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Choices are limited

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, March 30 ,2012

Pakistani leadership has pushed itself into a corner in the way it has dealt with the controversial issue of the transit of NATO supplies through Pakistan.

There was already mistrust between the ruling Pakistan People's Party and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, as well as between the government and the Supreme Court. A smooth passage of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security looked difficult from day one.

The recent riots in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over power shortage and the opposition's deadline for an end to load shedding are another big hurdle to the passage of the PCNS recommendations. The PML-N believes the power outages are meant to discredit its government in Punjab. And the government's tensions with the Supreme Court may cause new problems for the ruling party rather than resolving any of the existing problems. The issue will eventually be resolved but not without political upheaval.

The US reticence over the Salala incident couldn't have come at a worse time. Just when the Zardari-led government was positioning itself to extract as many concessions from the parliament as possible for the resumption of relations with the US and the transit of military supplies through Pakistan, the Pentagon put the blame for the Salala strike on Pakistani border forces, declining to take any punitive action against those involved in the incident that left two dozen Pakistani soldiers dead. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar responded by saying a mere apology would not suffice any more. This obviously limits the options for the PPP-led government.

While redefining the terms of engagement in border regions (drone strikes and military operations in return for Coalition Support Funds), and reviewing the cooperation (cargo supplies via Pakistan, military to military relations) is legitimate and must be pursued, one must ask, what realistic choices does Pakistan have? Very limited, it seems. In no way can Islamabad withstand the military superiority of the US. Neither can it, nor should it, expect the US to relent pressure on issues which the American establishment considers crucial to its geo-political goals. Crucial among these goals is the elimination of Al Qaeda-led opposition - wherever it may be found. And central to the pursuit of this objective is the drone warfare. There have been over 300 attacks since June 2004, when former Taliban commander Naik Mohammad was killed in a similar strike on his hideout in Wana, South Waziristan. The drone campaign will therefore continue. The US may, and should, agree to recasting the drone strategy by perhaps creating a joint ownership, whereby Pakistan can project them either as joint ventures or exclusively their own effort.

Given the current economic adversity and the heavy reliance on the pleasure of Washington for assistance from other NATO countries as well as the international finance institutions such as the World Bank, Pakistan can ill-afford to deny these countries what they want. Nor would it want international financial and diplomatic pressures by opting for a longer confrontation.

While China may still be considered a close friend, the Chinese leadership is not likely to defend or justify any move that it may interpret as unpragmatic and rigid. There is hardly any way to draw on Chinese support because of Beijing's own crucial economic interests all over the world. Nor will the US-India-Afghan nexus provide any breather if denial and reticence continued to mark the mood in Islamabad.

What should be done? Can Pakistan afford to stick to its maximalist position? Certainly not. Pakistani leadership - both the military and the civilian - therefore must stop confusing tactics with strategy. Such advice keeps coming in various forms not only from China but also from friends in Turkey.

In very recent interactions with Turk leaders in Istanbul one could discern concerns about Pakistan's uneasy relations with neighboring India and Afghanistan, as well as the United States. Pakistan, said officials and parliamentarians sympathetic towards Islamabad, will have to rethink its external relations in a more pragmatic and realistic way.

"Pakistanis are usually very emotional about India and Afghanistan. They also indulge in finger-pointing across the border," said a very influential member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, requesting anonymity. As long as this continues, relations with India and Afghanistan will remain dogged. Similarly, the MP pointed out, Afghans may be averse to "Indian boots-on-ground" but not to the Indian money. The same is true for relations with the United States, he said, adding that codependence in a volatile region makes Pakistan more vulnerable to risks of instability.

Secondly, Pakistan must act as a state rather than as a merchant; asking for damages to infrastructure and perhaps taxing the US-NATO cargo is totally legitimate , but instead of appearing as a greedy merchant, Pakistani leaders must negotiate long-term benefits with the US. Why can they not ask the US to lift its opposition to the gas pipeline from Iran? This big confidence building measure could serve as balm to many bruised egos here and also clear the way for another valuable source of energy.

Thirdly, the Pakistani establishment must shed its romantic obsession with the country's "strategic location." This has only prevented it from thinking strategic ie long term. That is exactly what happened in the case of NATO supplies. Two-thirds of these supplies used to go through Pakistan last year. But by November, they were reduced to 50 percent as the US began to reply on the northern route. When it comes to protecting their geo-political interests, the US-led alliance will readjust and most probably absorb even higher transportation costs. Is Pakistan ready to make even minor adjustments in its stated positions? Logic dictates it should. Statesmanship requires that it takes a more dispassionate and realistic view, and seek advice from friends such as Turkey and China, rather than sticking to a policy that continues to bleed it, sullying its global image and retarding growth at home.

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