Rocky Road to Renewed Friendship
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned her Pakistani counterpart, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and the much sought after apology came through, though not in the form the Pakistanis wished. Islamabad had long demanded that Washington ‘apologize’ for the deadly air raid by US forces killing 24 Pakistani soldiers at the Salala checkpost on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This was Pakistan’s precondition to the reopening of the Nato/Isaf supply lines that were closed in angry reaction to the attack. However, the US Secretary of State did not use the word ‘apologize’ as such but simply stated: “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”
The Pakistani nation did not seem in any mood to accept Hillary Clinton’s words as a proper apology and there was an immediate outcry from public quarters as well as opposition leaders to the effect that merely saying sorry was not enough and that the apology should have been more categorical. However, it was heartening to see that better counsels prevailed both at the civilian and military level and, instead of taking the stalemate any further, the Pakistani authorities acted positively and restored the supply routes. This allowed the Nato/Isaf container traffic, held up for some seven months, to resume movement on the roads leading from the Karachi port to the border crossing points at Chaman and Torkham and on to destinations in Afghanistan. Opposition parties and religious elements severely criticized the government for its decision to reopen the supply routes and anti-American sentiment in Pakistan continued to run high. A survey in June had already showed that 74 percent of respondents in Pakistan considered the US an enemy, while this was 69 percent in 2011 and 64 percent three years ago.
The Nato/Isaf supply routes are now considered even more vital as the US is preparing to pull out its combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014. During the seven months of route closure following the Salala incident, the US had to use expensive and lengthy alternate routes through the former Soviet Union with the cost running into an additional US $100 million per month. The Pakistan government’s decision to reopen NATO supply routes was welcomed by various nations such as China, which said it fully stood by Pakistan on its stance on NATO supplies and the question of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that it would extend all possible diplomatic support on the issue of war on terrorism. United Kingdom Foreign Secretary William Hague said that reopening of the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) into Afghanistan was important for Britain and NATO’s operations in Afghanistan. A communiqué of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the decision would enable the members of Isaf to move ahead with the process of transition in Afghanistan.
The resumption of Nato supplies through Pakistan has been termed as a good opportunity for both the US and Pakistan to rebuild bilateral ties though it must be clearly understood that a long and rocky road lies ahead. There are several roadblocks on the way to improved relations, such as stopping of recurring American drone strikes in Pakistan territory and removing the impression that Pakistan is supporting certain Taliban elements. The US could begin by adopting a more realistic approach this time and place more confidence in Pakistan in terms of security cooperation, proactively solving various niggling issues and giving this key South Asian nation a more strategic status rather than continuing to benefit from it’s transactional advantage.