On May 14, 2012, Pakistan took a wise step toward transforming the potentially impotent Afghan reconciliation efforts into some that may be relatively productive and viable. As all interlocutors involved have acknowledged, without Pakistan's sincere efforts at reconciliation, only instability in Afghanistan can be guaranteed. The decision-makers in Pakistan are increasingly recognizing that leveraging their ability to create instability in Afghanistan is no longer a desirable policy option. Irrespective of what their fears, temptations and externally-created compulsions are, Pakistan's civilian and military rulers understand that three decades of instability in Afghanistan have generated an acute security crisis at home.
Washington shifts its Afghanistan policy away from a focus on force to a policy
that finally moves towards political reconciliation -- as Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton had recommended in
her February 2011 Asia Society address -- it appears logical for Islamabad to
seek a genuine partnership with Washington and Kabul for peace in Afghanistan.
Accordingly, to revive a partnership with the United States on the Afghan reconciliation process, Islamabad has recognized the importance of sending a positive signal by making tangible moves toward reopening NATO ground supply routes through Pakistan. U.S. and NATO officials had made it quite clear that Pakistan's participation in the imminent summit in Chicago was contingent upon its lifting of the blockade on NATO supplies destined for Afghanistan, a move that could also score points for the ruling party in the next elections.
Pakistani government, with its political opposition vehemently
opposed to the reopening of the routes to NATO, has taken a major
calculated risk in making the announcement. Washington has not yet made a
public apology for the November U.S.-ISAF helicopter strike at Salala, which killed 24 Pakistani
soldiers; the terms for NATO's use of Pakistani supply routes are not yet
finalized; Pakistani officials have not yet negotiated a deal ensuring that
drone attacks are no longer conducted unilaterally by the CIA; and ISAF has
given no concrete guarantee that there will be no repeat of the deadly attacks
on Salala. Drawing on these facts, the opposition accuses the government of
abject weakness, incompetence, selling out, and surrendering to U.S. power. It
is being blamed for its failure to fully leverage control of the supply routes
to Pakistan's advantage, and for making this decision to please Washington.
Indeed, while at least some of these accusations cannot be rejected without careful consideration, the fact remains that governments must take calculated risks, and they must balance the potential costs and benefits of those risks. That is what Pakistan's present government has done. In a less than perfect context, it concluded that the NATO summit is important because it brings Pakistan into the policy-making discussion regarding the future of Afghanistan. Clearly, when Karzai and the United States are having that discussion -- and now also pursuing the dialogue with the Taliban that Pakistan has been advocating -- Pakistan must not abandon the opportunity to be part of the process.
Pakistan's relevance to Afghanistan's peace is arguably greater than that of
other countries, Pakistan cannot "go it alone." Finding a solution to the
conflict in Afghanistan is not a unilateral affair. Peace cannot and has not
come by simply engaging with or trying to control the Taliban. All the parties
involved need to work in partnership, on the best negotiated terms possible.
These realizations within Pakistan augur well for the Afghan reconciliation process, but some domestic truths still need to be acknowledged in Washington. For reasons of pragmatism, self-interest, and in order to maintain a viable partnership with Pakistan, the Obama administration needs to go beyond its present policy of stalling on issues that are of immediate concern to Pakistan. First, Pakistan needs an immediate apology, which the U.S. president himself must issue at his Chicago meeting with his Pakistani counterpart. Second, the United States must draw up measures to ensure Pakistan's prior knowledge of planned drone strikes, as well as its clearance of intended targets, areas of operation, and the number of attacks. Third, both nations need to agree on fair payments for the use of Pakistani ground supply routes to Afghanistan. And fourth, NATO must make comprehensive guarantees that a repeat of Salala never happens.
These steps would create a Pakistan-U.S. partnership that
genuinely promotes their shared objective of regional peace and stability, not
to mention the likelihood that they would make this highly controversial
partnership more palatable to the Pakistani public and political opposition.
Pakistan's government has indeed taken the risky political path to pursue
responsible policy, and so must Washington. President Obama needs to be
the statesman, and leverage his credentials as the one who authorized the
successful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound to invest in a peace partnership
with Pakistan, and not shy off for fear of Republican attacks, even for an
apology for the Salala killings.
Meanwhile, given the political, security and financial realities, Afghanistan's future will realistically be determined by a four-way engagement, involving Afghan political leaders, the Taliban, Pakistan and the United States. It would be both unwise and counter-productive for Pakistan to stay on the margins, particularly now that Pakistani and American interests converge in Afghanistan.
Considering the typical framing of Pakistan's popular- and political-level foreign policy debates, the opening of NATO supply routes and Pakistan's participation in the Chicago summit may in some circles be interpreted as damaging to Pakistan's security interests, undermining national pride, and working against the wishes of the people of Pakistan. However, it is important to be clear where the interest of the people lies within the context of foreign and security policy. It lies in creating security and socio-economic conditions within which governments can fulfill their Constitutional responsibilities towards the people. Hence, the government should make decisions that promote internal security, economic prosperity, social development, and the defense and dignity of the country. This is where the people's relevance is key. The public's sentiments cannot dictate decisions on whether NATO supply routes should be shut or open; governments must decide -- and take responsibility. In Pakistan, like in many other countries, the people's sentiments have often been part of a circular political strategy: institutions opposing civilian policies fed their views to a segment of the public, and were then played back as peoples' sentiments.
But another interesting question within Pakistan's domestic context is, how valid is criticism of the parliamentary process that presented terms for the re-set of Pakistan-U.S. relations? Many argue that policy-making is an executive function, and thus handing this task to the parliament was misguided. On one hand, the parliament's involvement on a key foreign policy issue that has been discussed and debated for three decades was necessary to get a general consensus. On the other hand, the criticism that the issue dragged on for too long is valid. The long drawn-out process triggered the law of diminishing returns to some extent, a fact that Pakistan's ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman continuously raised with the Pakistani government.
Washington was almost in awe of the process, and began
recognizing its own mistakes, including unilateral drone attacks, its hesitation
to re-negotiate the terms of NATO supply routes, and blocking the release of
the Coalition Support Funds (CSF). And when the U.S. was ready to make an
apology, Pakistan suggested it be held back until the parliamentary process
ended. A senior White House official and the Pakistani ambassador jointly
announced an agreement to release the withheld CSF, but the parliamentary
process dragged on, and talks on the NATO supply routes were not resumed.
With the deadlock on the supply routes now broken, Pakistan will take a seat at an important global policy reflection and discussion forum on Afghanistan and the region. And, provided that seat is wisely utilized, Pakistan will have also promoted its own security and economic interests -- just as it is doing in opening up trade and conflict resolution dialogue with India. Fortunately, as PML-N President and leading opposition politician Nawaz Sharif repeatedly says, there is national consensus at least on these landmark policy moves.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images