporary thaw with India while their relations with the US are hostile. Indian officials must not forget that the fundamental nature of Pakistani establishment remains anti-India and nothing short of dismantling the Pakistani military-jehadi complex will ensure permanent peace in the subcontinent.

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