On the barren hills of Salala, the blood of 24 brave soldiers constituted the red line in Pakistan’s engagement with its coalition partners. It catalysed a nation’s resolve to protect its own legitimate interests. It also spells the beginning of the end of this particular phase of the ‘Great Game’. From here onwards, if Pakistan’s government is to protect its national sovereignty, it will have to show flexibility and understanding in the complex interplay between large states, smaller states and non-state entities. Let us outline the state of play.
Following the November 26 air strike on Pakistan’s military outposts, the government, for once, gave a firm and measured response: (1) indefinite closure of the Nato/US supply route through its territory; (2) the US was given notice to vacate the Shamsi airbase; (3) cancellation of Pakistan’s participation at the Bonn conference where the main stakeholders were to devise an endgame process; (4) initiating a comprehensive review of all forms of cooperation with Nato and the US.
How will the US respond? Two factors are central to the magnitude of the pressure that will be placed on Pakistan. Firstly, the importance to the US of the supply route through Pakistan. On the face of it, only 30 per cent of supplies pass through Pakistan. As much as 40 per cent of US supplies pass through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) which is essentially under Russian control. Another 30 per cent of the supplies come by air.
A new and unexpected development has made Pakistan vulnerable to greater pressure than was anticipated when the supply route closure decision was taken. Mr Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, has threatened closure of the NDN supply route in response to the deployment of the US ballistic missile defence system (BMD) in Europe.
If the Russian threat of NDN closure is implemented and Pakistan persists with its own blockade, the capacity of the US to wage war in Afghanistan will be seriously undermined. As George Friedman has argued, closure of both overland supply routes would result in the US either conceding defeat, or going to war to secure its supply lines. I would argue that while the US is unlikely to risk war with Russia on this issue, it can certainly apply heightened pressure on Pakistan at a level that it would be unable to bear.
The second factor that will determine the magnitude of pressure is possible hostile follow-up actions by Pakistan after the withdrawal from the Bonn conference. Pakistan’s cooperation in this, the final stage of the Afghan war, is of strategic importance to the US for a face-saving exit from Afghanistan. It is one thing to send through the Bonn boycott the message that Pakistan will not be pushed around, but quite another to subsequently use Taliban groups to engineer a strategic political defeat of the US and the government of President Hamid Karzai. The former may be tolerated but not the latter.
Pakistan has strategic power with respect to both the supply line and the political process in the endgame. Yet there are limits to power. Pakistan will be placed in peril if these limits are ignored.
The need of a smaller country to take a flexible position in the current power play is derived from its key vulnerabilities, which in Pakistan’s case are: first, the Taliban coalition that operates within Pakistan’s territory aims to take over the state, even as some Taliban groups are considered as useful means to influence the endgame in Pakistan’s favour. Second, the democratic structure necessary for keeping the federation intact is fragile. Third, the economy is even more fragile. Both the budget and the balance of payments deficits are rising towards dangerous levels as mass poverty persists.
The key to securing a future is to be flexible and seek cooperation with other states. However, this has to be conducted by defining more clearly the spheres wherein interests differ and those where they coincide. Only then can a joint endgame strategy based on equilibrium of interests, be formulated. Only then can destabilising deceit by the coalition partners be avoided and more suitable rules of engagement at the tactical level, specified.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 6th, 2011.