Pakistan moves to reopen NATO supply lines, but US ties remain frayed

Parliament outlined how US-Pakistan relations ought to proceed, but gave an unofficial okay to reopening NATO supply lines to Afghanistan.

Athar Hussain/Reuters
A man cleans a fuel tanker, which is used to carry fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan, at a compound in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, April 13.

Pakistan looks set to reopen two key NATO supply routes to Afghanistan, following the unanimous approval last week of a proposal in Parliament for new bilateral relations with the United States.

The legislation outlines how Pakistan should deal with the US and gives a tacit green light to restoring the supply lines that were cut four month ago. The agreement was struck after the government agreed to include opposition party demands, and after weeks of quiet diplomacy between the US and Pakistan. 

Despite the diplomatic engagement involving the senior military and civilian leadership from both sides, many believe the future relationship between the two allies in the war on terror will not be fully repaired.

“The Parliament has tried to create a balance between anti-Americanism [among the people] and a pragmatic and rational policy for future Pak-US relations,” says Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, an associate professor of International Relations Department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

“[It's] not that the countries do not want to settle back the relations, but it is because of a divergence of interest vis-à-vis Afghanistan,” Dr. Jaspal says, referring to reported US plans to include India in future Afghanistan plans, which is not acceptable to Pakistan.

However, he says, the two countries will now have a better relationship than a few months ago after the November NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistanis.

A top foreign office official said that the Parliament's green light came on the heels of last month’s meeting between President Obama and Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Seoul, and a series of public and behind-the curtain meetings between the two countries. The meetings have begun to mend relations that have been strained over numerous incidents, including the US incursion to kill Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden last year. 

Pakistan’s interior ministry has already told the Pakistan Oil Tankers Association (APOTA), responsible for transporting around 70 percent of non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan since November 2001, to get ready to restart operations.

“We were asked last week by high-ups from Islamabad to get ready for restoration of transport service for Afghanistan,” says Mir Yusuf Shahwani, the chairman of APOTA.

Mr. Shahwani who declined to name the officials, claims that the two key routes – through the Torkham and Chaman border crossings with Afghanistan – will be reopened within 10 days.

Pakistan processed about 200 to 250 NATO containers daily before the two routes were closed in response to deteriorating ties with the US. NATO has alternative routes by airlift and through Central Asia, though the costs are considerably higher.

NATO has already been using Pakistan’s airspace for supplies to its troops in Afghanistan, which Pakistan said it had allowed on humanitarian grounds in February as a first trust-building measure.

The recommendations, following a parliamentary review of US-Pakistan relations, outlined what Pakistan would need for ties to be repaired between the countries and are widely considered here to be the basis for the two countries to re-engage. Analysts note they did not include anything about reopening of the NATO supply routes, leaving the matter to be resolved by the government, a tactful bid to let those who voted against the resumption of NATO supply routes save face. 

“We devised a middle way to give a face-saving to opponents of reopening of NATO supplies as they could not support any such move in the Parliament,” says a member of the national security committee who was not authorized to speak. They changed their views after the government agreed to induct their demands into a 14-point set of recommendations. That’s why, he says, “it was decided that the issue of the reopening of routes will be handled by the government on administrative grounds.”

A number of treasury and opposition members told reporters they were scared to publicly change their position because the Taliban have threatened to target the parliamentarians if they voted for reopening of supply routes.

The 14 points

The key proposals of the committee’s report include demands that:

* the US halt drone operations in the tribal areas,

* Pakistan’s ground and airspace not be used for supply of weaponry,

* Pakistan receive an unconditional apology from the US over the NATO airstrike in November – and assurances from the US that those involved in the killing of Pakistani soldiers will be brought to justice,

* no foreign bases or hot pursuit should be allowed on Pakistani soil.

Observers say most of the conditions proposed by the national security committee have symbolic value only.

“These conditions have been proposed by the national security committee just to quench the growing public anger. Otherwise, it is impossible for the US to accept many of them,” says retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based defense and security analyst.

General Masood who retired as head of the engineering corps of Pakistan’s Army in 1991, thinks that the US may lower the frequency of drone operations in the restive Waziristan tribal region or Pakistan may cooperate openly there in the name of intelligence sharing and joint cooperation.

“But, if we think the US will completely halt the drone operation, that is not possible because it is the fundamental policy of the US administration,” he says.

Although Pakistan publicly opposes drone attacks in order to avoid public ire, it tacitly supports the operation that has managed to eliminate some key Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders.

“This time too, Pakistan will turn a blind eye to drone attacks, and will concentrate on opposing them publicly as it did in past,” Masood says. “Similarly, once the supplies are restored, who is going to check whether it’s lethal supplies on non-lethal [supplies],” he pointed out.

Pakistan closed the two supply routes after the NATO airstrike in November sparked countrywide anti-US protests.

When NATO supply routes do reopen, security of NATO containers will remain be an issue. Several containers were attacked and various crew members were killed in Taliban ambushes in different parts of the country in the past before they crossed into Afghanistan.

“Security was and will remain a major concern for us. The security forces must ensure our security,” says Yusuf Shahwani, the APOTA chairman, adding that the containers’ owners have already been reeling from shortage of staff due to poor security and growing Taliban attacks.

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