x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

An elusive apology that is crippling US-Pakistan ties

The US refusal to apologise for a drone strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers is becoming more costly as time goes by.

Pakistan and the US have had a long love-hate relationship. But events of the last 18 months have brought the sides to their lowest point in over six decades. And yet both sides seem to be finding new depths in which to plummet.

The November 2011 Nato attack on two Pakistani military checkpoints along the Afghan-Pakistan border, a strike now known as the "Salala incident", touched off the latest spiral. Twenty-four Pakistani soldiers, including two officers, died in the Salala strike. Pakistan does not accept the US explanation, and has demanded an apology and compensation for the wounded and the families of the dead.

The Obama administration nearly delivered an apology. In January, the US decided to tender an apology over the Salala attack, but by then the Pakistani government wanted maximum political mileage out of it and requested a delay until a parliamentary committee finalised its recommendations. However, events were to overtake the "apology".

On February 22, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was headed to a meeting in London with the Pakistani foreign minister, apology in hand. But en route she was told to bite her tongue: the White House had just apologised to Afghan President Hamid Karzai over a separate Quran-burning incident.

"Two apologies at once would make it look like everything was unravelling," a senior US official told The Wall Street Journal. The White House feared it might "look weak".

Maybe, but the US has paid a steep price for this decision. As the Pakistani foreign minister said later, the Pakistani public "noticed that you apologised for the Quran burning within 24 hours and here we are with 24 people killed and there's been no apology within five months".

The result has been a costly closure of the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) to US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan, just as Washington is looking to ramp up the withdrawal of military personnel and supplies. The GLOC, which has been used to ferry coalition supplies through Pakistan to the southern port of Karachi, has not been reopened since.

The other issue that is a persistent thorn in the US-Pakistan relationship is the dispute over drone attacks. The Pentagon and the CIA insist on the efficacy of this tactic, and the US president, Barack Obama, has increased his reliance on the technology. The Pakistani view is that excessive "collateral damage" resulting from drone strikes is counterproductive for Pakistan, since it swells the ranks of the anti-state element.

For a while, it seemed that some sort of agreement based on "shared and actionable intelligence" was in the offing between the director of CIA, David Petraeus, and the newly appointed director general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, General Zaheerul Islam. For some unknown reason, however, that deal has been stalled.

So while both sides stall, Pakistan has decided to take advantage. Islamabad now wants to charge $5,000 (Dh18,350) per Nato vehicle that passes through the GLOC, a figure the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, has called "extortion".

This is not entirely fair, of course. When Pakistan initially permitted road transit to coalition convoys, Nato vehicles paid nothing. After many years a nominal charge of $250 per vehicle was imposed. However, over the 11 year US-led war in Afghanistan, the Pakistani road infrastructure has suffered enormous damage due to the transit of Nato vehicles. And when compared to the cost of transportation via the Northern Route, which costs upwards of $20,000 per vehicle, Nato is still getting a bargain. Finally, the Pentagon says shipping by air costs $16,000 per container.

Efforts to bridge these gaps have proven fruitless. At the Nato conference in Chicago last month, the US expected an announcement from Pakistan that it was prepared to reopen the GLOC, and Pakistan was hoping for an apology on the Salala strike. Both sides came away empty-handed.

Heading into re-election, it is virtually impossible for Mr Obama to apologise at this stage. Pakistani leaders must recognise the political limitations in the US, and move to open the GLOC. But Washington must stop its rhetorical assaults and admit that a transit fee of $5,000 is far from extortionate; it is very reasonable under the circumstances and the US should accept it, with grace and good will.

Meanwhile, the US should also compensate the wounded and families of the dead at Salala. Even if the US version of "confusion through (mis)-communication" is accepted, reasonable compensation to the families is still needed.

But nothing seems to be moving. So for now, the sniping continues and a strategic partnership reborn after the 2001 terror attacks in the US remains hobbled by political pandering and diplomatic inertia.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer