Troubled ties that US and Pakistan can ill afford to cut
An old saying in Pakistan comes to mind as one tries to make sense of the fraught relationship between Pakistan and the United States, as these two "frenemies" lurch from one crisis to another: when you make friends with camels, you must raise the roof of your foyer. In other words, an asymmetric friendship has its costs. For many in Pakistan, these costs are becoming unbearable. Yet a mutual codependency keeps this odd couple of international diplomacy together.
Even as Pakistan appeared to have emerged from the depths of memo-gate, the outing by a Pakistani-American of an alleged plot by its civilian rulers to use American clout against the Pakistani military, a Nato attack on a post in Mohmand Agency on Saturday left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead and raised new questions about where this strategic partnership was headed.
The army chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was first out with his warning to the United States, terming the attack "unacceptable". That appeared to set the tone for official Pakistan. A joint meeting of the civil and military leadership in the defence committee of the Cabinet produced a rapid and tough response to the US-led Nato attack. The vital Afghan-Pakistani Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) via Torkham and Chaman were shut off.
And US personnel were asked to vacate the isolated Shamsi airbase, once used for drone attacks in the region, within 15 days.
The GLOC carries nearly half the supplies of coalition forces in Afghanistan at one-tenth the cost of air supply. Pakistan has been tough before and has used temporary stoppages of coalition supplies for the war effort to exert pressure on the United States in particular. So long as kinetic operations continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan has this hold over the United States. But it is a tenuous hold.
Washington remains a major financial backer of Pakistan and its military. And the US wields clout with international financial agencies, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and can potentially squeeze Pakistan's faltering economy if it sees reason to do so.
Pakistan's military has benefitted enormously from the provision of training and equipment that allows it to prosecute the war against militancy and insurgency inside its borders. But historically, the Pakistani military always reacts negatively when the US pressures it to act in the US interest.
Pakistan's army now sees itself as the guardian of the external frontiers of the country, as well as its ideology. At a time when its civilian government is heading a weak coalition and trying to stave of the rising anger of its people, the army appears to have taken the lead in setting policy.
So where will the current crisis with the United States head? If Nato cannot complete a rapid inquiry into the incident in the Mohmand Agency, and accept responsibility for the attack if it is at fault, Pakistan may up the ante.
One way it could do that might be the shutting down of the Air Line of Communication to Afghanistan. This ALOC, as it is known in Pentagon-speak, is critical and allows the US not only to carry important supplies over a route that goes from Pasni, near Gwadar port, to Afghanistan, but also provides a corridor for US fighter and bomber aircraft to support operations in Afghanistan from the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
The allies do not have any other practical air corridor to reach Afghanistan. But then again, once Pakistan plays the ALOC card it runs out of options and that could lead to a rupture of ties with the US.
At a time when the US is under pressure to exit gracefully from Afghanistan, and with an election looming in 2012, President Barack Obama is facing heightened criticism and pressure from Congress - from both Republicans and Democrats - to be tough with Pakistan. Yet he has to safeguard his forces as they prepare to exit Afghanistan.
Pakistan remains a key factor in that end game. This galls US policy-makers but they cannot change Pakistan's strategic location and its role in the region. By boycotting the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan that starts December 5, Pakistan could throw a monkey wrench into the regional peace process.
Inside Pakistan, a rising view appears to be against dependence on the US. But poor governance has been dragging the country's economy and polity into a deepening hole. Pakistanis also envy the rapid development of historical rival India. This feeds the opposition parties' fervour and resort to jingoism producing a potent mixture of anger at the government and the US.
It will take calm nerves and cool diplomacy for both the US and Pakistan to emerge from this latest contretemps. The key to putting the latest attack on a Pakistani post behind the bickering allies will be a rapid and transparent inquiry, followed by reparations, if needed. Until this plays out, Pakistan may want to hold off pulling the trigger on the ALOC. And its new ambassador in Washington, Sherry Rehman, will need to hit the ground running to help rebuild relations.
It is not going to be easy. But then again, this relationship has never been an easy one to maintain and it is in both countries' interest to keep it on an even keel. Rapid communications between civilian and military leaders on both sides are a good sign. But much could still go wrong in this benighted relationship.
Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC. He is also the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within.
Updated: November 29, 2011 04:00 AM