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Fallout for Pakistan

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, Dec 09, 2011

Ties between the US and Pakistan are in jeopardy after the Salala episode. Whether long term interests in mutual cooperation will revive the relationship is yet to be seen, but it is clear that the security establishments of the two countries do not trust each other.

There is too much hatred, and too much blood has been spilled. In Pakistan, the Mohmand incident provided the military establishment with an opportunity to stoke what it calls nationalism, and thus stage a remarkable recovery from the humiliation it suffered on May 2 (after the US raid to take out Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad). Banned outfits like Jamaatud Dawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their social apologists - Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam - are out on the streets to denounce the United States. Cable operators have also expressed their questionable support to the national cause by taking the BBC off air. Journalist union PFUJ also condemned the NATO attack.

On Friday, the government and the parliament also spoke through the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, endorsing what the Defence Committee of the Cabinet had earlier said and decided. Almost all of them agree with the position that the armed forces took immediately after the attack. A circular issued after an informal meeting of the military leadership on Thursday reinforced the response by putting an end to the Chain of Command system in order to enable the senior officers on the posts to respond on their own when Pakistani forces come under attack.

In Washington, the US Senate on Friday voted for a vast military spending bill that tied strings to military aid to Pakistan. Partially prompted by Democratic Senator Bob Casey, the legislation aims at blocking counterinsurgency aid to Pakistan until Islamabad takes "aggressive steps to curb the use of roadside bombs blamed for the deaths of US soldiers in neighbouring Afghanistan." Many Congressmen have called Pakistan an "unreliable partner in the habit of double-speak".

Regardless of the lofty rhetoric in Washington and the emotional Pakistani response, the present conundrum invariably entails long-term implications for both countries.

Pakistan's response has inadvertently exposed certain facts that had until now been denied. The demand from the US to vacate the Shamsi airbase by December 11, for instance, has come as a rude shock to everybody. (Will we soon hear the same about the Shahbaz, Dalbandin, Pasni and Khalid bases?). Before this, the military had denied reports of the presence of foreign military trainers in Pakistan, but soon after the raid on bin Laden, we were told that 129 American and 18 British military trainers had been told out of the country.

But the response is an example of the capability of the armed forces to galvanize public opinion and rouse jingoism at the grassroots level. Most private TV channels became part of the tactical approach and spurred anti-US emotions. On the one hand, it restores the image of the armed forces as the only entity that stands up to all challenges. On the other, it also shows the military's response to such a serious issue is emotional and jingoistic at best.

In the long run, Pakistanis need a more dispassionate and rational view of some of the fundamental problems that they face. Militant outbursts and knee-jerk reactions like suspension of NATO supplies make our political and military leaders look and sound like businessmen, who weigh national interest in cash.

And that is why the armed forces and the government must spell out the truth about the mythical "billions of dollars" that the American administration insists it has doled out to Pakistan, if they want to look credible, clean and committed to Pakistan's long term interests.

The suspension of NATO supplies will not be a very significant setback for Washington and its allies. Unlike the common perception created by Pakistani officials, NATO/ISAF can change the route of the supplies, although at a cost. The northern route through Russia is over 5,000 kilometres, yet the alliance would prefer a sustained flow of supplies at a higher price rather than facing uncertainty and interruption every now and then.

This eventually will also curtail Pakistan's strategic relevance. The supplies being sent through Pakistan are already down from over 90 percent of the total in 2008 to slightly over 50 percent in 2011. It would also mean transporters will lose business, and thousands of staff on 6,500 trucks will lose their jobs.

Pakistan must continue to look after its interests, but it might also be useful to review some of the policies it adopts to achieve them. 

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo


Email: imtiaz@crss.pk