For a Few Dollars More
By Dr Mohammad Taqi
The Pakistani blockade of NATO supplies reminds one of children playing cricket on the streets. Remember, there was always this one chap who owned the ball or the bat and whenever some outcome of the game was not to his liking he would walk away, with his bat or ball in hand, with the challenge, ‘Let me see how you can carry on with your play.’ Well, even on the street sometimes, it worked and on other occasions, it did not when rest of the players would either improvise or find an alternative source for the equipment.
By many accounts, about two-thirds of the supplies to NATO in Afghanistan had been going through the Pakistani route, out of which roughly two-thirds went through the Torkhum route and the rest via Chaman. Contrary to the popular belief, the Pakistani distribution route was not necessarily the cheapest. As a top NATO supplier had put it to me, “Doc, this bottle of spring water that you are sipping costs some 50 cents in Florida but by the time it reaches Bagram, it costs somewhere around eight dollars, with all the legal/illegal tolls and markups added.” The attraction of the southern or Pakistani distribution network has been its quick and direct approach. Nonetheless, by no means was the Pakistani route the proverbial bat/ball of the street child without which the game could not go on.
The NATO summit in Chicago has exposed — quite brutally and rather humiliatingly — the extent of leverage that Pakistan thought it had over the US. It was unrealistic of the Pakistani policy planners (read military brass), and their cohorts in the media or Difa-e-Pakistan, to assume that the NATO blockade would be a showstopper, especially when NATO/ISAF had been gradually diverting critical supplies to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The NDN includes a rail link from Latvia through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, a road route via Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Tajikistan for materials initially delivered to Bishkek, as well as routes via the Turkish and Georgian Black Sea ports. The NDN routes may be long, tortuous and expensive perhaps, but remain viable and safe alternatives nonetheless. But most of all, the viability of the alternative routes exposed the perils of a zero-sum foreign policy that Pakistan had been hell bent to pursue, without having more than one card up its sleeve.
The delusional thinking in Pakistani circles leading up to Chicago was astounding. Days before the summit, one Pakistani analyst-anchor wrote in a US publication, “First, Pakistan needs an immediate apology, which the US president himself must issue at his Chicago meeting with his Pakistani counterpart. Second, the United States must draw up measures to ensure Pakistan’s prior knowledge of planned drone strikes, as well as its clearance of intended targets, areas of operation, and the number of attacks. Third, both nations need to agree on fair payments for the use of Pakistani ground supply routes to Afghanistan. And fourth, NATO must make comprehensive guarantees that a repeat of Salala never happens.” Is it just me or does this sound like a headmistress chastising her students?
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari repeated the same mantra in his New York speech last week. One seriously wonders if he had the same or a similar speechwriter who ghost-authored President Asif Zardari’s op-ed, “Talk to, not at, Pakistan” (The Washington Post, September 30, 2011). Did the advisors to the president misread the invitation extended to him for the Chicago summit? It certainly appears so. While the US administration thought that engaging Pakistan might provide a way out of the six-month impasse, the Pakistanis may have construed it as weakness on the part of the US and NATO.
Frankly, neither most Pakistani analysts nor the country’s diplomatic corps in the US has been able to read the US mood accurately or they would not have been dictating this laundry list of demands. Let’s face it, the US is not about to write ‘Sorry, I won’t do it again’ and hand it to Bilawal or that analyst. The answers are simple: 1) Life, no matter how expensive, will go on without the Pakistani distribution route, and 2) Pakistan has already indicated that it will play ball if the price is right. The post-Salala ghairat (national honor) hullabaloo has turned quite shamelessly into a fish market, haggling over price. So why tender an apology when the ostensibly aggrieved party is willing to do without it just for a few dollars more?
Mr Jinnah’s widely quoted 1947 interview with Life magazine journalist/photographer, Margaret Bourke-White is worth remembering today. Bourke-White chronicled, “(Mr. Jinnah said) America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America. Pakistan is the pivot of the world, as we are placed — he revolved his long forefinger in bony circles — on the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves.” He leaned toward me, dropping his voice to a confidential note. “Russia,” confided Mr Jinnah, “is not very far away”...”America is now awakened,” he said with a satisfied smile. “Since the US was now bolstering up Greece and Turkey, she should be more interested in pouring money and arms into Pakistan” (Halfway to freedom: A report on the New India — pp 92-93).
The ground realities are that Pakistan only has the Haqqani network/Taliban horse in the Afghan endgame without any political players, especially non-Pashtun Afghans, siding with it. The US has tolerated the Haqqani sanctuary in Pakistan but it would not take long to tie it to sanctions related to sponsorship of terrorism. When push comes to shove the NDN can be used for a NATO pullout as well — after all the USSR had used the same route. Pakistan’s vulnerability vis-à-vis the US and NATO has been exposed to the extreme in Chicago. Afghanistan, with its bilateral agreements with the US and India, is not about to fall into Pakistan’s lap. In sum, the odds are stacked against the GHQ-conceived Pakistani adventurist zero-sum foreign policy. Not much has changed in 65 years in Pakistani thinking but what has changed is that Pakistan is no longer a geopolitical pivot.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected]. He tweets at )