Washington – The last-minute invitation to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to attend the NATO summit in Chicago was meant to signal a slow repair in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Instead, the breach has only widened, and the frustration in the tattered partnership deepened.
Americans increasingly see Pakistan as part of the problem in Afghanistan or even as “the” problem in the region. Up front and blunt, they no longer hide it in diplomatese.
Pakistan’s refusal to re-open the NATO supply routes into Afghanistan in time for the May 20 summit made the country an instant pariah in Chicago. Worse, it chose to continue haggling over transit fees for NATO trucks and to demand an apology from U.S. President Barack Obama for a U.S. attack on a Pakistan-Afghanistan border town which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November.
Islamabad overplayed its hand, lost, and has only itself to blame.
Pakistan’s determination to dig itself deeper into isolation instead of climbing out comes from an embedded belief that its strategic location means that the United States needs it more than it needs the U.S. But geography can be overcome, albeit at a greater price, if not bested. It was a bad decision to extract an invitation for Zardari to Chicago three days before the summit but refuse to remove the biggest hurdle facing NATO – the blocked supply lines.
Pakistan’s ambassador Sherry Rehman and supporters built a chorus of demands – an apology, an end to drone strikes and a hugely generous reimbursement for the use of roads – through a public campaign of Op-Ed pieces in U.S. newspapers and television interviews. The chorus went off-key when the wise men and women of Pakistan pressed Bilawal Bhutto into service, tasking him to take on Obama. The young chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party challenged the U.S. president in New York to “show some courage” and apologize. Alas, the audacious challenge will do more damage all around.
Pakistan’s fixation on an apology – which is not forthcoming, at least not at the presidential level – is counterproductive. Over the past six months, it has been offered at lower levels but the timing was never right for the U.S. to give and for Pakistan to accept, largely due to domestic reasons.
What Pakistan got in Chicago instead was a continuous, giant public snub. The Americans didn’t blink. Obama refused to grant Zardari a separate meeting despite fervent pleas. His cold, clinical treatment of the Pakistani president indicates he doesn’t expect his cooperation in the short term. He welcomed and thanked Central Asian countries and Russia for allowing NATO supplies through while pointedly ignoring Pakistan and its leader.
If the idea was to regain a modicum of pride in the relationship, which is essentially a landlord-tenant arrangement, Islamabad didn’t succeed. It might have been better to secure a meeting with Obama with an agreement on supply routes and a “thank you” instead of arranging a forced photo-op and getting publicly humiliated. That Obama met Afghan President Hamid Karzai separately made it worse.
Some U.S. analysts say that this series of unfortunate events will bolster the hardliners in Pakistan. But patience for cushioning an inept government is running thin in this White House. No matter how diligently Pakistan’s able diplomats spin the developments of the two days in Chicago, the U.S. frustration with Pakistan has risen to a level where public humiliation of a visiting leader is seen as a fitting return favour.
Obama is hard-as-nails in pushing for an end to the Afghan war “as we know it,” and appears uninterested in living the myths of a partnership with Pakistan. But the more Obama makes his policy clear, the more Pakistan appears insistent on clinging to the past.
According to New York Times journalist, David Sanger, whose upcoming book “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power” reveals the making of this new lean and mean Af-Pak policy, Obama has drastically narrowed his war objectives. Sanger says that the U.S. president even kept his most senior cabinet members in the dark while making his decisions for a speedy withdrawal over the past two years.
The U.S. president, while approving the “surge” of 30,000 troops, announced a departure schedule, going against his own generals who wanted the surge to sustain longer. David Rothkopf, a foreign policy analyst, called it “schizophrenic” in a scathing critique of Obama’s Afghan policy in Foreign Policy magazine.
Critics of Obama’s desire for a “light footprint” ask how Afghanistan can be secured without Pakistani cooperation and with fewer troops when a much larger presence was unable to weaken the Taliban and force them into peace talks. As Rothkopf said, “We are willing to cut a deal with anyone to paper over the problem in our eagerness to get out of Afghanistan and declare ‘mission accomplished’ even if it includes the not persuasively rehabilitated Taliban we were after in the first place.”
In what could be related developments and a sign of internal dissent within the Obama Administration, U.S. ambassadors to both Afghanistan (Ryan Crocker) and Pakistan (Cameron Munter) announced their resignation recently, before completing their respective terms.
But Obama and his inner circle are driven by political compulsions at home – 69% of Americans want the war to end. In a tough re-election campaign, the U.S. president has decided a small U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 – when the majority of combat troops would be back home – is enough for counter-terrorism operations in the region.
The NATO communiqué delivered after the Chicago summit formally commits to the withdrawal of 130,000 troops from Afghanistan on a fixed, “irreversible” timetable, starting from mid-2013, and the continuing presence of a smaller force to train and assist the Afghan army. An estimated NATO force of between 15,000 to 20,000 troops will remain for 10 years after 2014, and on a much smaller budget.
Whether they can help maintain peace when a force much larger could not, is a valid, if unanswered, question. The Afghan National Army, created on the fly, has a long way to go in being a viable force. NATO members want to gradually reduce the size of Afghan forces they can support financially. The figure being talked about is 228,000 Afghan troops at the cost of $4.1 billion a year to be funded by NATO.
It is unclear whether the Afghan army will stand up to the Pakistan-Taliban combine once the NATO troops leave or disintegrate into factions. The Taliban will make t
heir bid for power with or without Pakistani help. They have neither been sufficiently subdued nor coaxed into a peace process.
Seema Sirohi, an international journalist and analyst, is a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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