Pakistan's high stakes over Nato's Afghan supply route

Pakistani security personnel keep vigil at Torkham, close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border
Image caption The Pakistanis have had US aid worth billions of dollars held up because of the dispute

The seven-month standoff between the United States and Pakistan over the closure of Nato supply routes should be seen in the context of choices each country has been making in resolving the conflict in Afghanistan.

In October 2001, the Americans attacked Afghanistan and ousted from power the Taliban regime which many say was propped up by the Pakistani military and recognised by only three countries around the world.

Over the next decade, Pakistan was widely accused of providing safe havens to the Taliban and of helping them destabilise Afghanistan -while at the same time receiving substantial assistance from Western powers.

By 2010, the trust deficit between the two allies had reached a tipping point, and the following year the Americans kept Pakistanis in complete darkness when they raided Abbottabad to kill al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden.

Since then, the reopening of the Nato supply routes by Pakistan is the first sign of improvement in a relationship which many thought had hit rock-bottom.

And this decision has come as a result of internal pressures both in the US and Pakistan.

Desperate situation

The US state department admitted in a recent statement it was paying much more for supplies shipped through the so-called northern distribution network (NDN) via the Central Asian states.

Image caption Many Pakistanis are angry with the US

It expressed gratitude for the Pakistani decision not to charge transit fees for Nato shipments.

Analysts here believe this was a quid pro quo.

In return for reopening the route, the US offered Islamabad an apology for a November air strike in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were accidentally killed at two posts close to the Afghan border.

But if the closure of the route of was inconvenient for the Americans, the standoff it caused put the Pakistanis in an even more desperate situation.

They have had assistance worth billions of dollars in various accounts held up by the Americans because of the dispute.

The ability of the Americans to keep their troops in Afghanistan resupplied via the NDN was a further message that Pakistanis did not have much bargaining power over transit fees.

And it was becoming apparent that the continued closure was adding to Pakistan's isolation and reducing its chances of playing a role in the Afghan endgame.

So why did they take seven months and a damaging financial backlash before deciding the obvious?

Analysts believe it is because of Pakistan's marked lack of capacity for crisis management, which perhaps the Americans failed to take into account.

Pariah state

The Americans initially brushed aside Islamabad's demand for an apology because they thought mistakes had happened on both sides, and that American public opinion would not favour such a move.

Image caption The standoff put the Pakistanis in a desperate situation

What they did not consider was Pakistan's internal dynamics - especially the competitive power play between its powerful military and a fledgling democratic leadership.

The military had openly opposed US assistance to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar bill because one of its clauses required civilian supremacy over other institutions, including the military.

Over subsequent years, the military's relations continued to grow tense with both the US and their own civilian government.

Many in Pakistan believe that Nato supplies passing through Pakistan were initially blocked not by an executive order of the government but by a nod from the military.

Subsequently, pressure to keep the blockade intact was mounted on the government by an alliance of banned militant organisations known to have links with the security establishment.

Analysts say the position of the security establishment softened when it became apparent that the continuation of the blockade could effectively turn Pakistan into a pariah state.

But they wanted the civilian government to lift the blockade without themselves having a role in it, a scenario not acceptable to the government in view of an anti-American campaign on the streets and elections just a year away.

This is how Pakistan delayed a decision for seven months, instead of the four-odd months that analysts had been predicting at the start of the crisis.

As to the question of whether US-Pakistan relations will now revert to normal, a lot will depend on whether the Pakistani security establishment is willing to create a narrative that is more tuned to new realities in the region.

There is a feeling among knowledgeable circles that the Taliban was able to carve out safe havens in the north-western tribal region not because the government's writ ran weak there, but because it was the deliberate policy of the military which directly controlled the top political offices of the country at that time.

The Taliban, and political groups sympathetic to them, were given considerable latitude to entrench themselves there and elsewhere in the country.

These groups are now firmly ensconced in society, with some of them now following their own agenda separate from that of the security establishment.

It is in the interest of these groups to force Pakistan into international isolation and choke it economically.

While Pakistan's political leadership is largely secular-minded and is often the target of religious militants, it has yet to develop the capacity to rein in state institutions protecting these groups.

Many feel a counter-narrative to xenophobia and isolationism has to come from the security establishment, which has its own media wing and enjoys considerable influence with the private electronic media of the country.