COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan and NATO: Point of No Return?
Pulse Magazine
Weekly Pulse, 2-8 December 2011
With NATO’s killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers guarding two security posts along the Afghan border in Mohmand Agency on November 26, Pakistan’s already much strained relations with the United States and NATO have once again hit rock bottom. Responding punitively, Pakistan has closed the crucial supply route for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, asked the United States to vacate the Shamsi Airbase reportedly linked to US drone trikes in tribal areas and boycotted the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan.

Without any doubt, the most important strategic relationship of the War on Terror, in terms of its current dynamics and future orientation, is now fraught with renewed uncertainty of an unprecedented level. Will the recent deteriorating trend in Pakistan’s difficult ties with the Western powers waging war in Afghanistan gain greater momentum following the tragic incident? Or, as happened in the recent past, would these relations be back on track, with or without the probability of another such crisis on the way some weeks or months down the line? The outcome could be either way.

The tragic incident has led to a tug of war between Pakistan and NATO, especially the US—with each side offering its own version of events. NATO claimed that a team of Afghan troops conducting an operation in southern Kunar province came under attack from inside Pakistan, and that it only retaliated upon receiving the call for help from these Afghan forces.

“This is not true. They are making up excuses. What are their losses, casualties?" Pakistani Army spokesman Maj-Gen. Athar Abbas responded to NATO’s claim. He said the NATO attack lasted for almost two hours, adding that Pakistani Army’s requests to NATO to bring an end to the fire were ignored. The Pakistan Army spokesman also stated that NATO and Afghanistan knew the exact border outpost locations provided by Pakistan and that the particular area in Mohmand Agency had recently been cleared of militants with Pakistani soldiers rendering so many sacrifices.

Even though this is not the first instance of the violation of Pakistani sovereignty by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the loss of life of its soldiers is so great that Pakistan has said it will not even accept apologies from NATO and the US for the tragedy.

A year ago, three Pakistani soldiers were killed in a NATO strike on a similar border post. However, after an investigation by the US Defence Department held NATO responsible for the attack and the alliance’s Secretary General subsequently apologised for the tragic loss, Pakistan opened the NATO supply route through the Torkham border crossing, which had remained close for over a week for “security reasons.”

This time again, both US and NATO promptly issued words of regret and condolences in order to mitigate the crisis. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama believed the attack was “a tragedy,” adding that “we mourn those brave Pakistani service members that lost their lives.” In a joint statement issued the same day the incident occurred, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta offered their “deepest condolences.” NATO also called the incident as “tragic and unintended.” Moreover, the US Central Command and NATO-led ISAF began their independent inquiries into the incident.

However, Pakistan does not seem to be interested in either apologetic mode or investigative course adopted by the US and NATO commanders or leaders. It has decided not to participate in the investigation process. While Pakistan’s political leadership has expressed rhetorical outburst after the tragedy—with Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani saying there would be "no more business as usual" with Washington until it respected Pakistani sovereignty—the country has taken three tangible steps to punish NATO and US for killing its soldiers.

The first such step, as stated at the start, was the sealing of Pakistani border with Afghanistan for NATO supplies for roughly 140,000 foreign troops, including about 97,000 American forces, waging the war in Afghanistan. Almost half of such supplies, which include fuel, military vehicles, spare parts, clothing and other non-lethal items, pass through Pakistan. Daily some 580 truckloads of NATO supplies reportedly pass through Torkham. This puts the US and NATO in a quandary, as they are still considerably dependent upon Pakistan for the essential supplies for their troops in Afghanistan—even while exploring and utilising alternative supply routes via Central Asia or by air in recent years so as to reduce such dependence.

The United States will face this compulsion and all the negative repercussions it entails as long as the war in Afghanistan continues—not withstanding Pentagon spokesman George Little’s November 28 statement that the US military will press ahead with its war effort in Afghanistan, despite Pakistan’s decision to cut off supplies to NATO-led forces. It is only a matter of time when the stockpiles of these supplies run out, frustrating the US and NATO to reach out to Pakistan for a compromise settlement, whereby the country’s security and sovereignty concerns are duly recognised and respected.

