On April 12, Pakistan’s parliament unanimously approved a new set of guidelines on relations with the US, an action that could pave the way for the reopening of the critical US and Nato supply lines into Afghanistan. For the past few months, these routes have remained closed as ties between Pakistan and the US plunged to an all-time low in the wake of the US raid inside Pakistani territory in pursuit of Osama bin Laden, the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore and the accidental US attack that killed a dozen Pakistani soldiers at a border military post.
While the US and Nato will welcome the reopening of the supply lines, they are likely to be far less enthusiastic about some other provisions of the framework provided by parliament including an end to drone attacks, no future foreign bases or US troops inside Pakistani territory and a ban on transportation of weapons through Pakistan to Nato forces in Afghanistan.
The drone attacks are hugely unpopular in Pakistan, where they are viewed as being counterproductive. The Obama Administration, however, finds them particularly effective against remote militant safe havens and the US is unlikely to end them readily.
Because of its dependence on US aid, Pakistan is unlikely to make the reopening of the supply lines conditional to an end to drone attacks. However, there may be room for compromise on their scope: during the Bush administration, drones were used only against high-value targets, but their number expanded under Barack Obama.
Parliament’s guidelines also call for the US to apologise unconditionally for the accidental cross-border attack, something which is difficult for the Obama Administration to do in an election year. A compromise is likely, resulting in a declaration of remorse by the US that falls short of a formal apology.
Within Pakistan, the new terms of engagement are significant in several ways. First, the guidelines would introduce domestic transparency in Pakistan-US relations. This is a radical departure from previous military-led governments, which did not take the public into confidence about security and foreign policies.
Second, parliamentary oversight of Pakistani foreign and security policies will promote more accountability and provide more legitimacy to the civilian government. Over the long term, however, it is yet to be seen whether a habitually dominant military will reconcile to playing a subordinate role to parliamentary oversight.
Despite their disagreements, the US and Pakistan are well aware of their interdependence, especially when it comes to the endgame in Afghanistan. President Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the recent nuclear disarmament conference in South Korea helped set the stage for a resetting of the relationship, which was followed a week later by a meeting between the countries’ two highest-ranking military officers.
In the short term, the US will be strongly motivated to find a compromise that would enable the reopening of the supply lines to Afghanistan. Officials are hoping the routes can be opened before an important Nato summit in Chicago next month.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2012.