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Pakistan: fallout over NATO supply route escalates May 29, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, DeSilva-Ranasinghe, Serge, Future Directions International, Pakistan , trackback

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

Although there has been recent progress in cross-border cooperation, the modalities of a revised agreement between Pakistan and the US to re-establish a NATO supply route, have escalated domestic and regional tensions.

On Friday last week, after six months of stand-off, Pakistan for the first time authorised a US supply convoy to pass into Afghanistan, with office supplies destined for Kabul. The symbolic cross-over, however, after months of ongoing tension, has not resulted in the recommencement of the NATO supply route, a goal much desired by the US.

Since the imposition of the blockade, US and NATO forces in Afghanistan have been compelled to use the Northern Distribution Network. This is a series of alternative, and more costly, supply routes that transit through the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia. The US is also eager to resume the NATO supply route through Pakistan to facilitate the withdrawal of its forces and military equipment from Afghanistan by 2014.

Although both countries claim that a renewed agreement is likely to be ratified, it is clear that complications have arisen, ranging from ongoing domestic hostility in Pakistan to the high costs associated with transit fees.

There are also strong arguments against re-opening the supply route: “We believe that Pakistan has suffered enormously because of this so-called war against terror,” said Shafqat Mehmood, the spokesperson for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, or PTI. “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,” he said.

Conversely, reflecting the Pakistan government’s view, as quoted by The Christian Science Monitor on 20 May, the spokesperson for Pakistani PM, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said: “We are close to a solution, but still have some way to go.” In the lead up to the NATO Summit in Chicago this week, Pakistan took a tough line in its negotiations with the US, insisting on a substantial increase in transit fees, to USD5,000 per truck. Prior to the closure of the supply route in November last year, the cost was only US$250 per truck.

The Pakistani demand further soured negotiations with senior US and NATO officials, who refused to agree on such a deal. Pakistan’s stand on the issue led to the cancellation of talks between NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on the eve of the Chicago summit, although both officials cited time constraints as the reason.

Nonetheless, in anticipation that Pakistan could bow to pressure and reopen the supply route to Afghanistan, President Zardari was invited, at short-notice, to attend the NATO talks in Chicago on 20-21 May. Although there was no meeting between Presidents Obama and Zardari, on Sunday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Zardari met to discuss regional cooperation in relation to Afghanistan.

However, even if these discussions softened Pakistan’s position on the supply route, given recent trends in negotiations it is still unclear whether any revised accord can be agreed upon.

Three weeks of ongoing discussions on the issue have seen minor progress, but no decisive reversal of the Pakistani position. Should an agreement finally come to fruition, however, it is clear that the domestic fallout on the issue in Pakistan could make the long-term sustainability of any such agreement questionable at best.

This factor may, in the final analysis, constitute a major problem, which could very well hasten the US coalition’s plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This post first appeared on Future Directions International website on 23 May 2012.

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