Following months in which the United States has been prevented from moving Afghanistan-bound supplies through Pakistan, a change in the political climate may once again open the southern transport route to this key NATO member. Even though the route is of diminishing strategic importance to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, it represents the first step towards rebuilding the fractured relationship between the US and Pakistan.
The impact of the ‘Salala’ incident
Last year, the already poor relationship between the US and Pakistan deteriorated significantly in the wake of an incursion that occurred on the Pakistani side of its border with Afghanistan. In the early hours of November 26th, 2011, helicopter gunships and air support elements from the US-led NATO force in Afghanistan battled with the Pakistani army at two military border posts. In the resulting skirmish, dubbed the ‘Salala incident,’ 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed and 13 wounded. In the aftermath, Pakistan immediately ordered a stop to foreign supply convoys crossing its ground border with Afghanistan. It also demanded that the US vacate Shamsi Airfield, a facility that had it had been leasing since 2001. This facility served as a refuelling point for aerial drones used to carry out attacks against insurgents in the Afghanistan and the tribally administered areas in north-west Pakistan. In early February, there were reports that that the crossings might be reopened. Pakistani military officials met with their US counterparts to discuss how to better coordinate mutual security on the Afghan border. At the time it was unclear whether this announcement by the military represented a unilateral move by the Pakistani military to reopen the border. This seemed to be the case as on February 14th, Pakistani Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar said the military would ‘once again’ allow US shipments of perishable food supplies to cross the Pakistan-Afghanstan border, but only for a short time.
After the announcement, there was more confusion as the US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter had claimed on February 9th that NATO supplies had continued to be transported through Pakistani airspace, even after the November closure. This was later confirmed by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on February 25th. However, the ground border crossings remained closed as of February 16th, according to US officials. Defence Minister Mukhtar later clarified his statement by stating that the final decision on reopening the ground crossings was in the hands of the Pakistani parliament. PM Gilani then said that the decision would indeed be made by the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS), but not until after the March 2nd senate elections.
The current outlook on Pakistan-US relations
The precarious relationship between the US and Pakistan had been building even before the Salala incident took place. Several events contributed to the breakdown of relations, including a similar attack on Pakistani troops in September 2010 when a helicopter fired on an outpost, killing two soldiers. Pakistan also expelled US security forces in the country following the death of Osama bin Laden last May in Abbotabad. The government in Islamabad has been critical of the use of covert operations troops and the conduct of drone strikes on its territory. In the wake of the incident it has capitalized upon popular sentiment — which is widely anti-NATO and opposed to collaboration with the US — thus sending a political message to its partners that it would no longer tolerate the strategic role it was expected to play so far. Though it remains unclear who provoked the firefight, Pakistan maintains that the US launched an unprovoked strike and continues to view the incident as a grave breach of its sovereignty. Some top officials have even suggested the attack could have been premeditated. The military leadership likewise condemned the deadly show of force, playing down the response of its own troops. It has claimed that the Pakistani soldiers were sleeping or otherwise resting immediately prior to the incident, and were fired upon first. The US military, though acknowledging the tragic nature of the deaths, has stuck to its own version of events.
The official report states that its troops responded to incoming fire from a border post, which they believed was a possible insurgent location. In the details of a follow-up report released last December, it concluded that ‘mistrust’ at all levels was a contributing factor the unplanned exchange of fire. The unwillingness by Pakistan to share the location of its border posts and the refusal by the US to indicate the target and location of the attack led to the deadly intelligence failure. This explanation has been rejected by Pakistan, however. Senior US officials also expressed regret at the deaths, but stopped short of an official apology, further angering the Pakistani leadership. A NATO report on the events and an apology by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was similarly rejected by the Pakistani government. As cooperation between the two sides remains elusive, the move by the US leadership to bring the post-9/11 Pakistani government into the larger ‘War on Terror’ has been skeptically viewed by political decision-makers on both sides. On one hand the US has (at best) perceived Pakistan to be an unreliable partner. Its record of dealing with insurgents in the country’s north-west has been poor. In February 2012, a classified NATO report that was leaked to the press claimed that Pakistan’s internal security service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was aiding Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The report, though denied by the Pakistani government, only served to further amplify the mistrust between both sides. The US is concerned about the future of the insurgency on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and needs the cooperation of both countries. Pakistan is concerned that the Afghanistan mission is fostering Islamic radicals at home, and that its contribution to the War on Terror is not being appreciated by NATO.
