Another sell-out by Pakistani rulers

Those who know Pakistan need no further telling or reminding how corrupt and morally bankrupt its rulers are. However, for those still entertaining shades of doubt about the veracity of this conclusion the latest Pakistani sell-out to the U.S. on the reopening of blocked transit routes for NATO convoys to Afghanistan across the Pakistani territory should be ample reminder of Islamabad’s incorrigible rulers’ total subservience to their western mentors.

For seven long months, these Pakistani rulers had kept their nation in a state of frenzy, vis-à-vis the U.S. They pretended to have taken the high moral ground on an issue drummed up by their votaries, the news media, as well as politicians from the camps in opposition to the ruling elite, as a challenge to the nation’s honour and dignity. They kept up a façade of standing up to, and confronting, a super-power as powerful as the U.S. But in the end they only pitifully proved that beggars can’t be choosers.

This old adage translated itself in crystal clarity on 3 July when Pakistan quietly informed the Obama administration that it was ready to reopen the transit route across its territory for NATO supplies to Afghanistan, which had been blocked since November last year. Typically for the Pakistani rulers given to theatrics, what’d started with a bang ended with a whimper.

Pakistan had reacted with fury, last 26 November, when 24 of its soldiers were killed-at the Salala military check-post close to the border with Afghanistan-in a night raid by U.S. air force. In swift reprisal, Pakistan clamped down on the transit facility of NATO and bottled up vital supplies to the 130,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan, thus precipitating a tense stand-off with Washington that unexpectedly stretched on for more than seven months, testing nerves all around.

Pakistan refused to budge from what it described as its ‘principled stand.’ Islamabad deemed the U.S. night raid as a deliberate manoeuvre aimed at testing the Pakistani resolve. For recompense, it demanded an ‘unconditional apology’ from Washington, which wasn’t forthcoming. However, Islamabad kept harping on the apology demand which, according to its spokesmen, was a question of Pakistan’s sovereignty, dignity and honour.

The Pakistani rulers-both civilian and military-didn’t want to own the policy of defiance to the U.S. all by themselves and decided to share the responsibly of it with the parliament, the presumed representative of the people of Pakistan. It was reckoned to be a smart move. The crisis was no longer just an impasse between the government of Pakistan and the U.S., but had morphed into a dispute of such sensitivity that the whole nation had become involved in it. That, incidentally, was also the ground reality in Pakistan where popular opinion at the grassroots level had long been agitated by a series of humiliations heaped on Pakistan by the U.S. whose constant needling betrayed utter lack of sensitivity to Pakistani sensibilities.

The parliament, once the ball had landed in its court, dove into the issue with vengeance. After nearly three months of debate, it came up with a set of 14 recommendations that clearly raised the ante for the parties involved. Besides insisting on an unconditional apology, the parliament also demanded an end to the nightmare drone attacks against targets inside Pakistan, which was entirely in keeping with the people’s anger on the drone visitations. It also demanded, inter alia, that NATO should, henceforth, pay Pakistan adequate compensation for its transit facility. The new fee demanded was said to be $ 5,000 per container as against the previous nominal charge of just $ 250. The Pentagon Chief, Leon Paneta, angrily decried this demand as being close to extortion, if not highway robbery.

But in the thicket of all the verbiage emanating from Islamabad and Washington, the real sticking point was just one: Pakistan’s demand of an unconditional apology from Washington; all other issues had been reduced to just peripheral and the Pakistani minions-most of whom owed their rise to fame and fortune to American patronage and largesse-kept assuring their mentors that all other pieces of the puzzle would fall in their places once the issue of ‘apology’ had been adequately addressed to the satisfaction of the Pakistani man on the street.

Politicians in Pakistan had a field day and went to town in whipping up a popular hysteria on the U.S. brinkmanship. They knew they’d been given a big handle to beat the government with, especially with the ruling elite’s unenviable reputation of being lackeys of Washington. That shoved the rulers into a corner, where they’d little choice but to play to the tune set by their adversaries. The popular sentiment said national honour had been bruised by the Americans and nothing short of a public apology would mollify the popular sentiment of hurt on the Salala incident that had snuffed life out of 24 Pakistani soldiers.

But while both Islamabad and Washington were playing to the gallery in public, they also kept talking behind the scenes to resolve the issue. However, inordinate delay in coming to terms compounded misunderstanding between the interlocutors and worsened the ground realities.

Using the alternative supply route-called the ‘northern route’ - through Central Asia was costing Washington dearly in terms of expenses, as much as 100 million dollars a month extra, in addition to long delays in terms of time. It was estimated that the northern route costs three times as much as the route via Pakistan. No wonder that Pentagon went running to Congress, just days before Pakistan’s façade of resistance cracked, pleading for an additional $ 8.2 billion in funds to meet the extra costs unexpectedly heaped on it.

Pakistan, however, was in a worse predicament because of the stand-off with U.S.

Both civil and military arms of the government felt the squeeze on their resources as spin off of the crisis because Washington had turned the tap off on budgetary support for the government and weapons for the military; the latter, responsible for triggering the confrontation with the U.S. in the first place was feeling the heat of the funding freeze, in particular. Pakistan’s unwitting bravado was testing its ruling elite’s resilience to the breaking point. It was for this reason that most political pundits were convinced that it was only a matter of time before Pakistan would be compelled to blink; which it ultimately did, unabashedly, on 3 July.

