In a phone call on Thursday to Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized for the accidental deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers who were killed in a border incident 7 months ago. The apology cleared the way for the supply line from Karachi to Afghanistan to re-open, which was closed by Pakistan following the border clash.
While some details of the incident at the border may never be known, what was clear from the military's investigation into the incident was that Pakistan failed to inform the US of the position of the Pakistani soldiers, and that the border guards fired on US and Afghan soldiers. In essence, Secretary Clinton has apologized to the Pakistani government for our soldiers defending themselves from attack.
The decision to re-open the supply lines will free up $1.2 billion in US funds to help pay Pakistan for their assistance in US counterterrorism operations. That money was cut off even before the border incident as relations between the two countries deteriorated drastically following the May 2011 operation in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. Other issues of contention that stand in the way of better relations with Islamabad include Pakistan's support of terrorists, such as the Haqqani Network, and US drone strikes in Pakistan.
But the agreement to re-open the GLOC (Ground Lines of Communication) is opposed by most of the Pakistani people who wanted the US to "ask for forgiveness" from the Pakistani government and pay reparations. Opposition parties are calling for a nationwide demonstration against NATO and the supply line on Sunday.
Why it took seven months to resolve the dispute and why the US buckled to Pakistani pressure and apologized for an incident in which it didn't think it was at fault was a matter of internal pressures in both countries. For Pakistan, billions in aid was frozen while the military fretted that the dispute was isolating the country, making it a "pariah state" with NATO countries. While it was the Pakistani army and intelligence service, the ISI, who appeared to be the driving force behind the initial closing of the supply line -- the result of American insistence that the civilian government be supreme over the army before military aid could be delivered -- the soldiers eventually realized that the closure of GLOC was isolating them in the world community. That, and the fact that NATO replaced the route through Pakistan with a longer and more expensive trip through Russia, Central Asian states, and the Caucuses (the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN), proving the alliance could resupply without Islamabad's help. Finally, Pakistan wants to be part of the endgame in Afghanistan and needed to improve relations with Washington to have a seat at the table.
For America's part, it was costing us $100 million more a month to move supplies through the NDN. Also, the overland route through Pakistan is going to be vital when the massive amount of equipment that a decade's worth of war has left in Afghanistan has to be moved by the time America withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014. The US also believed it vital to improve relations with Islamabad in order to increase cooperation in fighting terrorists hostile to both Pakistan and America, and who would threaten Afghanistan when the US military departs.
The US resisted calls by Pakistan to apologize for the border incident for many months, but several times, considered using the word in order to get the relationship back on track. The Obama administration had expressed its "regret" at the loss of life several times but the Pakistani government considered an apology the least they could accept given the extreme sensitivity of the Pakistani people, who viewed the incident as a deliberate attack by the US on Pakistani sovereignty. Negotiations to re-open the supply line were nearing fruition when the last stumbling block appeared to be the apology. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta opposed the apology as did many in the Pentagon. But in the end, it was determined that it was in the national interest to make the gesture.
In her phone call to Foreign Minister Khar, Clinton said:
I once again reiterated our deepest regrets for the tragic incident in Salala last November. I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives. Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. 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.
But what exactly was America apologizing for? The military investigation into the incident uncovered these facts:
The combined international and Afghan force was initially fired upon by unidentified forces, then believed not to be Pakistani military, and legitimately responded in self-defence. The investigation has ascertained that a series of mistakes were made on both sides in failing to properly co-ordinate their locations and actions, both before the operation and during the resulting engagement.
The combined force did not knowingly fire at the Pakistani forces. The investigation has substantiated that close air support was employed in self-defense in response to intense, heavy machine gun and mortar fire initiated by what turned out to be Pakistan forces near the border in the vicinity of Salala.
Politically, it was impossible for the Pakistani government to accept those findings. But the acceptance of the US apology has roiled Pakistani politics as opposition politicians, militant Islamists, and extremists associated with the military want the government to reverse the decision to open the GLOC.
“The US has not apologized formally,” said Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League. Another opposition leader, Imran Khan, said, “The decision isn't only against national interest but can also stir unrest within the ranks of the armed forces.” A coalition of Islamist parties have called for a nationwide demonstration on July 8 to protest the decision to re-open the supply routes. Syed Munawwar Hassan, the leader of the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami, said that Pakistan's leaders signed a “document of slavery,” and that an apology isn't enough.
Not all the Pakistanis believe that government did the wrong thing. An editorial in Pakistan's Express Tribune newspaper said that “Pakistanis forgot their more pressing crises and focused on America's apology, which they thought should be self-demeaning to the extreme.” And there was celebrating in the streets of Karachi where truck drivers hired by NATO to deliver supplies can now get back to work. While the job is extremely dangerous (the Taliban regularly attack the convoys), the pay -- about $200 a month -- is far above what the ordinary Afghan worker usually makes.
Now that the resupply issues have been resolved, the two countries can turn their attention to other pressing issues that have soured relations. Pakistan has become more and more agitated at the US drone strikes that have proved highly successful in killing terrorists, but that Pakistan sees as an affront to its sovereignty since the US only informs Islamabad after the strikes take place. There is good reason for this. The US believes that there are sources in the Pakistani military and intelligence community who would alert the terrorists to any drone strike targeting them.
Pakistan believes that the US doesn't give it credit for what they've been doing to fight the terrorists. Hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters and other terrorists have been killed or captured as the result of US-Pakistani cooperation. Clearly, there are grounds for continuing this cooperation. The US is aiding the Pakistani military to fight the terrorists to the tune of more than a billion dollars a year.
But there are other terrorists who regularly infiltrate across the border into Afghanistan -- aided by Pakistan -- who target NATO and Afghan forces. Pakistan supports these terrorists so that when NATO leaves, they will have some influence in a post-war Afghanistan that is sure to be chaotic and violent. While the military denies this support, terrorists like the Haqqani network operate freely in Pakistan and no move has been made to attack them. Of course, it is widely believed that Osama bin Laden hid in plain sight in Pakistan for many years, despite denials by the military and civilian government.
Until the US and Pakistan begin to trust each other, these issues will not be resolved and are likely to worsen in the near future. The problem is partly due to internal Pakistani politics where a powerful military dictates security policy to the civilian government. Even if the civilian government wanted to fight Haqqani, kick the Afghan Taliban out of the Northwest Frontier Provinces, and police the border more vigorously to prevent the infiltration of terrorists into Afghanistan, it is likely they would be stymied by a military who has their own agenda -- an agenda that doesn't include helping America pacify Afghanistan.
In the end, telling Pakistan the US is "sorry" about killing their troops changes little except the resupply problem. For the rest, the long, slow, painful process of rebuilding a shattered relationship will have to wait for changes in Pakistan's internal power relationships -- a prospect not likely to be realized any time soon.
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