Examining the US-Pakistan standoff

The Pakistani establishment is grappling with the consequences of underestimating the United States

There is a lot of commentary on how US-Pakistan relations are in crisis and “hitting new lows” each day. Much of this is indeed true—not because of what the Obama administration says or does not say, but because of how the US Congress perceives the situation. If US politicians, across party lines, have turned hostile towards Pakistan, it is because they are sensitive to public opinion. Until the public mood changes, it will be much more difficult for any US president to paper over Pakistan’s shenanigans for reasons of foreign policy expediency. Washington’s ‘South Asian’ commentariat is slowly coming to realise that both the Obama administration and public opinion has left their old Pakistan narrative behind.

The current standoff has come about due to two reasons: first, General Kayani overplaying his cards; and second, the Zardari government giving up manoeuvring room by passing the buck to the parliament.

The Pakistani army thought it had a trump card in choking the supply lines and played it. It didn’t work, not least because similar acts and threats in the past had caused US military planners to work out alternatives. Shutting down the supply routes backfired on Pakistan: it has been frozen out of the diplomatic scene, US Congress has cut financial assistance and it has ended up back in the doghouse of international public opinion. The Pakistani military establishment still doesn’t get it. Judging from views expressed by pro-establishment opinion makers, they still seem to believe that US and NATO desperately need the supply routes to get out of Afghanistan. They do not consider the possibility of an exit strategy involving a combination of airlifts, passage through the Northern Distribution Network, asset transfers to the Afghan security forces and destruction of the rest. Speed matters when troops are getting in. It matters less when they are going back home. However, the Pakistani military establishment’s blinkered smugness is bolstering intransigence. (Munir Akram, a former Pakistani diplomat, even advocated showing nuclear teeth to the US.)

Under attack from a stridently anti-American media, a populist Imran Khan and the galvanisation of militant politics, the Zardari government handed over the hot potato of US-Pakistan relations to Parliament. This was clever, because it passed the buck to parliament and diffused responsibility. However, it has tied down the government’s hands now, because it requires a lot more political capital for Mr Zardari to “give and take” on anything unless the US delivers on Pakistan’s maximalist claims—an official apology for the Shalala encounter and a complete cessation of drone attacks on Pakistani soil.

The United States is in no mood to yield on either of this. An official apology would not only weaken President Obama during his re-election campaign but will be very unpopular among the US military rank-and-file. For all the diplomatic contortions Washington has engaged in over the last ten years, it is the US military that has suffered the ground reality of Pakistan’s duplicity. So an apology is unlikely until after the US election season is over. Ending drone strikes is even less likely, as they remain the most important instrument the US has to combat the international threat to its national security.

This standoff will be hard to resolve. Even so, both parties have subtly changed the framing of the issue to enable a resolution. Note Washington’s public statements tend to be about supply routes—suggesting that if Pakistan offers a reasonable compromise on this issue, the process of rebuilding the relationship can start. Similarly, while Pakistan’s sentencing of the doctor who assisted the CIA in identifying bin Laden is surely a tit-for-tat response to President Obama’s snub at Chicago, it has done so in a manner that allows compromise. Trying him under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) allows the Pakistani government to arbitrarily change the sentence or acquit him without involving the judiciary. It is willing to trade.

Despite this negotiating room, the Zardari government is unlikely to be capable of grabbing the negotiating lifeline and arriving at a deal on the supply routes. Getting Sherry Rehman, its US ambassador and Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, the party co-chairman to reinforce the demand for a US apology was a mistake if they didn’t already know that the US was likely to yield. It has now only made it harder for Mr Zardari to compromise. Similarly, while the US is concerned about the fate of Dr Shakeel Afridi, it is unlikely to yield to a prisoner-swap deal.

Neither side is likely to blink. But one side is bleeding.