As the Chicago Summit was on, the Western media carried reports that President Barack Obama had declined a formal meeting with President Asif Zardari until the supply routes were restored. With this, both Pakistan and America have exposed the crude fragility of their bilateral relations. America has indicated that it could go to any extent to arm twist Pakistan, in the context of the reopening of the supply routes via Torkham and Chaman. Its dependence on the supply routes through Pakistan came to fore once Washington’s bluff about the much trumpeted viability of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) was called - in November last year. Pakistan also stood exposed about its economic vulnerability. Though direct American aid accounts for only 15-17 percent in terms of direct budgetary support, the real trouble surfaces when multilateral lenders look for Washington’s nod before entering into any arrangement with Pakistan.
Anyway, to open or not to open the Nato supply routes has become a point of national prestige. The difference between the public standing and the government’s wish is quite phenomenal. It seems that the leadership will have to take into account the public’s sentiment before the routes are finally reopened. Unless a significant quid pro quo is accrued, resumption of logistics would be construed as a national insult. The political baggage is so much that Parliament also sidestepped the matter and passed the buck onto the government. It, in turn, roped in the DCC to radiate an impression as if the reopening of the routes is a necessity of the military leadership. Whereas, the reality is that even if the route was closed on military’s insistence, nothing tangible has been achieved by it to necessitate the reversal of earlier standing.
Pakistan’s keenness to attend the Chicago Summit was misplaced. It had no objective other than to endorse the earlier transition plan for Afghanistan. The Nato will hand over the lead role in combat operations to the Afghan forces by mid-2013. This puts to rest the speculation that it could carry on with the deployments and combat errands after the American pull out. The Nato has now unfolded its path out of a war that has lost public support the world over and strained the budgets of most of the Western countries. The economic pressure in Europe and elsewhere is being presumed as an unwelcome weight on countries, which are facing a snowballing public opposition to a costly war that has failed to defeat the Taliban in nearly 11 years of fighting.
The summit has formally endorsed an American plan of action to exit out of Afghanistan. This was, perhaps, a move aimed at holding together the crumbling allied force, struggling to cope up with France’s decision to withdraw its troops early. Meanwhile, President Obama is eager to show his war fatigued voters that the end is in sight. He, at the same time, wants to reassure the Afghans that they will not be abandoned. “There will be no rush for the exits,” said Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during the summit. He struggled to put up a show of unity, even though France’s President Francois Hollande vowed to stick by his pledge to withdraw the French contingent two years earlier than the Nato schedule. Now, it plans to shift the responsibility to the Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and then withdraw most of the combat troops by the end of 2014. The new mission for the US-Nato troops will mainly focus on advising and supporting the Afghan soldiers.
While starting the summit, Obama warned of “hard days” ahead. He had earlier termed the Afghan conflict a “war of necessity”, but is now desperately looking for a face-saving exit to dispel the impression that shaky allies will leave the US troops alone for their ‘last post’ ceremony in Afghanistan. Hence, the Chicago talks were held under the shadow of gradual meltdown of the ‘alliance of the unwilling’.
A poll that was conducted in January showed that 84 percent of the French people backed an early troop withdrawal. France has about 3,400 troops in Afghanistan. “French combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year,” Hollande told reporters. “In 2013, only trainers for police and officers of the Afghan army will remain and this will be done within the framework of ISAF.” His comments underscored the challenge for Obama, who has steadily narrowed his goals in Afghanistan and is struggling to design a troops’ pull out that will not open the way for the Taliban’s resurgence. “We went into Afghanistan together, we want to leave Afghanistan together,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. Conceding that Hollande was unlikely to be dissuaded, General John Allen, the US commander in Afghanistan, played down the impact, by saying: “We have the capacity, using our current force structure, to ensure there is no degradation in security.” The French President’s comments had, indeed, shrunk the space that the Nato leaders had, while they sought to avoid the appearance of splits within it.
Further, the alliance leaders walked a cautious line in discussions on long-term funding for the Afghan police and army, whose ability to battle the Taliban is at the core of Nato strategy for leaving Afghanistan smoothly. Obama, meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the summit, said that “the Afghan war as we understand is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues.” President Karzai thanked the Americans for the “money” and said that his country looked forward to the day it is “no longer a burden” on the international community. The Obama administration, unwilling to foot the $4.1 billion annual liability of maintaining the Afghan security forces singlehanded, has been seeking promises from its allies to chip in about $1.3 billion a year for them.
More so, the Taliban made their point by urging the countries fighting in Afghanistan to follow France and pull their forces out in accordance with the anti-war sentiment in the West. However, Obama told the summit’s opening session: “Just as we have sacrificed together for our common security, we will stand together united in our determination to complete this mission.”
With heavy security in place for the Chicago Summit, the baton-swinging police clashed with the anti-war protesters marching by the thousands near the venue. At least a dozen people were injured; some with head wounds from batons and more than 60 were arrested.
Regarding the reopening of the supply routes, General Allen told Reuters that he was confident that a deal would eventually be struck, but “whether it is in days or weeks, I don’t know.” Not bowing to the American pressure for reopening the supply routes before or during the summit has been well received by the people. The decision on the issue should be taken in the best national interest; prudence should prevail upon emotionalism. As a gesture of goodwill, Pakistan may announce one way reopening of the supply routes for facilitating an early and expeditious withdrawal of the occupation forces. However, it should not allow resumption of the supplies into Afghanistan, except the humanitarian cargo like medicines.
n The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.