Pakistan considers blocking US supplies

| Govt to consult all parties before announcing the decision | Joint session likely to discuss Pak-US ties

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan is considering blocking supplies to the US forces in Afghanistan through the Pak-Afghan border as retaliation to Washington’s hostile attitude, The Nation has learnt.

Senior officials at the foreign ministry said Pakistan was “considering this option” but there “has been no decision as yet.”

One official said: “This option is on the table and is being discussed by the diplomats, the civilian leaders and the military. We will reach a decision soon.”

He added: “The [Pakistani] diplomats believe it will be a good strategy to counter the US’ aggression. We have this weapon [of blocking the supplies].”

The US uses military supply lines that run food and equipment from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Reports said the US was “watching for Pakistan’s next moves” as the two countries struggle to retain the relationship. President Donald Trump’s decision this month to withhold military aid to Pakistan shocked Islamabad.

The government has been under pressure from the opposition parties to hit back.

Pakistan has rejected the US allegations that it was not taking action against all the terror networks and also questioned Trump’s claim of giving $33 billion to Pakistan as security assistance.

Islamabad said it had fought the anti-terror war largely from its own resources for the sake of the country’s and global peace.

On Friday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis told journalists that Pakistan had not indicated to shut off ground supply lines, or air over-flights.

He said the US was still in contact with Pakistan to coordinate military supply routes for its forces in Afghanistan even after Trump suspended security assistance to Pakistan.

Mattis said the US Central Command head General Joseph Votel had spoken to Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa a few days ago.

In 2011, Pakistan had closed its border to the Nato supplies into the landlocked Afghanistan amid tension with the US. These incidents included the US air raid that killed Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

Then the US had relied on cargo flights and used a more costly northern route through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Another official at the foreign ministry said the US might have options for supplies to its forces in Afghanistan but Pakistan route was the best choice – considering the cost and security. “When we had stopped the supplies in 2011, the US was quite disturbed. It will not be easy for them to change the route,” he added.

Major opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf have urged the government to shut the Afghanistan supplies to pressurise the US.

Close aides of the decision makers said the government would consult all the parties to take a united stand on the Pak-US tension.

“A joint session of the parliament will be summoned soon to discuss the situation. There will be a united decision on the national integrity,” said a federal minister.

Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua has been more optimistic saying the Pakistan-US ties will return to normalcy soon. However, she said Trump’s anti-Pakistan tweet was “beyond comprehension”.

She said Islamabad wanted good ties with Washington, adding Pakistan was also focusing on better terms with Russia.

Haqqani network, Janjua said, was not active inside Pakistan. “In fact, the enemies of Pakistan are gaining foothold in Afghanistan,” she pointed out.

This week, the influential New York Times has advised Trump to adopt “diplomatic tools” as the US “cannot afford to walk away from Pakistan”.

“Almost every military flight into Afghanistan goes through Pakistani airspace. Most supplies travel along Pakistani roads and rails. Pakistan could shut down American access at any moment, and some Pakistani officials are threatening to do just that. Trump’s bombast and the precipitous way, the decision seems to have been made have led to doubts that Mr Trump has a serious plan for managing the ramifications of this move,” the NYT wrote in its editorial “Pakistan, the endlessly troublesome ally”.

Analyst Dr Farooq Hasnat said the suspension of the US aid was a “miscalculation” of the US president. “It will not benefit the US. It only reflects the US’ double standards. They use us for their own interests,” he said.

Pakistan’s civil and military leadership, Dr Hasnat said, was on the same page on the issue of the country’s defence and territorial integrity. “Pakistan has the right to retaliate. We will consider our options. The government has to decide how we have to move forward,” he remarked.

US weighs supply options

AFP adds: Pentagon officials are watching for Pakistan’s next moves after Washington froze security aid payments to Islamabad.

Most problematic for America as it wages its 16-year war in Afghanistan would be if Pakistan suddenly shut its border points into the country, stemming the vital flow of goods, food and gear from the port at Karachi.

Though US officials insisted they’d seen no evidence Islamabad was planning such a move, it has happened before. In 2011, Pakistan closed its border to NATO supplies following a series of incidents that brought relations between the US and Pakistan to all-time lows.

At the time, the US-led forces in Afghanistan endured the closure by relying on cargo flights and a more costly northern route through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Citing security reasons, the Pentagon declined to provide percentages of US supplies going into Afghanistan through Pakistan, but Afghan security forces in particular rely on the supply lines through Pakistan, with a stream of trucks hauling a plethora of goods into the landlocked country.

While the US favours Pakistan supply routes because of cost, officials stressed America has built “flexibility and redundancy” into its supply chains.

“As military planners, we develop multiple supply chain contingencies to sustain theater requirements to maintain the train, advise and assist mission to the Afghan National Defence Security Forces,” Lieutenant Colonel Kone Faulkner told AFP.

For Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University, this part of the problem is key. The Trump administration must clearly lay out what it expects from Pakistan and what additional punitive steps would be taken if it shuts down the supply lines, she said.

She was particularly concerned about the possibility of Pakistan closing its airspace to America, meaning efforts to fly air cargo into Afghanistan could get much more difficult.

Pakistan “could within its rights... say you will not use our airspace,” she said. “That would be a humungous problem.”

Unlike in 2011, the US no longer has an air base in Kyrgyzstan, which had been the main transit point for American military personnel and cargo in and out of Afghanistan but was abandoned amid a price row in 2014 with the Obama administration.

Additionally, Washington’s fraught relations with Russia could make flying over Central Asian states less reliable, with Moscow able to exert influence on its smaller neighbours.

A US defence official told AFP that the military already has plenty of options to keep its troops well supplied, and could fill gaps by chartering commercial air delivery planes.

“The question is, if it were to happen, how long would it last?” the official said. Weeks or months would probably be “something that we could deal with through temporary solutions and wouldn’t matter so terribly much.”

But a longer-term embargo would require the US to find more practical solutions, and these would come with a high price tag, the official added.

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