After protracted negotiations spanning over several months, Pakistan finally agreed on July 3 to reopen the Nato ground supply routes to and from Afghanistan. Instead of insisting upon an “unconditional apology” from the US on account of the Salala incident as the parliamentary resolution had demanded, our government settled for a soft apology. To be precise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the US was “sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military.” Our acceptance of the soft apology was not surprising considering our extreme dependence on the US in economic and military fields, the US-orientation of our top civilian and military leadership, the fact that we were pitted against the Nato alliance, and the fragile status of our polity and economy.
Another surprise was the statement by Secretary Clinton that “Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives.” Our army’s position soon after the Salala tragedy was that the US air strikes on our border posts were deliberate and not because of any mistakes on the part of our side. On the other hand, a Pentagon enquiry had concluded that the air strikes were the result of mistakes on both sides. These findings were initially rejected by our military establishment. One would like to know the reasons for this change of mind on the part of our authorities. Further, if indeed our side also made mistakes, the nation has the right to know what those mistakes were and what steps have been taken by our military to prevent their recurrence.
The surprises don’t end there. The Government of Pakistan as a gesture of magnanimity also decided to continue its past practice of not charging “any transit fee” for the use of the land routes in Pakistan by Isaf. Earlier reports had suggested that Pakistan was demanding a transit fee for the passage of each truck through Pakistan to pay for the wear and tear of Pakistan’s physical infrastructure. The figures of $1,500 to $5,000 per truck had been mentioned by the media in this connection. The payment of $1,500 per truck would have resulted in the extra payment by the US of $350 million per annum for the use of ground supply routes through Pakistan.
According to a report dated May 16, a Pentagon official indicated that the US had agreed to pay an extra amount of $350 million (Rs 33 billion approximately) per annum for the use of Pakistan’s ground supply routes. But apparently, Pakistan was demanding much more than that amount forcing US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to declare on ABC’s This Week programme on May 27: “We are not about to get gouged in price. We want a fair price.”
On the other hand, the US Defence Department reported to the Congress at the end of June that Pakistan’s refusal to let Nato access its ports and roads into Afghanistan had cost the US more than $2.1 billion (Rs.200 billion approximately) in extra costs to move supplies and equipment to Afghanistan. Our claim for the transit fee, therefore, reasonably could have been anywhere between $350 million to $500 million (Rs 48 billion approximately) per annum since the US was ready to pay a “fair price”.
This generous gesture of foregoing such a huge claim for the transit fee coming from an impoverished nation with GDP per head of $1,310 in favour of the US with GDP per head of $48,000 would be incredible if it were not true. In return, Pakistan expects that the amount due to be paid to Pakistan under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), which was previously blocked by the US because of the strains caused by the Salala incident, would be released in due course. However, as Ambassador Sherry Rahman correctly pointed out recently, the CSF is not some kind of aid package, but rather compensation for the Pakistan military’s deployment on the Western border in support of the Nato forces.
The fact of the matter is that under the intense pressure of the US and its allies, Pakistan’s political and military leadership simply capitulated. The turning point apparently came after the threatening statement by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in Kabul on June 7 that the US was reaching the limits of its patience with Pakistan. A comparison of the demands contained in the parliamentary resolution on terms of engagement with the US, which admittedly was our maximalist position, and the final deal obtained by our government, would bring home this point. We failed to get an unconditional apology. Even the soft apology in the form of saying “sorry” for Salala by the US was preceded by the acknowledgement by our Foreign Minister of our mistakes. There was no commitment by the US to terminate its drone attacks inside Pakistan’s borders. Thus, basically Pakistan agreed to reopen the land routes through its territory on the pre-Salala terms and conditions.
What went wrong? Why were we not able to negotiate a better deal? We must ponder over these questions to draw lessons for the future. The original sin, it seems, was the inability of our military to disclose the whole truth regarding Salala to the nation as shown now by the acknowledgment of our mistakes. Our declared posture on the incident inevitably led to exaggerated expectations about the deal that we could get from the Americans.
On top of that, the Executive abdicated its own responsibility of conducting the foreign policy by asking Parliament to take the lead in formulating our response to the US attacks on the Salala border posts. The legislators predictably were content to play up to the gallery, instead of grounding our response in the harsh national and international realities.
Our government could have done much better by negotiating a deal with the US away from the glare of publicity. Our greatest mistake, perhaps, was to allow a tactical issue to overwhelm the strategic necessity of Pakistan-US cooperation in fighting Al-Qaeda and in the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. The seven-long months that we wasted on Salala without gaining any tangible benefit could have been used instead to our far greater advantage in smoothing out our differences with the US on these strategic issues.
The elements of the arrangement announced by the two governments basically show that Pakistan has agreed to put the Salala incident behind it and resume normal dealings with the US. What remains to be seen whether it would be business as usual in the past or whether it would be the beginning of a new era in Pakistan-US relations. In the case of the former, the master-client relationship between the US and Pakistan will continue with Pakistan protesting from time to time about its national honour, but willing to ignore it for dollars.
Our political and economic weaknesses, and the decadence of our political and military leadership, are likely to dictate the continuation of our client status vis-à-vis the US. But the possibility cannot be totally ruled out that finally this nation under an upright leadership will wake up from its slumber, break the begging bowl and learn to live with honour in the comity of nations.
n The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.