Facing an absence of weeks from these esteemed columns because of a long-delayed, potentially dangerous and painful surgical procedure, I felt it incumbent upon me to make some points on the impasse between Washington and Islamabad before bowing out. In the Op-Ed pages available to me, the following submissions were made: one, Pakistan’s closure of Nato supply routes (ground lines of communications or GLOC) was no longer sustainable; two, Pakistan’s haphazard diplomacy had been outclassed by Washington’s tough tactics and was subject to diminishing returns; and, three, President Zardari, bruised all around by the the Chicago Summit, had shifted the centre of gravity of the dialogue to country’s economic survival, as well as the survival of his own regime, by entrusting the America file principally to one of the economic ministers who became increasingly visible in the run-up to July 3.
A leadership that the PEW Research reveals is down to 14 per cent in public approval would understandably avoid taking people into confidence. Nevertheless, this was a moment for some honest public diplomacy and not for further obfuscation of national crises. Events moved at snail’s pace and one wondered if Pakistan had opted for a slow waltz to maximise its gains, or minimise its losses. But what happened on July 3 provided no evidence of a strategy; only of what The New York Times called a dysfunctional political class.
Consider the immediate media coverage. First, the ubiquitous talk shows: if anchor Meher Bokhari had hoped to generate an early intelligent conversation with the help of a former diplomat and a seasoned ex-Senator, the PPP representative all but wrecked it. Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira is effective when he is truthful but, given the intolerant culture of his party, he wrapped himself in clichés. The only effective intervention of that evening came from TV commentator Najam Sethi who opted for devastating candour, partly fuelled by clearly discernible schadenfreude. The astute analyst did not mince words: the civil and military leaderships had simply surrendered. He made no secret of his view that the surrender should have taken place six months ago. He did not emphasise that, things being as bad as portrayed, further procrastination by the government would only have reinforced a failure.
I am not persuaded that Pakistan failed the day it blocked the GLOC. Failure set in as Pakistan repeatedly miscalculated the impact of the blockade on the US as well as grossly underestimated the American resolve to punish it; Islamabad’s incoherence got only worse with the passage of time.
Mobilisation of the Pakistani street against the resumption or threats to the flow of goods will doubtless make a bad situation worse. The electronic media will anatomise every detail but the current format that has a tyrannical grip on it can generate heat not light. The nation is entitled to more information and parliament is the right forum to get it. Hillary Clinton has said that “Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives”. Khar must tell parliament what specific Pakistani mistakes contributed to the martyrdom of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Similarly, who introduced a greatly hyped demand for a phenomenal increase in the transit fees and how exactly did the Pakistani negotiators rediscover the great virtue of waiving all fees ‘in the larger interest of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region’? Again, parliament must ascertain the full meaning of “coordinated action against terrorists” threatening Pakistan.
An important element in Hillary Clinton’s superbly crafted statement is her recognition of the fact that Pakistan’s decision not to charge any transit fee was “a tangible demonstration of Pakistan’s support for a secure, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan”. It would be wildly optimistic to read into this single sentence that the two sides have narrowed their differences on Afghanistan’s future, increasingly forecast by independent commentators in ever-darkening scenarios.
Ashley Tellis, the scholar from Goa, who has successfully promoted a strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi, recently wrote an opinion piece under the provocative title “Pakistan’s Impending Defeat in Afghanistan”. Even if one dismisses his prognostication as wishful thinking, the fact remains that most scenarios do entail factors detrimental to Pakistan’s stability.
Pakistan must move beyond the GLOC episode as it does not have much time left to work out these scenarios objectively and engage with Afghanistan’s changing realities. The challenge is to make Washington’s interests and those of Pakistan in Afghanistan compatible, particularly during the decade beginning 2015; a task that still eludes the Pakistani civil and military establishment, largely because of Washington’s continued insensitivity to Pakistani concerns. It will be self-delusion to think that Pakistan’s handling of the post-Salala situation has made the task easier. Minister Khar sees a new beginning. Have no illusions; it may only be a false dawn.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2012.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled schadenfreude. The error has been rectified.