US-Pakistan relations are entering an especially peculiar period, depending on the course taken, the consequences could be quite significant. As a result of the Salala incident last November, Pakistan suspended NATO’s Afghan supply lines and initiated an extensive parliamentary review of its ties with the US. The country has ever since demanded a formal apology for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers and cessation of the drone attacks. However, US actions demonstrate that it is planning to do neither.
Meanwhile, American political, economic and military pressure on Pakistan to resume the supply lines is mounting as the NATO Chicago summit approaches. As a protest against the Mohmand tragedy, Pakistan had boycotted the Bonn Conference as well.
This alert looks at the risks if Pakistan decides to resume the NATO supply lines at this juncture.
The matter of the resumption of NATO Afghan supply lines needs to looked at in the broader context of how Pakistan’s foreign policy performs against its public opinion. There are principally two schools of thought on the nation’s involvement and policy over the war against extremists.
The liberal school of thought maintains that the drone attacks are productive as they eliminate those threats that are otherwise hard to reach, and against which, Pakistan’s security apparatus has proven to be largely ineffective. People in this category also believe that US withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to make matter worse in the region, as extremists attempt to reinforce their worldview on the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. For these reasons, liberals are sympathetic towards opening the NATO supply lines for Afghanistan. Liberals also want to expand trade and economic ties with India.
On the other hand, the nationalist and conservative forces see most of Pakistan’s present problems linked to the presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan. The sooner the coalition forces leave, they contend, the situation in FATA and Pakistan is likely to improve considerably. They view the drone strikes as creating an extremist blow back, and opine that Pakistan should exit from its partnership with the US on the war against terror. These forces are largely against the resumption of NATO supply routes and for improving ties with India without resolution of core issues such as Kashmir.
In case the supply lines are resumed, the reaction is likely to be in the form of peaceful street protests initially, however the demonstration could be hijacked by more extreme groups, turning them in to a violent movement. The newly formed Pakistan Defense Council (PDC), a conglomerate of banned militant groups and religious organizations, has threatened the government incase it decides to open the supply routes. Moreover, the Al Qaeda and Taliban are likely to jump in and exploit the ensuing chaos.
Many believe that these nationalist and conservative forces are controlled by Pakistan’s intelligence organizations. It will be intriguing to watch the reaction from these groups once the supply lines actually resume, to conform or deny this supposition.
Nonetheless, poor governance, rampant corruption, deteriorating law and order situation, and ethnic tensions make the situation particularly volatile in Pakistan. Opening of the NATO supply lines could prove to be the stimulus that leads to wide spread disturbances, producing a civil war like situation. In the background of how quickly events turned from bad to worse in Libya and Syria, this is not that far fetched of an outcome. The recent cases in the Arab world have proven that streets that had been docile for years can be quickly galvanized by unexpected events, with catastrophic results.
The Raymond Davis incident, Osama operation, Memogate affair and the Salala incident, have all raised a question mark regarding the diligence of Pakistan’s establishment. In the absence of a formal apology and continuation of the drone strikes, the credibility of the government will be further eroded. It is in the interest of US and Pakistan to disclose the nature of the give and take that occurred privately, for the public benefit and to protect against adverse outcomes.