When I wrote in this space last Monday on the Nato summit, the agenda looked clear. Nato would build on earlier templates to maintain its raison d’être two decades after the collapse of the Warsaw pact, decide if and how it can become, in Washington-speak, “a hub of global security” in a time of economic austerity, decide future projects for conventional and nuclear capabilities, approve the plan to wind down the decade -old campaign in Afghanistan and secure pledges for burden-sharing in sustaining the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). Considering Pakistan’s salience in the Afghanistan project till and beyond 2014 and that Pakistan’s leadership had used public and private channels to hold out the assurance that the ‘ground lines of communication’ (GLOCS) would reopen any moment, President Asif Ali Zardari should have been welcomed, if somewhat belatedly, as an indispensible partner.
By the afternoon of May 21, an unseasonable fog had descended on McCormick Place Chicago so far as Pakistan’s credentials were concerned. The media of the host country latched on to the word ‘snub’ administered reportedly because overland Nato supplies had, rather inexplicably, not resumed, with the Pakistanis still harping on an apology for the deaths at Salala — in the case of Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, somewhat unfashionably — and because haggling in the proverbial oriental bazaar over transit fees was assuming unrealistic dimensions. Bemused, many Pakistani analysts concluded tentatively that there was no real crisis but an orchestration in mutual complicity by which Pakistan would be portrayed as standing firm in defence of its sovereignty, honour and, of course fair compensation for the degradation of its infrastructure. As to a full restoration of amour propre in the form of an apology, wait for Act II.
This would have made sense but for the projection of events in the host country. Bruce Riedel, who is credited to have been the first expert to warn President Barack Obama against the perfidious Pakistanis, demurred: it was, he said, “bad form” not to hold a full-fledged meeting with Zardari in Chicago; the ‘snub’ was going to “come home to haunt us”. The Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis, a permanent fixture on Indian TV channels’ talk shows concerning Pakistan, did not think it was a “personal snub” to President Zardari. President Obama said he “did not want to paper over the cracks” and mentioned recent tensions between Isaf and Pakistan. Given the interest in the US administration and Congress in Dr Shakil Afridi, an uproar against the 33-year sentence handed down to him by a tribal court under Pakistan’s draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations has already begun. (Cue: enter Rahman Malik.)
Just when lesser mortals in Pakistan were piecing together the disparate images from Chicago, this newspaper reported an exclusive conversation of its US-based correspondent with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in which she described Pakistan’s participation as “very, very successful”. Khar gave the impression that Pakistan was able to carry conviction as “an enabler, facilitator, a responsible country” on the road to Afghan stability. The vote in the US Senate sub-committee on appropriations on foreign aid signalled the opposite as, indeed, did Senator John McCain when he accused Pakistan of extortion. So, perhaps, the Chicago summit did present a conundrum.
Be it as it may, there may be nothing enigmatic about the situation; it may simply be a question of living with inherent contradictions of a badly fractured relationship. Nato supplies may begin soon, the apology issue may be appropriately fudged and the haggling in the Oriental bazaar settled for a lower-end closure. Simultaneously, Pakistan may already have suffered a fresh setback inasmuch as it gets even more marginalised in the Afghan endgame.
Consider the future. The Nato-led combat mission ends in 2014; a new post-2014 non-combat mission props up the ANSF and a fragile political structure; security and counter-insurgency operations are transferred to an ill-conceived, ethnically unbalanced Afghan army with no credible peace process in place. Without an inclusive settlement, the worst case scenario is a civil war. Such a conflict will be a nightmare for Pakistan. This grim prospect is emerging when the Pakistani government and the army are in danger of losing the plot altogether. It is time to get back to the drawing board and think things through. There is not much time to lose.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2012.