Pakistan: Thoughts on the NATO supply line hullabaloo
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Pakistan: Thoughts on the NATO supply line hullabaloo

You want to know how deep the divide is between the U.S. and Pakistan? The two countries papers of record can interpret the exact same event in diametrically opposed ways. In the U.S., the New York Times had a pessimistic take on the Obama “snub” of Zardari and the prospects of reaching a supply lines deal:

On the Pakistani front, however, things seem to deteriorate.

American and Pakistani officials expressed optimism last week that an agreement on re-establishing supply routes was imminent. Negotiators were narrowing their differences after three weeks of intense deliberations, they said, and it was hoped that an invitation for Pakistan to attend the summit would engender the good will needed to close the gap between the two sides.

The invitation was accepted, and Mr. Zardari arrived in Chicago on Saturday. But a deal on the supply lines remained elusive, and Mr. Obama would not meet with Mr. Zardari without it, American officials said.

The supply lines, through which about 40 percent of NATO’s nonlethal supplies had passed, were closed in late November after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in American airstrikes along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The deaths capped a year of crises between the United States and Pakistan that put immense strain on the two countries’ already fragile relationship.

The failure to strike a deal on the supply routes ahead of the summit injects new tension into the relationship.

In Pakistan, Dawn was optimistic, or at least its chosen headline betrayed optimism: “Pakistan, US signal optimism on supply routes deal”.

My own view is that a deal will be struck. Pakistan wants a deal, the U.S. wants a deal, and the only thing that separates them right now is the price of the deal. Of course, that’s usually a big impediment, but it’s a much smaller impediment that we had until about a week ago: the unwillingness of Pakistan to open up the routes. Anyway, here are some thoughts on this whole thing:

1. How big is the gap between the two countries’ prices?

The News reported (that the Christian Science Monitor reported) that a deal was about to be struck for a per-truck fee of between $1500 and $1800. The NYT reported today that the price demanded has gone up to $5000 (based on anonymous U.S. sources). So there’s three possibilities. One, the CSM/News had a bad source. Two, the NYT had a bad source. Three, a deal was struck, and Pakistan backtracked, and increased the price in the last three days.

2. Pakistan is entitled to ask for a higher price for trucks than it did previously

This is a bit of an obvious point, but you wouldn’t know it from reading angst-ridden and frustration-laden accounts in the western press about Pakistan’s actions here.

Look, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with using your leverage in order to obtain higher benefits (or lower costs) in one’s interaction with other actors. That’s IR 101. Pakistan has interests (however defined) and is allowed to pursue them. The U.S. and NATO do not have a right to transport war materials through Pakistan. It is a privilege to be granted. Right now, we are in the midst of a negotiation on what the price of that privilege is. If our position was really that egregious or ridiculous, the U.S. would’ve walked away, similar to how it treated our demands/requests that we be given a civilian nuclear deal similar to India’s. But the U.S., unlike the civilian nuclear deal case, is talking, because it has its own interests at stake, as this map from the Washington Post attests:


Map credit: Washington Post

I am interested, however, in the logic behind the increased price. Are we demanding a higher price simply because we like the idea of having more money? Is it because the U.S. refuses to apologize over Salala and we’re trying to make life difficult for them? Is it because a higher price would result in a bump in popularity for the PPP government back home, due to taking a “tougher line” with the U.S? I’ve heard some combination of these and other logics. The third one makes no sense whatsoever. It’s probably a bit of the first and a bit of the second.

(Update: Journalist Huma Imtiaz tweeted in response to this issue that “the 5k figure (if true) has a lot to do with how much the US pays for the NDN” (the Northern Distribution Network) and that we should “add in that the cost of repair for Pak highways that have been degraded in past 10 years due to the truck movements.”)

3. Leaders are meant to be ribbon-cutters

You know all those ceremonies where someone big and important cuts a red ribbon to inaugurate/celebrate something?


Think you could've used smaller scissors, gents.

Well, the obvious point to note is that the building/plaza/hotel/fancy-whatever is built before the big and important person gets there. They’re not laying brick while he’s mulling around with a giant pair of scissors.

Unfortunately, someone in our government seems to be unaware of this basic premise. Sending Zardari to Chicago without a deal being made was absolutely asinine. He should’ve gone there just to cut the ribbon. NOT to hope and pray for a deal. If there was no deal, he shouldn’t have gone. You know why? Because he, and by extension the government and state, ended up looking like idiots.

Predictably, this has led far right politicians like Imran Khan to pronounce that the Zardari trip was an utter disaster. Well, you can’t really argue against that. (Though it should be noted that Imran Khan would’ve said the exact same thing regardless of what actually happened in Chicago).

This was a mistake by whoever handles Zardari and his foreign policy treks. No doubt about it.