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What went wrong in Chicago?


By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, May 25 ,2012

Regardless of the spins that Pakistani officials are now putting on President Asif Zardari's participation in the Chicago summit, predicating it on the need to be "present" at such an international forum, the occasion brought unnecessary indignation for the country, and American officials made sure the Pakistani delegation felt so.

"The pressure was meant to make Zardari "feel uncomfortable and if they're feeling a little bit of pressure this weekend, they should," the Wall Street Journal said, quoting a US official.

Through his conduct, President Barack Obama left no doubt about his displeasure over the inconclusive Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) deal. Obama did not mention Pakistan's name in his speech. He also practically snubbed repeated requests and attempts for a bilateral meeting with Zardari. Additionally, Pakistan figured in the NATO Declaration only in general terms.

"The countries in the region, particularly Pakistan, have important roles in ensuring enduring peace, stability and security in Afghanistan and in facilitating the completion of the transition process. We welcome the progress on transit arrangements with our Central Asian partners and Russia."

The "Central Asian partners and Russia" part of the declaration was clearly meant to convey to Pakistan that if Pakistan continued using the transport cost through the 5000-km long Northern Distribution Network (NDN) as a benchmark for the GLOC through Pakistan, it will not get anywhere.

Here, the arrogance of the sole super power was at display. The US establishment successfully relegated some fundamental issues of principle to "haggling over the transit fees for the US-NATO cargo through Pakistan."

In most of the media, Pakistan was essentially projected as an "unscrupulous merchant" who is bent on "exploiting" the troubled NATO nations by asking for an unfair price. Worse, the entire issue was projected as if only Pakistan needed the deal, and not otherwise; the hard reality that none of the parties could envision and afford a longer break in this need-based relationship, got obfuscated in the details of the transit fees.

Now irrespective of the utmost necessity for Pakistan to stay relevant because of the geographical proximity to Afghanistan and multiple cross-border ethnic as well as commercial linkages, the leadership in Islamabad bears at least half of the responsibility for the humiliation it suffered at Chicago - because of its indecision, incompetence, and immaturity.

The decision to attend Chicago despite inconclusive talks with American officials in Islamabad clearly underlined indecision as well as immaturity. The humiliation at Chicago also exposed the official incompetence and lack of foresight in the backdrop of an uncouth competition for credit between the foreign minister and her ambassador in Washington. The house was divided and thus ended up - at least in public - with indignation for Pakistan.

Now, regardless of the filth that others piled on a "dodgy, inflexible and vision-less" Islamabad, are there any lessons that the Pakistanis have learnt from the sordid episode?

Do they realize that by advancing the security transition to Afghan forces, NATO has signaled to Pakistan that the GLOC card now bears only a limited value? Do they - both civilian and military leaders - understand that the country desperately needs to rationalize its business relations with groups such as the Haqqani Network, which shelters anti-Pakistan and anti-Western mercenaries? Or will they remain hostage to egos and the vitriolic rhetoric - exemplified by Imran Khan and the Defence of Pakistan Council, thereby staying locked in a bloody war of attrition with the United States?

Do the hardliners want to bleed and humiliate the United States at the expense of 180 million Pakistanis by sticking to what they call a principled position? In the real world, moral positions, however legitimate, fade in the face of realpolitik. Drawing on the parliamentary recommendations, the government and the military need to turn them into a policy based on the global ground realities, rather than parroting a sentimental narrative embedded in morality. This is something the government must have addressed before deciding to attend Chicago where it did cut a sorry figure.

It is time for Pakistan to shun tactics that it employs in the name of strategic objectives. Pakistan must learn from China that a head-on confrontation only entails conflict, financial bleeding and international ostracization. And president Obama did drop a hint about it (Ultimately it is in Pakistan's interest to see that they were not consumed by extremism in its midst, Obama said at a press conference).

It can also learn from the European Union - which now binds countries that fought against one another in the past but are now united in this regional bloc. If one were to believe officials, then Pakistan is looking more towards regional friends and neighbours for fostering economic linkages, they maintain.

But, does Pakistan really believe in regional integration through trade and economic cooperation, and is really pursuing a paradigm shift? Pakistan needs to turn the corner and focus on more internal cohesion and commitment to its people's welfare. It must embrace realism to ensure political stability and economic growth.

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