Snarling the war effort

Snarling the war effort

U.S. diplomatic efforts to persuade Pakistan to reopen NATO supply lines to the Afghan war are proving no match for rampant anti-Americanism, with Pakistani lawmakers increasingly unwilling to support a decision that risks them branded as friends of Washington.

Opposition legislators are demanding that the U.S. end its drone strikes against militants as a precondition, complicating U.S. strategies for winding down the 10-year war, just weeks before a major NATO conference in President Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago.

The hard-line Islamist and banned militant groups have staged large rallies around the country against any move to reopen the supply lines. One of the leaders of the movement has been Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

Late week, the U.S. announced a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Saeed, who lives openly in Pakistan. According to many analysts, Saeed has the sympathy or support of the country’s powerful military establishment. The announcement could, therefore, be seen as a provocation in Pakistan and further strain ties with Washington.

Pakistan has placed Saeed under house arrest before, but prosecutors have been unable or unwilling to make charges stick against him. Given the popular hostility to the U.S. among the Pakistani public, it is unlikely that the government will act now against Saeed.

Saeed has repeatedly denied involvement in the Mumbai attacks. He appeared on at least two television chat shows, where he lambasted the United States and said that it only announced the bounty because of his campaign against the resumption of the NATO supplies.

Few inside the Pakistani government or the army believe a permanent supply line blockade is worth the resulting international isolation. Pakistan relies on the U.S. and other NATO countries for its economic survival and for diplomatic and military support. 

But re-engaging carries a political cost in a country where association with the United States is toxic.
That cost is felt more keenly now by mainstream parties because general elections are scheduled within a year. In recent weeks, the U.S. has renewed high-level contacts with Pakistan, including meetings in Islamabad last week between Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the top U.S. commander in the region, Gen. James Mattis. Obama met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in South Korea.
But a U.S. official said talks on the supply line issue could not start before the parliament had finished debating the recommendations. He said it was unclear when that would be. He didn’t give his name because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Before November, about 30 per cent of the non-fatal supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan were unloaded at the port of Karachi and then trucked across Pakistan to the border. For most of the war, 90 per cent of the supplies came through Pakistan, but NATO has increased its reliance on an alternative, so called “northern” route, through Central Asia in recent years.

Increased use of the northern route has removed some of the leverage Islamabad had over the West, but at a cost to the coalition. Pentagon officials now say it costs about $17,000 per container to go through the north, compared with about $7,000 per container to go over Pakistan. The importance of the supply routes in general will rise, however, toward the end of 2014, when they will be needed to remove equipment from Afghanistan as foreign forces withdraw.

The parliamentary committee is currently reviewing its recommendations so they can be unanimously accepted by the parliament. One demand of opposition lawmakers is that the restoration of the supply lines be explicitly tied to a halt in drone attacks. Opposition to attacks has become a rallying cry for anti-American politicians, who say they violate sovereignty and kill too many civilians.

U.S. officials say they have offered Pakistan notice about impending strikes and new limits on which militants are being targeted. Washington views the attacks as a vital tool in suppressing al-Qaeda, and is seen as highly unlikely to agree to end them.

Western officials are already looking ahead to the NATO conference in Chicago next month, where more than 50 heads of state will discuss progress on ending the war. The U.S. wants Pakistan to attend, but the meeting could be overshadowed if Pakistan is still blocking supplies to Nato.

This abridged article originally appeared on Common Ground News Services