In the end, the long drawn-out process of haggling turned out to be a balloon without air for Pakistan; it received precious little of what it thought it should be exacting from Washington as compensation for the wounds inflicted on its national sovereignty and honour.

The bits of the ‘deal’ that have been made public should come as cold comfort to any Pakistani or those sympathetic to Pakistan. All that mountain of insistence from Pakistan that U.S. should tender an unconditional apology for its wanton violation of Pakistani sovereignty-and he lives of 24 of its soldiers-has fizzled out in one stroke of arrogance from the Americans.

Washington hasn’t apologised. Forget about a formal apology, verbal or in writing from Washington. All that Pakistan has been given, obviously as a sop, is an expression of regret conveyed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and not by President Obama, in a phone call to her Pakistani counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar. For their home consumption, the Pakistanis may claim-and that’s precisely what the client government is doing-that Hillary has apologised. However, all that she conveyed was one sentence: “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistan military.”

This cryptic expression of regret by Hillary stands in marked contrast to the public apology Obama had tendered to a puppet regime, like Hamid Karzai’s in Kabul, only two months ago when scores of Afghan civilians had been killed-in yet another raid by American aircraft. One can well imagine the humiliation that ordinary Pakistanis must have felt seeing the abject incapacity and failure of their supine leaders to exact a formal apology from Obama or his cohorts.

Hillary didn’t even mention Salala, the principal point of discord with Pakistan, in her much trumpeted ‘apology.’ And her allusion to the ‘losses suffered by the Pakistan military’ doesn’t mean much. The Pakistan army has been incurring heavy losses in the years since it struck a common cause with the U.S. in the war against terror and virtually surrendered its sovereignty to the U.S. whims.

By the same token, Washington has furnished not a shred of assurance to Islamabad that drone strikes would be halted. A total of 22 drone strikes have taken place since the Salala incident killing dozens of Pakistanis. Both the government and people of Pakistan would be naïve to believe that drone strikes are a thing of the past. Obama’s minions are on record for saying that drone strikes furnished a tactical advantage in the war against terrorism that couldn’t be given up.

Not only that the Obama team brushed aside the Pakistani concerns and demands with disdain, its members seemed intent on implicating Pakistan itself in the crime committed against its soldiers. The American version of Hillary Clinton’s telephone discussion with her Pakistani counterpart stated that Rabbani Khar agreed with Clinton that ‘mistakes’ had been committed ‘on both sides.’

But, despite all this insult added to their injury, so anxious were the Pakistanis to reopen the transit facilities for NATO and the U.S. that they even waived, in a gesture of magnanimity least expected of a pauper state teetering on the verge of economic collapse, any transit fee on the convoys using its territory. This was a complete u-turn on Islamabad’s official position that NATO trucks had badly damaged Pakistani roads and infrastructure and Pakistan needed funds to repair them.

The rulers in Islamabad, in the end, pleaded Washington to give them just a fig leaf which they could flaunt before their people as ‘victory’ won against a superpower. In doing so, they abjectly ignored the categorical stand taken by the Pakistani parliament, which insisted that an apology was non-negotiable and Pakistan needed to be adequately recompensed for its losses.

So overawed were the elite of Islamabad that they conveyed their concurrence to Washington on the reopening of the transit route even before the Cabinet’s Defence Committee accorded its blessings to the deal. The news of it was broken first in Washington, and later in Islamabad.

What was the catalyst forcing Pakistan to lump its pride, forget about its bruised ego and settle for the barest minimum expression of regret, and not an apology, from Washington is a question that can easily send pundits scrambling to their crystal balls.

One credible conjecture has it that Pakistan was fazed by some recent tactical moves in the U.S. Congress that toyed, publicly, with the idea of declaring the likes of the notorious Haqqani networks as terrorist groups. If that had gone through, Pakistan would’ve found itself in the dock condemned as a sponsor of terrorism. That would’ve turned the tables, entirely, on Pakistan and consigned it to the league of countries like Iran: another pariah in the world.

Pakistan’s pusillanimous rulers had also been worked upon, in recent weeks, by emissaries from NATO and EU, knocking fear of collective western reprisals in their minds. The visit by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to Islamabad, last month, may have been decisive in ‘softening up’ the cowering Pakistani leaders whose devotion and loyalty to their erstwhile masters from the Raj remains redoubtable.

How the people of Pakistan are going to react to this abject and ignominious surrender of their leaders to American diktat isn’t a question of rocket science. The latest PEW Centre survey of public opinion in Pakistan-conducted in June-revealed 84 % Pakistanis regarded U.S. as Pakistan’s biggest enemy and threat to its sovereignty. Their backlash would, assuredly, be harsh and furious. Political parties arrayed against the ruling clique would certainly exploit the public fury to their advantage and stoke the flames of protest to the utmost. It could be nasty, to say the least.

The rulers of Islamabad have struck a costly bargain that may return to haunt them sooner than later. For the moment, though, they may’ve reason to congratulate themselves that they’ve presented their mentors in Washington, on a silver platter, the best July 4th gift they could under the circumstances. However, the people of Pakistan don’t suffer from the slavery syndrome of their rulers and know, without an iota of doubt, that their nation’s dignity and their land’s sovereignty aren’t negotiable or open to deal-making. At the same time they know that they’re being punished for their sins in the form of rulers who don’t blink an eye in selling their honour and dignity, even when the price isn’t right.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 July 2012 on page no. 18

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