The bygone year can be counted among few of the most difficult patches that the Pak-US relations have endured in the long and eventful history of their chequered relationship. Reeling under the impact of the Raymond Davis affair (Feb 2010) and the unilateral US raid that killed Osama bin Laden (May 2010), bilateral relations plummeted to their lowest ebb. The blundering and bloody attack by the US military forces on the Salalah ridge (November 2011), claiming the lives of 24 Pakistani soldiers, brought the Pak-US relations closest ever to the point of a rupture. The fact that despite the evacuation of the Shamsi Airbase and the closure of two major supply corridors sustaining US military logistics in Afghanistan, the ambivalent relationship has managed to survive that points to the compelling necessity of this woebegone partnership. A rethink has started in Pakistan to deliberate upon the cost and effects of affinity with the USA and as manifest from the impending visit of the US (CENTCOM) Commander, General James N. Mattis, there is a grudging realisation that the existing freeze is not helping the US to pursue its counterterrorism strategy and new rules of engagement have to be put in place.
Mattis’ visit, the first by a high-ranking official since the unexplainable attack on the Salalah checkpost, is meant to cool the seething anger in Pakistan over USA’s uncalled for and bloody transgression. The fact that Washington has failed to apologise, despite embarrassing failures of communications and coordination attributable to its systems and commanders, has only added to the bitterness engendered by the avoidable episode. He is likely to present and elucidate upon the CENTCOM investigations whose findings have been strongly rejected by Pakistani authorities for being factually incorrect, lacking in apportioning blame and without indicating culpability of any commander at any level. The Mattis visit is motivated not merely by the US urge to revive the much lost bonhomie in the wake of the assault on the Pakistani ridgeline post, but to move forward the badly mauled relationship into the future.
The opening up of the blocked logistic corridors, which had sustained the US military operations in Afghanistan for over 10 years, should be high on the Mattis’ agenda. This vulnerability of logistic dependence on Pakistan was obvious and despite the fact that contingency planning had been worked out and operationalised in the shape of an alternative northern supply route passing through Russia and Central Asia, the convenience and economy of the Pakistani conduit remains incomparable. When the supply routes were blocked in November 2011, thirty percent of the US supply was still passing through the Khyber and Khojak passes, while the Pentagon figures show that it is now costing about $104 million per month to keep the US and coalition forces stocked up; $87 million more per month than when the cargo moved through Pakistan.
It is manifest that there are important differences to be ironed out during the US General’s visit. In Pakistan, parliamentary deliberations are under way for re-establishing the framework of Pak-US cooperation by harmonising the crosscurrents that are tugging and tearing at the seams of a veritably difficult relationship. On its part, Pakistan must underscore the obvious disconnects that separate the Afghanistan-related security perceptions held by the political, military and intelligence establishments of the two countries. It has the potential to play an important role in resolving the Afghan conundrum; a reality which the US can only ignore to its lasting disadvantage and pain.
In a worst case scenario, if Pakistan is compelled to cease counter terrorism cooperation, which the Pak Army is providing at high cost of casualties to its officers and men, the terrorist threat to the US will notch up manifolds. The terrorist ingress into Afghanistan from across the porous border will increase necessitating larger deployment of US troops on border sealing duties. This will also dry up vital intelligence sharing and reduce diplomatic presence, much of which is being used as a thin cover for providing legitimacy to CIA operatives and contractors, enabling a capacity for unilateral actions like the Abbottabad raid.
Pakistan needs to make it clear that the US policies in Afghanistan should pursue an outcome, which not only satisfies its long-term regional objectives, but is also in sync with Pakistan’s perspective. USA’s encouragement to India to don the mantle of a significant politico-military power, bearing unnaturally large intelligence footprints in Afghanistan and threatening Pakistan’s western borders, has to be taken into account. It also should ask Washington to undertake diplomatic initiatives to help resolve the trouble spots that are fanning the fires of militancy in the region. For instance, Kashmir remains an issue that has to be resolved, if militancy is to be defeated in South Asia. The US ought not to avert the gaze of Kashmiri population, who want to exercise their universally acknowledged right of self-determination. It must also apply its influence to put on track a result-oriented Pak-India dialogue that has lost much steam through Indian recalcitrance to address the core issues.
The issue of the military aid to Pakistan needs to be addressed as well. Turning the screw to cut or hold back the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) to Pakistan, which is the reimbursement of expenses incurred by the Pakistan Army in counter–insurgency efforts, complementing the US operations across the Pak-Afghan borders is counterproductive; even detrimental to its interests. Resorting to such an action, which at best provides a limited short-term leverage to American policymakers, may hamper military operations resulting into undermining Pakistan’s capability to support its counterterrorism operations.
Pakistan also needs to underscore the perils of drone war that Washington has unleashed in the FATA region and the terrible backlash it is generating. While the CIA is waging this effort unilaterally, without consulting Pakistani intelligence and military, these attacks are becoming a case of diminishing, even toxic returns. While most are believed to kill low level militants, the civilian casualties, despite US claims to the contrary, are rising. This spilling of innocent blood is feeding anti-Americanism and thirst for revenge that does not auger well for the objective of blotting out the threat of terrorism to the US. For Pakistan, this painful collateral damage translates into the stiffening of militancy and a spike in the suicide bombings that invariably accompany a spell of drone attacks.
The writer is a freelance columnist.