For a fistful of dollars, America and Pakistan wrangle

May 22, 2012

Pakistan’s relationship with the United States can’t get more transactional than the prolonged negotiations over restoration of the Pakistani supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, according to leaked accounts of so-called private negotiations, is demanding $5000 as transit fee for allowing trucks to use the two most obvious routes into landlocked Afghanistan, blocked since November when two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed in an U.S. air strike from Afghanistan. The United States which apparently paid about $250 for each vehicle carrying everything from fuel to bottled water all these years is ready to double that, but nowhere near the price Pakistan is demanding for its support of the war. It also wants an apology for the deaths of the soldiers but America has stopped short of that, offering regret instead.

The two countries will likely reach a compromise, probably sooner than later. But the whole image of so-called allied nations involved in grubby negotiations about trucking fees while there is a disastrous war going on – and leaking details of those talks – tells you how destructive the relationship has become. You would think Pakistan and the United States would try and figure how to prevent incidents such as the air strike near the Afghan-Pakistan that led to the closure of the supply route in the first place. Imagine another strike of that kind and the impact it would have on an already inflamed nation, weak as it may be. Instead negotiations went down to the wire ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago over how many more dollars Pakistan can make as a conduit for a war that has turned it into a battlefield itself.

And America, playing just as hardball, is refusing to give any quarter even though it is paying quite a high price to transport the supplies by a combination of air and land through a northern route into Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. In any case, higher trucking fees in the closing stages of the war, can only be a drop in the vast amount America spends on its military – more than the next four countries put together.

Like a marriage gone sour, it seems to draw the worst in each country. Pakistan got a last minute invite to the NATO summit in Chicago, even though it has been a key player in its war in Afghanistan but its presence seemed to only highlight its isolation. President Barack Obama wouldn’t hold talks with President Asif Ali Zardari, who arguably is just as important to his path out of Afghanistan as Afghan President Hamid Karzai whom he met. Worse, Obama thanked all the countries that had helped NATO in its war in Afghanistan including the Central Asian nations through which supplies are being routed at the moment, but not Pakistan through which the bulk of supplies were transported all these years, save for the current six-month halt.

For a proud nation of 180 million people, the image of its president bounding across the hall to shake hands with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while Karzai, the head of a nation long considered a poor cousin, confers with Obama, must rankle further. Some people back home may argue, in retrospect, that Pakistan might have been better off staying away from the meeting. The worry is Zardari, still the consummate survivor, may have given the hardliners another weapon as he heads back from Chicago with little to show for.

 

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