The strategic value of the Pakistani supply route
In view of the logistical difficulties in bringing supplies to Afghanistan — a land-locked country with poor roads — the closing of the ground border crossings in retaliation for the Salala incident signals a temporary operational setback for NATO forces. The Alliance preferred the Pakistan route since it was relatively cheap and fast, even in spite of poor security for convoys as they passed through the volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan border. After taking on cargo at the Pakistani port of Karachi, trucks would make their way to two primary crossings on the Afghan border: one at Chaman heading for Kandahar, and the second via the Khyber Pass near Torkham, heading for the capital at Kabul. In the decade following the start of US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, close to 90% of supplies were brought in to Afghanistan via Karachi. Though NATO has preferred the Pakistan route, all overland transport into Afghanistan is in some way problematic given the rough terrain and security concerns in the surrounding region. In 2009, after insurgents stepped up their attacks on convoys, Alliance members negotiated with Russia and several Central Asian countries to allow them to transport supplies using their roads and airspace. Securing the alternate ‘Northern Distribution Network’ was important, though controversial considering the historical relationship between NATO and Russia. But it did allow NATO to hedge its bets, as relations with Pakistan had already shown signs of being on an uncertain footing at the time. Since 2009, the northern route has assumed a greater share of the logistical burden, with only 30% of all cargo going through Pakistan in the last three years. This share dwindled to just 15% after the border closings. The downside is that the northern route, while safer, is longer and more expensive. Transportation costs are estimated at USD$104 million as compared to USD$17 million for the Pakistan route. This expenditure is likely to be a concern in the long-term as several Alliance members, including the US, look to cut down their fiscal security commitments. More importantly, the northern route requires the cooperation of Russia. For the moment, Russia is allowing NATO to supply its mission because it fears a destabilized Afghanistan. However, this may change if Russia falls out with the US over the proposed missile defence plans in Europe. In that case, the withdrawal of transport rights could be used as an implicit bargaining chip in any negotiations. Russia may also decide to back out of the deal after 2014, the projected end date for NATO combat operations.
As alternate routes through Iran or China are not politically or logistically feasible — the China route is snowbound much of the year — it means that any long-term solution will have to ensure the reopening of the Pakistan route. On the Pakistani side, it is probable that the leadership has recognized the value of the route and is attempting to ‘cash in’ before the winding-up of the Afghanistan mission. With indication that NATO members may pull out even in advance of the 2014 date, a longer delay by Pakistan has the potential to render the route much less critical to supplying a reduced military force. Its bargaining position would be much weaker in that case. NATO would want the route reopened as a contingency measure and to lower the cost of returning equipment home after the mission ends. It would eventually approach the government in Islamabad. But Pakistan would miss a good opportunity right now to rebuild its relationship with the US, seeing as it primarily relies on continuing support from America and not the rest of the coalition.
What happens now?
Considering the immediate strategic value of the route and the domestic political situation, there are signs that Pakistan might reverse its stance on the closure of the border crossings in the next few months. In the meantime the diplomatic workaround has been fallen to Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khan, who met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in late February to hold constructive talks. Nominally, the meeting is intended to help patch up relations between the two countries. But at a deeper level the goal is also to find a way to keep aid money flowing since in response to the border closings the US cut back its financial support to Pakistan. With relations at their lowest point in years, the US appears prepared to make the first concession. The US State Department has requested that Congress approve $2.4 billion for Pakistan in 2013 and is naturally looking to get something back in return. It will also likely try to dissuade the government from instituting a higher tariff on trucks crossing the border, which it had threatened to do as a precondition of reopening the routes. The Pakistani government’s response on this front is likely to be delayed, as public opinion appears to be sliding even more towards anti-Western hostility. The admission that the US has continued to used Pakistani airspace has not been favourably received and could prove problematic for a fragile government in Islamabad already under pressure from its military and judiciary. One worrying sign is that demonstrations by the political alliance Dife-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) have grown larger in recent weeks. In February, thousands of protesters marched in major cities demanding that the supply routes remain closed and calling for and end to US and NATO intervention. Difa-e-Pakistan, a coalition of some 40 parties formed last November in response to the Salala incident, has support from the banned extremist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and thus is suspected to be linked to Al-Qaeda. In view of the domestic unrest, the likely outcome is that the Pakistani government will attempt to quietly restart negotiations with the US in order to hash out a favourable deal before it decides to reopen the border crossings. It is therefore unlikely to reverse its position and open the crossings in next few months, as this could spoil any threats by Dife-e-Pakistan to turn violent if the routes are reopened. Since the government is also currently taking a hard-line stance against the US over the issue of sovereignty in Balochistan, it does not want to appear ‘soft’ on its foreign policy goals at the moment. With Pakistan’s Senate elections scheduled in early March and the budget to be discussed in May, any resolution will be stalled until then.