The effective transition of control of security from western forces to the Afghan National Security Forces and the long-term stability of Afghanistan were the top priorities at the NATO summit held in Chicago on 20-21 May 2012. The strained US-Pakistan relations cast a shadow over the summit. This article seeks to examine whether there was any movement beyond the US-Pak impasse at the summit and the impact of this stand-off on Afghanistan.
Frigidity between the US and Pakistan
The complicated rift between the US and Pakistan was on full display at the Chicago summit. Obama’s denial to grant Asif Ali Zardari a separate meeting and his cold shoulder to the Pakistani president at the summit reflected the growing bottleneck in US-Pak relations. While, Obama acknowledged the role played by the Central Asian countries and Russia in the transit of NATO supplies, he pointedly ignored the role of Pakistan. For the US, Pakistan has become a major problem in the region rather than the solution, and this perception was evident at the Chicago summit as the rift between the two seemed to be getting only worse.
Initially, Pakistan did not receive an invitation to the summit due to its stand-off with the US over the issue of the NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, which have remained shut since November 2011 following the Salala incident. Pakistan saw the incident as another infringement of their sovereignty, territorial integrity and strategic autonomy by an external power, following soon after the Abbottabad raid by the US that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Moreover, domestic factors in Pakistan, like the growing anti-Americanism and the pressure from powerful religious groups and opposition parties, have prevented the government from reopening the lines or compromising on this issue.
Pakistan believes that the Salala tragedy has enhanced its bargaining position at the negotiation table. It forced the US to give compensation to the families of the victims and resisted the pressure from the US and NATO to reopen the supply lines. It continues to remain persistent over demands like a public apology for the airstrike and a cessation to the drone attacks on Pakistani territory. Hence, it has demanded an increase in the transit fee from US$250 to US$5000 for every container sent to Afghanistan as a precondition for reopening the supply lines. The US resents these demands and has refused to accept any of them. Since the US Presidential Election is round the corner, fulfilling the demands of Pakistan could prove costly to President Obama.
Against this backdrop, the delayed invitation to Pakistan for the summit was seen as a potential golden opportunity to resolve the tensions between the two countries. It was hoped that President Zardari would offer a deal to reopen the supply lines. Instead, both embraced tough positions on their respective demands, which delayed a possible solution to this crucial issue. Therefore, the relations between the two countries suffered another blow at the summit as no solid assurance was put forward by either side and the impasse could not be resolved.
Implications for Afghanistan
Pakistan and the US are key players for Afghanistan’s future. However, the growing wrangle between the US and Pakistan prevented the summit from arriving at any fruitful outcomes. For instance, the two sides could not reach a decision regarding the price of reopening the routes. NATO is dependent on the supply lines via Pakistan because the alternative ways into Afghanistan are slower and much more expensive. US officials have indicated that it has cost the US and NATO about $38 million more per month to rely solely on the so-called Northern Distribution Network through the Baltic states, Russia and Central Asia (Rediff News, 23 May 2012) . This obstacle will undermine the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The hope of resolving the NATO supply lines issue remained unfulfilled at the summit. Pakistan has overplayed its hand by exaggerating its own importance to the US for achieving the goals in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, a reconciliation process can be reached through reasonable demands and reactions, which can lead to a just and transparent deal over this issue. It is important to look beyond the frustrations and setbacks of the NATO supply routes issue in order to secure the future of Afghanistan.