Why Pakistan still hasn't reopened NATO supply lines

The government of Pakistan is facing domestic political pressure to keep NATO's supply routes to Afghanistan closed, while the US resists apologizing or paying a high per truck fee.

By , Correspondent

After receiving a last-minute invite to today's NATO summit in Chicago, Pakistan still has not come to a deal with the US to reopen supply lines for the Afghan war. 

"We are close to a solution, but still have some way to go," says Fawad Chaudhury, the spokesperson for Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

The closed route has been a bone of contention between the US and Pakistan ever since NATO forces attacked two military checkpoints in Salala, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers and injuring an additional 13. In response to the attack, the Pakistanis shut down the supply routes running through their territory, forcing NATO to use air transport and ground routes through Central Asia instead.

In the run-up to today's Chicago summit, the Pakistani government has faced countervailing pressures, with NATO and Washington pushing Pakistan to reopen the supply lines, and domestic opposition parties pushing to keep them closed. A gradual democratization of Pakistan's foreign policy – once the preserve of the military – has added many voices across the political spectrum into the debate over the NATO supply routes.

Parliament wants its say

On April 12 the Pakistani parliament passed a 14-point resolution in response to the Salala checkpoint attacks. The resolution condemns the attacks, and includes demands for an unconditional apology from the US, an immediate cessation of drone attacks, and a stop to all transport of arms and ammunition through Pakistan. 

The foreign policy review process was an attempt by the parliament to regain control over the country's foreign policy, which has historically been set by the country's military. It was passed after several months debate, and under a broad coalition of parties across the political spectrum.

“We need to make sure that we follow the recommendations of the parliament in our negotiations with the US. I am hopeful that we can come to a mutually satisfying agreement,” says Mr. Chaudhury.

US not budging on apology

The US, however, does not seem to be budging on the question of an apology. “We have expressed our deepest condolences on this event, and are working hard to ensure that this event does not happen again,” says the spokesperson for the US State Department in Islamabad, Mark Stroh. 

The unlikelihood that some of the core demands of the resolution will be met, has given opposition parties – especially those critical of US foreign policy – ammunition against the current negotiations.

“We believe that Pakistan has suffered enormously because of this so-called war against terror. That is why we are calling for an end to the partnership. We do not want to see any NATO supply routes reopened, because we believe that is equal to aiding the US war effort in Afghanistan. We will only reopen them, if it facilitates the withdrawal of foreign troops from our region,” says Shafqat Mehmood, the spokesperson for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). The party is led by the former cricket star-turned-politician, Imran Khan, who has earned political points on his criticism of US foreign policy.

Raza Rumi, director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute, says public sentiment is a reflection of an irrational and impractical approach to the country's foreign policy and national interest.

“The government has spent a lot of time not just tolerating, but actively whipping up public sentiment. That was a bad move, and that is something they are going to have to deal with now. Especially since – whether we like it or not – our military has been dependent on US military aid for six decades,” says Rumi.

Others disagree. Rafia Zakaria, director of Amnesty International USA, argues in a May 16 op-ed in the Dawn newspaper that the question of the supply routes is based on real concerns by a country that is not interested in aiding the presence of foreign troops in their region, nor in weaponizing their territory.

“What supplies a war becomes part of a war, and in the years in which the convoys have been permitted to pass through Pakistan ambushes, riots and hijackings have accompanied them,” Zakaria wrote.

$5,000 fee per truck?

In an attempt to save some face, the Pakistani government has been trying to push NATO to pay a $5,000 fee per truck. But in an interview before his arrival in Chicago, Defence Minister Leon Panetta said the US was “not likely” to pay up.

“I think the US has called Pakistan's bluff. And that Pakistan has painted itself in a corner,” says Rumi.

When it comes to the softer questions of an apology, Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar has been hinting that the six month refusal to allow NATO transport through Pakistan makes the point, and that the government might be willing to forego the demand.

“I think we need a closure on that Salala incident, and move on,” Foreign Minister Khar said on May 14. 

And some observers point out that the apology might not be the only thing they will have to forego.

“Pakistan will most probably have to bend on most of the points in the resolution, if they want to remain part of the global dialogue on the future of this region,” says Rumi.

Pakistan risks isolation

The decision to announce Pakistan's intention to reopen supply routes came after admissions by Prime Minister Gilani that their closure affected Pakistan's relations not just to one, “but to 43 countries”.

Major Pakistani newspapers like Dawn and Express Tribune agreed, pinpointing that Pakistan could end up alone if it continued to pursue an isolationist stance on the international stage. The decision by Pakistan to boycott the Bonn Conference this December left Pakistan outside the decision-making about the future of the region in the aftermath of the 2014 downsizing of troops in Afghanistan, according to Dawn.

Why NATO is pressuring Pakistan

The pressure from NATO comes because several countries participating in the controversial war are eager to pull out in a time of economic crisis.

Closed supply routes could mean a costlier, and potentially delayed, withdrawal. According to Vice Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, Phillip Beedlove, the start-time for the pull out would be “significantly different” if supply routes remained closed, not to mention far more expensive. US Senator Claire McCaskill has said that alternate routes cost an additional $38 million a month. A sudden rise in fuel prices, she adds, would cost the Pentagon an additional $1.3 billion this year. 

“That is why the US has been withholding Coalition Support Funds numbering over $2 billion and meant to reimburse Pakistan's military efforts,” says Rumi. “The rulers of this country have realized that they can no longer play this game, and that it is time for a settlement. And that, I think, is the right decision."

Mehmood of PTI disagrees. Instead, he insists that Pakistan needs to take a “principled stance” when it comes to the question of the NATO supply routes. Otherwise, there is a danger that Pakistan will sell out and let the interests of foreign powers dictate its future direction.

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