Guest Column | Downward Spiral

Chicago Conference once again puts focus on Pakistan for Afghanistan resolution

Radhavinod Raju 

The stand-off between the United States and Pakistan, which began in late November 2011, with the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by an airborne NATO attack in Salala on the border with Afghanistan, and resulted in the closure of the NATO supply lines and the Shamsi airbase from where some of the Drone attacks used to be mounted, had threatened to spoil US attempts to peacefully wind down their operations in Afghanistan. Many in the Pakistani establishment believed that the closure of the NATO supply lines would bring the Americans on their knees.

Pakistan demanded an apology from the Americans for the unprovoked NATO attacks. For the Americans, who had sunk billions of dollars in a mostly unproductive exercise to influence the Pakistan Army to use its influence with the Taliban to bring them round for talks and negotiations, and to go after the Haqqani network which was inflicting unacceptable damage on American lives in Afghanistan, it was time to call Kayani’s bluff. But the spiralling down of relations had started much earlier, in the beginning of 2011 itself.

In January 2011, Raymond Davis, a CIA agent was driving through Lahore when a motorbike carrying two men, coming from the opposite direction, swerved in front of his car. The pillion passenger was armed with a gun. Davis opened fire with his Glock pistol, killing both of them, leading to a furore, and loud anti-American and anti-CIA criticism in the media and frenzied mobs shouting slogans against the United States through the length and breadth of the country. Pakistan ordered the CIA to downsize its operations, and many American operatives were sent back. This was the beginning of the downward spiral in US-Pakistan relations, with the US trying to get the release of its operative, and a hostile press and right wing parties pressurising the government not to show him any leniency. Ultimately, the Americans paid blood money to get the release of Davies, and quietly whisked him away.

The tracking of al Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden by the CIA and the operation mounted by the American Seals deep inside Pakistan in early May 2011, is probably the most sensational and successful counter terrorism operation of the century. The Americans did not inform the Pakistan government before the event, or consider that their assistance was necessary though the operation was deep inside Pakistan. The obvious reason was a confirmation of the view current in security circles the world over that they did not trust the Pakistanis with this sensitive strategic information. The Americans quoted several instances when information about terrorist hide-outs was shared with Pakistan, and the ISI forthwith warned them about imminent US strikes. It left a deep scar on the Pakistani psyche, and both the government and the army protested the breaching of Pakistan’s sovereignty by its strategic partner. Coming as it did soon after the Raymond Davis affair, it further pushed down US-Pakistan relations. President Obama’s statement in London a few days after this operation that he will not hesitate to repeat it if they were to get specific information about high value targets inside Pakistan was like rubbing salt into a wound.

The November 26 NATO strike in Mohmand tribal region, bordering Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers, caused a severe blow to the Pakistan-US relations, already at an all-time low after the Raymond Davies affair and the Abbottabad operation. According to some officials, this was an attack on Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. “Such cross-border attacks cannot be tolerated any more. The government will take up this matter at the highest level and it will be investigated.” There were violent public reactions with protests all over the country, forcing the government to take tough retaliatory action against the United States, blocking NATO’s supply line, and ordering the United States to vacate the Shamsi Airbase from where some of the Drone attacks used to take place.

In the light of the United States’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, an international conference was to be held in Bonn in Germany in December. Pakistan, which was expected to play a crucial role in this conference, took fresh retaliatory action against the US for the deaths of its soldiers by pledging to boycott the conference on Afghanistan. This jeopardised Washington’s hopes of securing Pakistan’s support for a broader campaign to stabilise Afghanistan as foreign forces start to draw down. The Afghan government of President Karzai saw the conference as a chance to gather international support notwithstanding the uncertain progress of the war and economic crises in the West. But Pakistan’s absence reflected thetension gripping the region and renewed concerns that its Deep State will have its own agenda in Afghanistan at the West’s expense. However, President Obama continued to insist that Pakistan was still central to America’s plans for bringing greater security to Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with President Hamid Karzai

The state department spokesman was quoted as saying that Pakistan has a crucial role to play in supporting a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan, and that it was in Pakistan’s interest to attend the Bonn Conference. However, Pakistan was adamant as Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, chaired a cabinet meeting and ruled out Pakistan’s participation in the conference. The Pakistan Army has described the incident as an ‘unprovoked attack’ and closed two key border crossings to NATO supplies.

Describing the incident as unintended and tragic, NATO announced an enquiry. But Pakistan was unmoved.

The Bonn Conference went ahead as planned, though it lost much of its sheen in the absence of Pakistan. Pakistan dismissed the Enquiry Report of the Commission that had been ordered by NATO into the Salala incident as biased, as it blamed the Pakistanis for opening unprovoked fire on the Afghan posts, though the report also blamed the failure of communication between the two sides for the tragedy. Though the United States expressed regret over the incident, Pakistan wanted an apology, which was not forthcoming.

In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani placed the whole issue before Parliament for review of US-Pakistan relations. In April this year, Parliament approved resumption of the supply of the international coalition, but also called for an end to American Drone strikes in the Pakistani bad-lands. But no concrete steps were taken to open the supply line, in the light of opposition from right-wing groups, though back-channel talks continued. Gradually, it became clear to the Pakistanis that while closing the supply line did hurt the Americans, it would not halt their operations as alternate, though costlier routes through Central Asia were available. It became obvious that even if the Pakistanis did not participate in the Chicago Conference, the conference would be held, and the Americans will go ahead with their plans for Afghanistan without any role for Pakistan.

A few days back, Pakistan announced that President Asif Ali Zardari had been invited by NATO to attend this weekend’s summit in Chicago, as officials from both the United States and Pakistan indicated that the two countries are close to finding an agreement on reopening the NATO ground supply routes to Afghanistan. Earlier NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen invited Zardari to the summit, and the Pakistan Cabinet’s defence committee gave the government the green light to lift the blockade on the shipment of NATO supplies through the country. However, though President Zardari landed in Chicago for the conference, the NATO supply lines are yet to open. Squabbling over the enhanced price is going on between the US and Pakistan. In his welcome address and concluding remarks, President Obama omitted reference to Pakistan, clearly indicating US annoyance over Pakistan playing hardball over opening the routes for NATO’s supplies.

In the meantime, Zardari called for removing the trust deficit between the two countries without which it would be difficult for Pakistan to participate in the war on terror. Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, has reiterated that US ‘apology’ over Salala and stopping of Drone strikes are still on their agenda. With such hardening of positions, it is not clear what role Pakistan will finally play in the end game in Afghanistan. In this context, President Obama’s warning that ‘the danger of Afghanistan sliding into civil war or Taliban control still exists’ assumes significance-indicating that they have structured this aspect in their calculations. As for the trust deficit, it will not go as long as the Americans believe that the ISI was sheltering groups like the Haqqanis and the Quetta Shura, that were targeting US soldiers in Afghanistan, though the Chicago conference has reiterated that Pakistan will have to play a positive role if the Afghanistan issue is to be peacefully resolved.

India, China and Russia, three important stake holders in Afghanistan were not invited for the NATO conference. There was no question of Iran, another important regional stake holder in a peaceful Afghanistan, being invited by NATO. But these four important regional powers would be watching the developments keenly, especially Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s future.


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