US Pakistan relations are now caught in multiple traps with new vectors emerging between the two strategic partners of sorts with no common goals and purpose and lacking a unified direction. Thus there has been a sustained period of hectoring on various issues with the most significant recent one being opening of NATO supply line.
The key sticking point appears to be the heavy compensation that Pakistan is now demanding almost 20 times the original payment of USD 250 per vehicle. This would certainly not be acceptable to the US given the increase in cost of transportation. While some bargaining is on this is not reaching any positive conclusion whereas it is important to close a deal early as delay is only providing opposition politicians and right wing hard liners fuel to oppose the deal. More over issues as sentencing of Dr Afridi and consequent deduction of aid by the US are only adding to the tensions increasing public perception against the US in Pakistan.
A week back however participation of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in the Chicago Summit on 20 and 21 May provided some hope. This was seen as a precursor to Islamabad agreeing to open up the supply route for NATO convoys. However it was soon evident that any hope of immediate opening of the supply route were too optimistic as the Government was keen to gain maximum benefits from the same politically as well as monetarily to ensure that this can be explained to the large domestic audience that is against the US and West and sees blocking of the NATO supply route as a gesture of defiance in national interest.
Whatever be the rightness or otherwise of the stand taken by the government there have been tensions with the US particularly slighting Mr Zardari with some confusion whether there has been a bilateral between him and Mr Obama or not. There are reports of three way talks with Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai but the bilateral is still not confirmed. The Obama Administration has singled out Pakistan government by not acknowledging the contribution even as President Obama and also the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, had a special word of praise for the Central Asian states and Russia for providing logistics support including access to Afghanistan. This would impact the bilateral Pak US relations as well.
Meanwhile hard liners as Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman strongly stated that there was no justification for restoring NATO supply as the parliament had very clearly not permitted the same. Another hard line critic, Syed Munawar Hasan Jamaat-e Islami (JI) Pakistan chief and leader of the anti US and anti India group Difa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC) also threatened that the DPC will resist moves to open the supply route.
With negotiations for reopening of the supply route to Afghanistan between Pakistan and the US delicately poised there are political as well as commercial hurdles towards the same. More over many in Pakistan see the US calling Mr Zardari to Chicago and then snubbing him with no bilateral held by President Obama. Thus the remarks by Mr Bilawal Bhutto technically head of the ruling PPP in New York are significant wherein he has demanded an apology from President Obama for the Salala incident. Whether this has been done out of serious conviction of the Party or rhetoric to shape the political debate at home remains to be seen.
Thus there is likely to be more resistance to the opening of the route particularly so as Pakistan too faces a general election at the turn of the Year. On the other hand commercially by demanding $ 5000 which is 20 times the original payments of $ 250 the US is placed in a quandary though this part could be bargained for now.
But there are other vectors as well the latest being sentencing of Dr Shakeel Afridi who is said to have led the CIA on Osama Bin Laden’s trail. Pakistan government’s handling of the issue has raised serious concerns. The CIA operation itself where Afridi operated under the garb of an NGO with a fake polio vaccination campaign raises questions. For in a country where NGOs and polio campaigns are suspect this will add to public skepticism even further. But the conduct of Mr Afridi’s trial in the tribal area under the Frontier Crimes Regulation has only added to the complexity of the whole issue which is likely to remain a sore point for many motnhs to come. The cut in US aid to Pakistan by a, "symbolic" $33 million - one million for each year of sentence will be seen by the people as another slight by the US.
US and Pakistan need to stand back and view the recent events in their relations a long term perspective and attempt to adopt a more reconciliatory posture rather than a contested. The US Congress and administration also needs to examine implication of each decision as much on the people of Pakistan rather than narrowly targeting the military and intelligence elites, for each decision is only adding to the cleavage with the Pakistani people, which is surely not the US intention or interest.