A second tangible step Pakistan took after the incident was the decision by the Defence Committee of its Cabinet, in an emergency session on November 26, to issue a 15-day notice to Washington to vacate the Shamsi air base. The United States has been using this airbase since 2001 and, in recent years, allegedly for its drone operations inside the country’s tribal areas. The Obama Administration has intensified this campaign. If at all the said air base was connected to the US drone effort, then its denial should hurt the US counter-terrorism campaign, even though not as much as the cut-off of NATO supplies through Pakistan.

A third step Pakistan has taken since the tragedy is to boycott the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn. The decision not to attend this conference principally means that Pakistan has withdrawn its offer of facilitating the Afghan reconciliation process by using its influence over the forces of Afghan insurgency. The Bonn conference is being held in the backdrop of US and NATO’s decision to withdraw their combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014 and hand over security responsibility to Afghanistan by 2015. Since political resolution of the Afghan conflict constitute the most important agenda item at the conference—necessitated by NATO’s decision to withdraw its forces by 2014—the absence of the principal regional actor that can secure this goal will hurt this significant event’s peace-making credibility or broader political outcome.

The alleged presence of insurgent safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been a lingering issue in recent years, and it has often caused bitterness in Pakistan’s ties with the US and NATO in Afghanistan. In the past, whenever such tensions surfaced between the two sides, their sources were tackled by their respective top civilian and military leaders through enhanced interaction.

However, since the start of this year, US-Pakistan relations have experienced one crisis after another—the Raymond Davis issue was followed by the incident of bin Laden’s killing, and much else in between and ever since. Admiral Mike Mullen’s allegation in a September Senate hearing regarding the ISI acting as a “veritable arm of the Haqqani Network” in North Waziristan, whom he accused of orchestrating a couple of major attacks on US Embassy and NATO Headquarters in Kabul earlier in the month, brought their relationship to a new low in subsequent months.

Yet, hours before November 26 tragic incident, US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen was reportedly conversing with Pakistani army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani at the Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi about “what the two countries can do for each other.” Following the incident, General Allen and US military’s top-ranking officer in Afghanistan, General Martin Dempsey, did reportedly call General Kayani to express their regrets, while assuring him to investigate the matter.

However, in this particular case, given its gravity in terms of the loss of life and severity of Pakistani public response to it, the United States and NATO would perhaps have to go an extra mile in publicly pronouncing their unconditional commitment to respect Pakistani sovereignty in future. In the absence of that, we can expect Pakistan—which supposedly is a “non-NATO” ally of the US in the War on Terror—to continue its hardened stance for some time to come.

It can at least expect China to stand by it in this hour of need. The Chinese were also quite prompt in condemning the incident. “China is deeply shocked at the incident and expresses strong concerns and deep condolences to the victims in Pakistan,” said Hong Lei, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, the same day the tragedy occurred. This is despite the fact that Pakistan cannot afford to isolate itself from the West—the US, the UK, the EU and the rest—in the longer run, if not for anything else but for crucial economic and military assistance, trade ties and international financial help.

It goes without saying that at this crucial juncture when Western forces have started to withdraw from Afghanistan, which necessitates that the conflict in Afghanistan be resolved politically sooner than later, the old allies in the War on Terror should stick together—rather than drift apart, over counter-terrorism issues that can be mutually resolved. Pakistani preferences in this war may be different from those of the US and NATO, but the goal of combating terrorism is surely a collective one.

As for Pakistan, it remains South Asia’s pivotal player and Muslim world’s only nuclear power. The country is lived, by and large, by a very dynamic and hospitable people who come together in times of national crises—even if they seem to constitute a divisive nation on so many counts. Its concerns regarding sovereignty are perfectly legitimate.

The US and NATO would make a serious error of judgment by perceiving Pakistan as another Afghanistan or Somalia. It should make complete sense on their part to take Pakistan’s legitimate security interests and sovereignty concerns into consideration and re-engage it constructively offering public apologies for the recent tragedy. After all, the price Pakistan has paid for fighting terrorism in the past over ten years, both in human and material terms, is massive and deserves due recognition and appreciation from not just the US and NATO but from the entire world.

As for the future course of action, The US and NATO urgently need to fundamentally agree to a clearly-defined body of new rules of engagement and cooperation with Pakistan for combating terrorism in the region in a way that its sovereignty is not compromised. For the failure to do may simply be unaffordable for each.

The commentary can be accessed at weeklypulse.org